The Last Empire?: Portugal’s Cautionary Tale and the Costs of Forever War

Empire exposure is the ghastly gift of coronavirus. Not that everyone can see it: consider that the "Drop Dead Fred” effect of corporate media duopoly. Imperialism has, after all, long been America’s imaginary friend: unspoken, publicly invisible – those who dare discern it branded as juvenile cranks. Only sift through the disease morass and mass graves and one discovers this salient truth: Washington can’t countenance even a COVID-pause to forever war. Sure, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us. Still, so disturbing is the revelation that citizens can almost be forgiven their temptation to apathy or policy nihilism. For plagues demand decency and render empathy essential.

Nevertheless, since the George Carlin-identified "owners of this country" count on indifference, it’d be obscene to passively accept empire in the name of pandemic-politeness. The lack of even a corona-blip on the militarist radar ought raise solemn questions regarding the degree of democracy in the "democratic" U.S. national security structures, and the state of American culture more broadly. Only don’t expect to like the answers.

Pay attention and the evidence is clear. In a fit of outbreak-opportunism, President Trump’s in-house "Machiavelli Mike" Pompeo, Raytheon-plant Mark Esper, and the rest of the Class of ’86 "West Point Mafia” that apparently run the show, have spent the last month repeatedly upping the endless war ante. The M&M secretaries of "defense" and "diplomacy," have used the infection-occasion to only escalate the Iraq-based proxy war on Tehran, threaten to bomb Iran itself, employ bounty hunter vigilantism against Venezuela, and tighten the epidemic-exacerbating screws on a cruel worldwide sanctions regime. Anyone, even those highly-placed within the security apparatus, who dares question imperial inertia are promptly silenced or dismissed.

For many (myself included) in the nascent antiwar movement, tragic truths laid bare by the virus have catalyzed – or buoyed – consideration of "nuclear options" to reign in the empire, such as reinstituting the draft. Recently, though, war-in-a-time-of-corona got my quarantine-manic mind thinking about Lusophone (Portuguese) African decolonization – its forgotten tragedies, triumphs, and pitfalls.

The Forgotten Fall of the "Last Empire"

While it’s rarely remembered, and though the subject hardly warrants much (even scholarly) attention today, Portugal’s was the first and last modern European empire in Africa. Long after the more prominent powers had begun to accept the anti-imperial "winds of change,” and just months after the close of the 1960 "Year of Africa” – when 17 countries on the continent gained independence – armed rebellions broke out across Portugal’s remaining centuries-old colonies. National delusions of past grandeur, and the inherent economic torpor of its quasi-fascist dictatorship, thus "forced" Lisbon into a simultaneous three-front imperial war. The conflict spanned some 13 years, stretched the late-stage empire to its resource and ethical breaking point, and ultimately toppled the Portuguese "New State” itself.

For the Portuguese, empire came home in a decidedly non-metaphorical sense. As the poorest and least liberal member of NATO, by the early 1970s its debt-ridden, stagnant economy began to buckle right along with its international reputation. Though public exasperation with the wars swelled, authoritarian government censorship, along with press and civil liberty suppression generally kept a lid on citizen dissent. What the "New State" couldn’t control was the hybrid professional-conscript army’s increasing vexation with the campaigns’ rising casualties, morale dissipation, and increasingly unwinnable prospects – along with the officer corps’ distinct suspicion that they would be the scapegoats of defeat.

The result was a military coup, and a unique one to boot. While not quite unheard of even in postwar Europe, Portugal’s putsch – unlike the right-wing, Algerian War-induced, 1961 French generals’ attempt – spotlighted mid-level leftist officers. In a generally bloodless (domestic) takeover, the professional military mutineers tossed aside the dictatorship and – in what was dubbed "Carnation Revolution” – both seized emergency powers and, with relative rapidity, ended extraneous colonial war. Over the ensuing 18 months, despite a number of close calls, and the not insignificant flirtation of more radical officers with communist autocracy, relative moderation prevailed and Portugal finally transitioned to pluralist democracy. It was the last NATO country to do so. Even eschewing moral judgment on the means employed, it certainly counted as a rather remarkable affair.

Lisbon’s multi-theater war machine would’ve collapsed under the weight of financial ruin, military setback, and its growing global pariah status far sooner – sparing thousands of Portuguese soldiers and even more African lives – had it not been for Uncle Sam’s safety net intervention. In spite of the decidedly limited Soviet involvement in the Portuguese possessions at the wars’ outset, Washington (perhaps we must say) allowed itself to be baited and bamboozled by its junior NATO-partner’s wave of the communist red flag. The result – with a brief exception in the early Kennedy administration – was ample aid and diplomatic top cover from the US of A.

The US and other NATO allies – notably France and West Germany – funneled Lisbon hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military and economic assistance. So it was that American tanks, planes, and helicopters were used against – with napalm and chemical defoliants lethally dropped upon the heads of – the people of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. Adding to the obscenity, American corporate investment grew, particularly in resource-rich Angola. That theater, at least, must count as a veritably Gulf Oil-funded war. By the 1970s, the corporation’s revenues provided 60 percent of Portugal’s Angolan War budget.

On the diplomatic scene, in what I’ve dubbed "veto," and "abstention-imperialism," Washington protected its authoritarian Portuguese little brother at the United Nations for years. Kicking it off, in the original sin of tacit empire acquiescence, the Eisenhower administration abstained from the December 1960 UN General Assembly resolution for the "Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples." Apparently, the stated notion that "all peoples have the right to self-determination" – once an American rhetorical staple – no longer applied in Africa and Asia. Over the next 15 odd years, Washington vetoed three, and abstained from at least ten votes that even vaguely condemned Portugal’s persistent imperialism and repeated military incursions into various sovereign African nations.

So, the United States bespoke "freedom" out one side of its mouth, yet practiced European-backing neocolonialism out the other – what else is new? Fair enough, but far more interesting, and relevant, are the Portuguese wars’, admittedly inexact yet nonetheless profound, parallels to America’s even longer ongoing imperial adventures.

Lessons from Lisbon I: Discomfiting Connections

Even the language that historians use to label Lusophone African decolonizing campaigns, mirrors the contemporary American crusade. On the occasion of a conference held a year before the 9/11 attacks kicked that off, Richard Robinson described Portugal’s "apparently perpetual and unwinnable colonial conflicts of varying intensities." Another historian, Pedro Aires Oliveira, later explained how "the belief of [Lisbon’s] decision-makers that [the country] lacked the means to conduct a successful ‘exit strategy’" (all emphases mine) prolonged Portugal’s own flavor of forever wars (1961-74) in Africa. Such scholars might as well have been diagnosing modern US campaigns from West Africa to Central Asia.

To be sure, today, America’s military is engaged in far more "conflicts of varying intensities," than Portugal once was. Nonetheless, like Lisbon, Washington, too, wages simultaneous war in three primary theaters – whereby Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, track the previous ones in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. Furthermore, the 8,290 Portuguese military deaths in these campaigns is not dissimilar to the 7,204 American fatalities (so far) – though the per capita strain on Lisbon was far more severe. Other tactical and operational commonalities abound, including:

  • Both sought to "win over" unwinnable "hearts and minds" through various methods of social service provision and population control. The more overt Portuguese "aldeamentos" – "protected villages" – were later mirrored by the equally short-lived and uneven "success" of US”Village Stability Operations” (VSO) in Afghanistan.
  • In Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau – as has the US in Iraq, Syria, and (especially) Afghanistan – the Portuguese troops were perennially stymied by transnational insurgent safe havens. Better trained and equipped Western troops proved militarily impotent so long as their enemies could retreat (and refresh) from Guinea to Senegal (or Iraq to Iran), Mozambique to Tanzania (Syria to Turkey), and Angola to Zambia (Afghanistan to Pakistan). Though Lisbon, like Washington, proved willing to regularly violate border-state sovereignty to conduct raids or carry out airstrikes, such tactical pinpricks were insufficient to turn the prevailing operational and strategic tide.
  • In the absence of terra-decisiveness, Portugal, like the US, increasingly relied on air power as a definitionally specious "cornerstone of its counterinsurgency strategy." Utilizing American and NATO-supplied fixed and rotary wing aircraft – as well as commando and clandestine subterfuge – Lisbon waged a veritable (and internationally pilloried) assassination campaign against its antagonist’s leadership. Sound familiar? Just as the US military and intelligence apparatus repeatedly, and futilely, cut the heads off proverbial"terror" snakes – from Zarqawi to bin Laden to Baghdadi to, most recently, Soleimani – so Portugal offed the nationalist leaders of Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. Predictably, though, neither Lisbon nor Washington could bomb (or drone strike) – or raid and assassinate – their way to anything but an unsatisfying impasse.

Lessons from Lisbon II: Common Costs

What’s more, the Portuguese African analogy demonstrates the profound costs and consequences of prolonged – perhaps perpetual – expeditionary warfare. Practically speaking, both 1974 Lisbon, and 2020 Washington, suffered ballooning defense budgets amidst popular calls for domestic infrastructure modernization and expanded social services. By 1970, 45 percent of Portugal’s budget was dedicated to "national defense." While, at first glance, America’s current official allocation of 14.6 percent to defense pales in comparison, that this represents some 50 percent of "discretionary" spending – and, when other masked martial-related expenditures are included, the real number accounts for closer to 21 percent of the sum total – US military largesse is nothing to sneeze at.

Furthermore, what were described as the "‘veto-players’ of Portuguese politics" – senior military hawks, their intelligence spook allies, and "pro-empire business circles" – circumscribed Lisbon’s de-escalatory options in Africa. Consider this the Luso-manifestation of the modern American military-industrial complex’s (MIC) necessarily reflexive pro-war bent. Finally, as Richard Robinson convincingly demonstrates, it was largely empire itself, and consequent persistence of irresolvable "overseas questions," which proved a fatal check on "genuine political reform" at home. The US government faces the same ineluctable obstacle today. For empires with eyes fixed "out there" – no matter whether one prefers market or social investment solutions – rarely prove willing, or capable, of meaningful reform "back here."

A final cost of both late-stage empires’ wars, and the most tragic, was (and is) born by the locals out "in the provinces." Due to Portugal’s paltry understanding of African society and concerns, hardly any postwar planning (to suggest it would have been treasonous), and with no exit strategy to speak of, the inescapable retreat from Lusophone Empire was disastrous for its former unwilling subjects. Civil wars ensued in Angola and Mozambique – just as they have in Iraq, and will, should the US ever leave Afghanistan – and, particularly in Guinea-Bissau, former Portuguese-trained and aligned African soldiers were summarily executed as collaborators. Does anyone still doubt the near inevitability of the same outcome in Afghanistan, or that Washington’s cruel recent track record presages abandonment, and shuttered borders in the face, of former indigenous allies?

In the end, by 1974, the Portuguese armed forces suffered the same fate as does the US military today – and arguably has since the outbreak of the Iraqi Civil War in 2005-06 and significant Taliban resurgence soon after: modest tactical success in the field (such as holding urban centers), utterly offset by intractable strategic stalemate. At their respective apogees, Portuguese and American ground-pounders weren’t exactly losing, in a strictly military sense, but neither – as both’s top generals even admitted – were they winning; nor were there coherent exit strategies in place.

In the Portuguese case, such travails in the end-state "wilderness" proved more than a critically overstretched professional military could weather. Junior and midrange officers, along with a smattering of enterprising generals, who had cut-their-teeth, and spent their careers in the deadlocked provincial wars, saw the writing on the wall before their cowed civilian brethren in the metropole. Furthermore, many multi-tour veterans later described a war-induced political awakening, their "consciousness…changed by reading revolutionary literature for their own psychological warfare purposes." Coming to "resent the regime’s political manipulation," and the inherent infeasibility of traditional "victory," these officers subsequently formed the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), which demanded "3 Ds" of governmental reform: decolonization, democratization, and development.

Look, no doubt, significant differences exist in the two scenarios. The Portuguese military relied, in part, on conscripts whose politicization – more similar to that of late-stage Vietnam War draftees – also crucially influenced the "consciousness" of their professional officers. Additionally, for all its systemic flaws, the US has far less history of military interventions in politics than in the then more ubiquitous Portuguese putsch record. Nevertheless, with the US currently trapped in countless conflicts abroad, its national security decision-making process increasingly immune to (constitutionally prescribed) public sanction, and laden with crippling debt and crumbling infrastructure – the MFA’s "3 Ds" carry more than a little contemporary appeal.

A Portuguese "Nuclear Option?"

While decidedly not supportive of an American military coup, it’s hard not to find somewhat inspiring the spirit of Portuguese officers’ action-oriented dissent against unwinnable, unethical wars that were destroying the economy and society of their beloved home country. Of course, the US is far less amenable to a military putsch for a number of structural reasons. Yet, given the MIC’s ironclad grip, sans-draft citizen apathy, congressional war-powers surrender, and high court indifference, could it be – against all odds – from within America’s increasingly professionalized (even “Prussianized“) Praetorian class that decisive anti-imperial dissent will emanate.

Will America’s soldier-worship cultists, like their Luso-precursors, only take heed if an implicitly dangerous senior military man – such as the Portuguese colonial-war hero General Spinola eventually did – publicly announces we "cannot win the wars by military means," and that persisting in the attempt will "lose the…good will of the majority of the [regional] masses?"

Let us all hope that it doesn’t require an overly ambitious, vaguely truth-telling, American version of Spinola – himself a wanna-be facsimile of France’s problematic General DeGaulle – to return from command in somewhere like Afghanistan (or Guinea-Bissau, in the former’s case) and finally convince the masses of the persistent truth of the Portuguese general’s warning that: "The very national survival will be in danger, if we persist in the concept that it is world opinion that is wrong." Healthy societies should hardly rely on their soldiers as saints or saviors. They tend to be neither.

Perhaps it is well that it’s so. Still, in the peculiar Portuguese crisis of 1974, it was the imperial water carriers who proved necessary to collapse a 500-year old empire. Whatever their (marked) flaws, these officers, at least, treated posterity to a rather satisfying bit of irony. At the outset of Lisbon’s final African campaigns, seeking to sell, and steel, the populace for prolonged war, the dictatorial Premier Salazar championed the Portuguese Army as "the last bulwark which in the most serious crises defends the destiny and conscience of the Nation."

Clearly imperial despots (or presidents) should be careful what they wish for…

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen