Al J Venter, The Last of Africa’s Cold War Conflicts (Pen & Sword, 2020)
We often think of colonial wars as a 19th Century phenomenon, or wars of liberation fought against the English or French. Al Venter, however, surveys the oldest colonial power, Portugal, and its problems in West Africa, and in particular Portuguese Guinea. It was here in 1963 that communist-backed guerrillas launched what they thought would be a short and victorious campaign. They were very wrong: the struggle that ensued was long and bitter.
Venter points out that Portuguese Guinea, about the size of Belgium, was an “ungodly place to fight a war” where the Soviet and Cuban-backed guerrillas had the edge on the Portuguese defenders in organization, leadership, and initiative. They also had cross-border support, particularly from Senegal. The terrain being fought over was often swamp or rainforest riddled with waterways. Little wonder that some called this war “Portugal’s Vietnam”. After five years of stalemate, marked by sometimes intense fighting, brutality on both sides, and declining Portuguese morale, Portugal sent in General Antonio de Spinola who turned the tide through reforms and disciplined military action. But the war dragged on, fought by the Portuguese on a shoestring and in a haphazard manner, only to end abruptly in 1974 with Portuguese withdrawal as a consequence of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal.
The author was personally involved in this conflict as a journalist with unprecedented access. He therefore presents detailed portraits of those involved and the main events but does that within the wider context. This little, back of beyond colony somehow became a Cold War testbed, while being all but ignored by the media, but Venter never loses sight of the local conflict – his chapter recounting the death of famous Portuguese soldier Joao Bacar is particularly moving. Venter’s chapters are connected aspects of the war, reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches on Vietnam, with some overlap and repetition but without causing confusion. Tales of combat abound, some of them very hairy indeed, but these are more than war stories, as they offer valuable insights into the people and the country. Venter also, wistfully compares modern Guine-Bissau with the Portuguese colony and finds it wanting after decades of civil wars and coups. He concludes with an analysis of what went wrong for Portugal, which breaks down to they could not afford their colonial wars.
This was not the book I was expecting from its bland title. I thought perhaps another poorly written old soldier’s memoir or a dry strategic overview with too much politics. But, not at all, this is fascinating and well-written account of a war that few remember. Anyone interested in Africa’s wars against European powers will want to read this book, while modern warfare students will glean much from it too. The Last of Africa’s Cold War Conflicts is one of the better books on war that I have read in 2020.