Lettre d'information

How should overseas operations be remembered?

Ceremony in honour of the 13 service personnel killed in Mali, Les Invalides, Paris, 1 December 2019. © Jean-Christophe-Mantrant/État-Major des Armées

As Chief of the General Staff, General Lecointre ensures that the Nation honours the servicemen and women killed in overseas theatres of operations. Attaching importance to this memory under construction also aims to provide a better understanding of France’s military involvement today.

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What form do tributes to service personnel killed on overseas operations take?

They are a good illustration of the French military’s sense of commitment. In his lecture Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation ? (What is a Nation?), given at the Sorbonne on 11 March 1882, Ernest Renan defined the Nation as “a great solidarity forged by a sense of the sacrifices that have been made and those we are yet prepared to make”.

The “Tribute Plan” illustrates this desire to show the Nation’s solidarity towards the sacrifices made by the men and women who have lost their lives protecting and defending France’s interests. The plan is triggered on the decision of the Minister of the Armed Forces, to extend the Nation’s esteem, respect and consideration to the dead and their families. As well as honouring service personnel killed on operational missions, it also provides all the necessary material, financial and human support to their families and loved ones.

When a national tribute is held in France, it is not possible for all of the comrades from the dead serviceman or woman’s unit to be present. For those still engaged overseas, a ceremony is often held in the theatre of operations before the bodies are repatriated. This enables them to begin the process of individual and collective mourning, while the operation continues. Finally, the entire military community joins in this national tribute by flying their flags at half mast.

In his lecture, Renan also asserted moral conscience as the basis for nationhood: “A large association of men, warm-hearted and healthy-spirited, creates a moral conscience called the Nation. As long as that moral conscience shows its strength, through the sacrifices required of individuals for the community, it is legitimate.”

It is in that spirit that national tributes are extended to include the entire unit to which the dead service personnel belonged. Belonging to a unit that preserves the collective memory of the self-sacrifice of their predecessors killed in action is an indication of moral strength, and confirms a commitment to serve the Nation, giving one’s life if necessary. The armed forces share in their suffering and cultivate the moral conscience that bonds the military community together and ensures the Nation’s resilience.

On 11 November, a Memorial to French soldiers killed in overseas operations was unveiled. Why?

Most of the war memorials in towns and villages across the country date from 1920. They bear the names of the soldiers who died for France in the First and Second World Wars, thereby constituting a kind of immense national memorial to the heroes of the biggest conflicts of all time. There are also national monuments to the wars of decolonisation, in Fréjus for the First Indochina War and at Quai Branly in Paris for the conflicts in North Africa and the Algerian War. There have been no others since then, as if war no longer existed. As if the history and existence of the world were no longer tragic. And yet our servicemen and women continue to fight and die for France.

And yet – and here I quote Renan once more – “(s)hared suffering unites more than joy. (...) (M)ourning is worth more than triumph, for it imposes duties and requires a joint effort.” Writing after the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, he almost certainly did not imagine there would be a break in the continuity of remembrance of the various collective hardships, reducing the opportunities to grasp the tragic nature of the world and causing the very idea of shared nationhood to fade.

This memorial is therefore intended to revive the tribute, not only for the current generation of service personnel, but for all those who, since 1963, have given their lives in the defence of France, and all those who will do so in the future. So it will revive the moral conscience and remind people the degree to which the armed forces are actively involved in nationhood: they are builders of history.

 

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General François Lecointre, Chief of the General Staff. © W. Collet/EMA

 

Today, armed conflicts no longer see the participation of whole generations, but that of career soldiers who join up to serve in France’s armed forces. Meanwhile, military affairs have gradually disappeared from French people’s daily lives, running the risk of a decline in the moral conscience forged by the hardships experienced.

That risk is aggravated by the fact that the operations take place overseas, making the conflicts themselves and the threat to world peace less perceptible. While the grief of the terrorist attacks since 2015 has certainly caused an awakening, it has only been partial, and our Nation remains ill-equipped to deal with future trials.

It is therefore crucial that this monument, located in a public place, should engage with citizens about what a dangerous world we live in: France deploys its armed forces in wars that are ongoing in some cases, and where our servicemen and women continue to pay with their lives to defend republican values.

How is this recent memory passed on?

It is crucial, in these times of no major conflict, to go on inspiring collective feeling. The sacrifices made by each and every one of our service personnel deployed on operations must be made perceptible to our fellow citizens.

The history of overseas operations could be passed on by incorporating in the history and geopolitics syllabus the teaching of defence policy, addressing key aspects of military operations. The act of learning about France’s commitments, whereby it consents to losing service personnel, would contribute to instilling a moral conscience into young people, in other words, a sense of nationhood.

To some extent, that teaching of recent history cannot be done without an in-depth look at the history of overseas operations. This includes specialised research by means of symposiums, the Service Historique de la Défense, an offering of subjects of study by historians, high-quality publications, testimonies and the wider circulation of certain first-hand accounts whose personal value speaks to all citizens.

How can public awareness be raised about the commemorations of overseas operations?

Just as the loss of a comrade unites the members of a unit, I think that, by preserving the memory of those who lose their lives for France, the armed forces inspire society and foster a better understanding of the perils of the contemporary world, where it is important to remain united. That is the purpose of the memorial to overseas operations

Of course, making 11 November a national holiday in honour of all those who have died for France derives from this inspirational aspect of operational engagements. Hearing the name, pronounced annually in the town or village square, of a local resident killed in a past war, or of those killed in action in the past year, undeniably contributes to raising people’s awareness of the price of our freedom.

But it is the memorial to overseas operations that will, above all, keep public opinion alert and mobilised beyond the ceremonies of 11 November. This public monument will contribute to forging and fostering this vital remembrance, so as to banish the spectre of a return to war on French soil. For remembering our commitments has a salutary effect: it reminds us that peace is a dividend of war, and that we must cherish the former and remember the horrors of the latter, but also accept it as our duty to engage in combat and make war if our freedom is under threat.

 

Interview with General François Lecointre, Chief of the General Staff