Sunday, August 01, 2010

On the Effects of Protracted War on Soldiers and the State: The Voices of the Cuban Veterans of the Angolan War

It is widely understood that protracted warfare has a substantial effect on the military personnel of the combatants.  The focus has usually been on the standard list of big state actors--most recently the United States in Viet-Nam  and Afghanistan-Iraq,  and the Russians in Afghanistan and the like.  Unfortunately the conflation of ideology and political agendas among global agenda setting elites  had tended to suggest that these effects--from those on soldiers, to the responsibility of military commanders and the state apparatus--were substantially  limited to the great "imperial" powers (and thus the ideological effect).  Thus, it is not unusual to consider the largest powers exceptional in this respect.  And as a result there is a substantial interest in materials generated in their military interventions.  See, e.g., Wikileaks, Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010

But these sorts of protracted engagement affect soldiers irrespective of ideology.  And the actions of states with respect to these soldiers, and the returning veterans, appears unaffected by either the "justness" of the engagement, the strength of the ideological convictions supporting the engagement, or victory. Moreover, the legal consequences of such engagements are not solely meant to manage the interventions of the most powerful states, or the most conventionally conservative ones. As such, it would seen that the study of warfare today, in its political, economic, sociological, psychological and legal aspects requires a close study of the interventions of the smaller states in third country wars, more, perhaps than those of the larger states, whose interventions tend to set the tone for such work.

The effects of Cuba's engagement in the Angolan wars from the 1970s through 1990 is one of the least well understood in terms of its effects on veterans. See George, Edward in: The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965-1991, Frank Cass, London, New York, 2005, ISBN 0-415-35015-8.    This lack of attention, especially among scholars and the media, touches many of the veterans.  See, e.g., Gary Baines, "Breaking Ranks: Secrets, Silences and Stories of South Africa's Border War,"  paper presented at the 6th Global Conference (2007) (on the inattention to veterans testimonies  among South Africa's armed forces participating in the Angolan wars).  Baines notes that
Some ex-SADF soldiers have resorted to the apparent political neutrality of cyberspace to tell their stories in order to contest their invisibility in post-apartheid South Africa. The camaraderie of cyberspace has largely replaced bonding/drinking sessions in pubs and reunions of veterans’ associations. In fact, the reach and scope of the informal networks (often via email listservs or websites hosted overseas) serve as a kind of virtual veteran’s association. . . .  Such sites provide the (cyber)space for soldiers to tell their stories thereby contesting what Sasha Gear calls the “silence of stigmatized knowledge” carried by ex-combatants.  (Baines, supra, at 7). 
Like other states, Cuba has also paid less attention to the testimonies of its veterans than it might, as it seeks to preserve the official line on the war, its military involvement and the benefits that involvement brought.  The focus on this macro or "big picture" line tends to cast a long shadow on the micro  or "focused"picture generated from the recounting of the aggregate of the experiences of the people who together combined to produce the big picture effects that serve the Cuban state so well.  But like other veterans, the Cuban veterans of the Angola War have found vehicles for expression.

I have run across a cyberspace dedicated to the stories of Cuban military personnel who participated in the Cuban Armed Forces deployed in Angola during the long period of intervention.  La Última Guerra. The site is moderated by Ivette Leyva Martínez, a journalism graduate from the University of Havana now working outside of Cuba. The idea to develop this project focusing on the experiences and testimonies of Cuban veterans of the Angolan wars "surgió a raíz de una beca del Centro Knight para Periodismo Especializado en mayo de 2009." Id. Thus conceived, the website has been established as an independent vehicle for Cuban Angola War veterans, not obliged financially to any other institution for support.  Id.

The website well describes the project as follows:

¿Qué es La última guerra?

(Versión en inglés y portugués debajo)
Este blog aspira a ser un sitio de encuentro y diálogo para veteranos, víctimas y personas involucradas en la guerra de Angola, la última guerra que sufrió la nación africana, y mi país, Cuba, entre 1975 y 1991.
Para los cubanos ese conflicto bélico duró 16 años y su saldo es aún incalculable. A los miles de muertos -oficialmente 2,077- se suma una cifra desconocida de mutilados y traumatizados.
Dieciocho años después de la retirada cubana, la Guerra de Angola y sus veteranos han quedado injustamente en el olvido. Toda una generación de jóvenes en Cuba desconoce lo que sucedió en el país africano. Los veteranos han vivido con la rémora del silencio y la censura y han recibido escaso reconocimiento social. Hay pocos testimonios de los cubanos de a pie que participaron en la guerra y casi ninguno independiente de la política oficial sobre el conflicto.
Por eso invito a todos los internacionalistas cubanos y a los combatientes africanos de entonces,  dondequiera que estén hoy, a unirse a este foro, y compartir sus memorias, amargas o placenteras, de Angola.
El anonimato está garantizado para quienes lo deseen.
Este blog no recibe fondos de ninguna institución ni tiene fines de lucro.
. . . . .
What is The Last War?
This blog aspires to be a meeting ground and place of dialogue for veterans, victims and persons involved in the Angolan War- the last war suffered by the African nation and mine, Cuba, between 1975 and 1991.
For Cubans, the conflict lasted 16 years and its result remains incalculable.  An unknown number of mutilations and traumas is added to the 2,077 official deaths.
Eighteen years after the Cuban withdrawal, the Angolan War and its veterans have gone unremembered.  A whole generation of Cuban youths is unaware of the events that occurred.  Veterans have lived with the restrictions of silence and censorship, with very little social recognition.  There are limited testimonies of Cubans who actively participated in the war, and hardly any independent from the official politics surrounding the conflict.
In light of this, I invite all Cuban internationals and African soldiers of the time, wherever they may be today, to unite in this forum and share their memories, bitter or pleasant, of Angola. Anonymity is guaranteed for those who desire it.
This blog is non-profit and does not receive funds from any institution.

The site contains writings from veterans and those closely related and provide one of the most interesting set of first hand accounts of the effects of modern warfare int he field.  It also suggests the problems, apparently universal, faced by soldiers not only in their interactions with the enemy, but perhaps more poignantly, their sometimes hugely less than satisfactory with the military machinery meant to support them and the state whose promises made in the flush of recruitment sometimes evaporates to serve expediency.  One testimony posted could have been written by any American or Russian soldier coming home from their respective combat zones:
 ¿Qué sacó Cuba de todo esto? Un tema para dos peliculas, experiencia militar en otras tierras, un cementerio gigante e incompleto que hubo que transplantar de regreso, una deuda más grande, no solo con los otros países sino con su propia gente que jamás ha sido indemnizada de sus pérdidas personales, familiares, económicas o morales. Un tema para discursos o mesas redondas. Un trauma histórico insuperable en las mentes de los que estuvimos allí como simples mortales, jugándonos el pellejo por un ideal en el que creímos en aquel momento, como peones de un ajedrez que no entendíamos, mientras torres, afiles y caballos vivieron la vida a costa de nosotros. (What did Cuba get out of this? Themes for two movies, military experience in other lands, a giant unfinished cemetery brought home after the return of forces, a larger national debt not only to outsiders but to Cuba's own people who have yet to be indemnified for their personal, familial, economic or moral losses.  A theme for discussion of roundtables.  An insuperable trauma in the minds of those of us who were there as simple mortals, risking our necks for an ideal in which we believed at the time, like pawns in a chess game who did not understand, while castles, bishops and knights lived life at our expense). Un trauma histórico insuperable, La Última Guerra, May 15, 2010 (relating the testimony of someone going by the moniker "supermario"). 
 But most importantly, reading the remembrances of the individual veterans reminds us that war is not felt differently by the combatants on either side.  Nor, more  importantly, are the institutions that manage these events likely to deal with their military personnel in ways that are significantly different.  What Gary Baines suggested as a lesson from the South African experience might well apply to Cuban as well:
The SADF learned the (mistaken) lesson of Vietnam from the United States forces that unrestricted media coverage of war could be demoralizing and self-defeating. Accordingly, the Border War was waged away from the public eye. Censorship and disinformation served to create a conspiracy of silence.  (Baines, supra, at 2).
The Cuban veterans of Angola have much in common with their American and ironically enough, their South African,  counterparts.   

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