Lives scarred by History: The Portuguese Colonial War and the "Disabled of the Armed Forces"

The Colonial War has never been given a space of commemoration in the process of the democratic and post-imperial reconstruction of Portuguese society. That is why this silence about the war may be described as a constituting element of this process. From various points of view, the disabled veterans represented the vivid expression of a collective trauma which the democratic social order has wished to forget. The silencing and marginalisation which the Disabled of the Armed Forces (DFA) have been subjected to make them privileged witnesses, by means of their accounts, for the salvation of important historical dimensions necessary for the understanding of contemporary Portugal, and by consequence, for the valorisation of the Colonial War as a historical moment which has left long-lasting marks on Portuguese society.

The Association of the Disabled of the Armed Forces (ADFA) was founded on May 14, 1974. The guiding principles and aims which led to the founding of this association were already apparent before the Carnation Revolution, but it was not until democracy was instated that the association had the freedom and opportunity to assert itself and become an institution. A structure that would address the serious repercussions which soldiers were suffering from after having been scarred by the experience of the Colonial War was declared urgent, as this was the inevitable consequence of thirteen years during which nearly one million youths were sent to the War. In this sense, ADFA appears as a reaction, both to the insufficient responses provided by the Liga dos Combatentes (War Veterans League) and, more generally, to the incipient indemnification policies which were in vigour until the end of the War. Although ADFA has been successful in achieving some compensation for the veterans, the exclusion and silencing of the ex-soldiers of the Colonial War is still very much a reality today. There is a contradiction between the war veterans’ “excess of memory” (in the sense that the Colonial War has scarred their lives, minds and bodies) and the manifest silence of Portuguese society as regards such a significant conflict. Our research hypothesis is that the lives interrupted by the Colonial War and scarred by disability contain significant elements of marginalisation and distancing in relation to Portuguese society, as a result of the dramatic encounter of these factors of disruption. From this position of “exteriority” arise two exclusion vectors which have been granted very little importance in the context of the social analysis of inequality and the mechanisms of exclusion in Portuguese society.

The first vector relates to the exclusion the disabled in general, i.e. the lack of rehabilitation structures, cultural stigma, architectural barriers, etc. This perspective will nourish the idea that the compensation of the DFA inevitably requires the creation of inclusion factors, which are also necessary for all other disabled people. The second vector, concerns the social neglect suffered by the veterans upon their return to Portugal, i.e. the neglect of their accounts about the fight for social reinsertion. In this sense, the valorisation of the ex-soldiers’ accounts creates a perspective which broadens the way Portugal has been represented at different times.

The issues at stake are, on one hand, the ex-soldiers’ fight (as veterans and as disabled individuals) for social inclusion and for the recognition of their accounts; and on the other, postcolonial Portugal, in its defining forms of exclusion and inclusion, as a socio-political reality and identity formation. Methodologically, this project will rely on the life histories of the disabled of the armed forces, on the constitution of an oral history and in in-depth documental analysis of the materials about the Colonial War and its consequences.