A history to be taught to university students

Jean de Préneuf runs a master’s course on war and security, with a historical focus. He also teaches the history of overseas operations to undergraduate students. A reservist, he also works regularly with staff of the Service Historique de la Défense, at the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

What motivates students to take your course on defence policy and overseas operations?


Those preparing for the competitive entrance examinations for the Instituts d’Études Politiques are interested in everything that sheds light on how the military capability fits into government action. Overseas operations are relevant to gaining a grasp of the interministerial and inter-allied dimensions, together with decision-making processes in times of crisis.


Some third-year undergraduate students take an optional course on war and peace. Many start out with a focus on the sociocultural aspects of conflicts. Most have only superficial knowledge of overseas operations. The reason they give for taking the course is the need to shed light on their choices as citizens. Finally, students of our taught master’s course “War and security studies” and our PhD students present clear motivation, since they want to work in this field.


Ultimately, whatever their profile, all young people are curious about the ethical and legal settings for military action.


Do you put your course in historical perspective, given that overseas operations began over 50 years ago?


In a faculty of history, that aspect is obviously central. In view of the tyranny of urgency, we situate the modern era of overseas operations within the broader timeframe of overseas interventions since the mid-19th century, without being afraid to come back to the modern era as and when necessary, where it can shed light on contemporary operations.


As far as the present day is concerned, the course looks mainly at the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. It focuses less on the 1970s. In the context of a taught master’s, the idea is to look at the reality of the planning and execution of overseas operations. We then seek to show how the institution analyses them after the event. We do this using two methods. To begin with, students are put in the picture. Then they are given the opportunity to talk to practitioners.


Historical methodology (gathering relevant data, comparing your sources and making a synthesis in order to respond to an issue) has similar working requirements to those of military command. Therefore, it makes sense to offer students the opportunity to work on operational archives. So we organise a day trip to the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD), to look at recent overseas operations. During this exercise, based on a similar one held at the École de Guerre, students compile a report for the Chief of the General Staff using declassified archives. It concerns one aspect of the French navy’s engagement in the Gulf or Kosovo wars, be it the engagement of the aircraft carrier, inter-allied cooperation or the capacity to fight a protracted conflict.

  • Simulation of an Afghanistan command team briefing with journalism students, Camp Canjuers, 2014. © JJ. Chatard/DICOD

  • Simulation of an Afghanistan command team briefing with journalism students, Camp Canjuers, 2014. © JJ. Chatard/DICOD

Do you think enough is taught about overseas operations at university?


I don’t think there are many courses devoted to overseas operations. They are mostly studied in the context of systems of defence and foreign policy. However, master’s courses increasingly offer crisis management exercises, “war games” and practical assignments.


These elements are often devised and run in partnership with institutions of the Ministry of the Armed Forces, in particular the SHD. They are very popular with young people, as is the contact with the professionals. The war game on the Falklands War organised with the SHD, for instance, went down very well with master’s students at Paris IV-Sorbonne and Lille-SHS. Another big hit was a crisis management exercise around the Le Ponant case [in which the yacht’s crew were taken hostage by Somali pirates] carried out with students of the international relations master’s at Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, as part of a partnership with the Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Marine.


It is common for officers who have managed overseas operations to give conferences. They also teach. For example, we have allocated a class to a senior officer of the Land Forces Command (CFT), based in Lille. He shares his operational experience with students, who take it in turns to present a recent overseas operation.


I am convinced that developing partnerships between university postgraduate programmes and defence institutions with an analytical remit is key to taking things further.


How do your students approach France’s operational engagement, in particular the reasons for that engagement and the sacrifices made by our service personnel?


To begin with, students are surprised to discover how long-established, diverse and wide-reaching our overseas operations are. Then they are amazed at the amount of overlap there is between political, diplomatic, financial and operational aspects. Finally, there is often discussion in class about the legitimacy of the interventions, the grounds given by the authorities to justify them, and the terms for the use of force. A minority remain, on principle, very reluctant about using armed force outside the borders of metropolitan France. On the other hand, nearly all agree that the interventions should only be carried out in compliance with international law. There is strong, almost unanimous disapproval of the air strikes by US drones. One recurring question is whether France ought to go down this route.


What these young people are eager to understand is why and how this country can unhesitatingly deploy its armed forces outside our borders, even when that means accepting the possibility of losses. They understand the extent of the risks that the military are willing to take. I begin my third-year undergraduate course with a gripping first-hand account from Lieutenant Héluin, who commanded the assault on Vrbanja Bridge in Sarajevo, in 1995. The silence that follows the reading speaks volumes. This example makes them realise that behind the object of study are men and women willing to put themselves in what are, at times, unimaginably tough and demanding situations. It is definitely this human dimension that has the biggest impact on young people. For those considering a career in the forces, studying overseas operations helps them build up a picture of their possible future career.


Interview with Jean de Préneuf, lecturer at Lille University-SHS