Overseas operations: how to remember them?

Commémoration du 25e anniversaire des combats du pont de Vrbanja, le 27 mai 2020, en présence de la ministre des armées Florence Parly, du chef d’état-major des armées François Lecointre et du chef d’état-major de l’armée de Terre Thierry Burkhar
Ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Vrbanja Bridge, on 27 May 2020, attended by the Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, the Chief of the General Staff, François Lecointre, and the Chief of the Army Staff, Thierry Burkhar - © Jean-Christophe Mantrant/ État-major des armées



    DATE: 11 November 2019

    PLACE: Parc André Citroën, Paris, France

    OBJECT: Inauguration of the Memorial to French soldiers killed in overseas operations

    Overseas operations refer to interventions by French military forces outside national territory. Although they officially came into existence some 60 years ago, the question of the aspects, challenges and transmission of this living memory remains relatively discreet and recent.

    Remembrance can be defined as all events that remain in people’s memory. Extended to a group, collective remembrance refers then to all the representations which that group shares about its past, what it remembers or chooses to remember, even after the direct witnesses of the events have died. It involves a conscious, intentional process; first, the participants in an event share their recollections spontaneously amongst themselves, then their accounts are formalised and taken over by official entities (MPs, charities, historians, etc.), who choose to focus on certain messages they wish to put across. This memory is not frozen in time, but evolves with the sensibilities of public opinion, advances in historical research or political wills. Because the way we tell the past always says something about the present, the focus of interest of a society or the way it sees itself.

    In this regard, who remembers Operation Capselle (the evacuation of French nationals from Lebanon, in August to October 1989) or Operation Libage (the French participation in Operation Provide Comfort, the humanitarian mission to help the Kurdish population, from April to July 1991), whose dead nonetheless have their names inscribed on the Memorial to French soldiers killed in overseas operations, inaugurated on 11 November 2019 in Parc André Citroën, Paris? Thirty years on, they seem to have completely disappeared from our national memory, like many other operations. Yet French servicemen and women have been deployed more than 250 times beyond French borders during the last 60 years. It is only over the past decade that we have seen the timid emergence of remembrance of French overseas operations, quite different from that of previous conflicts and, to a certain extent, specific to France.

    Particularities of remembrance of overseas operations

    The remembrance of overseas operations is unlike any other. First of all because, unlike earlier conflicts, it is not concerned with a single theatre or a clearly defined time period, but takes in a multitude of operations that differ greatly in form and purpose (humanitarian intervention, evacuation of French nationals, restoring government rule, etc.), span several decades and are of varying lengths; from a few days, as in Operation Bérénice (to evacuate French and foreign nationals from Somalia, from 5 to 9 January 1991) or Operation Notou (a relief operation to aid the population affected by the tsunami in Papua New Guinea, from 23 to 30 July 1998), to more than a quarter of a century for Operation Epervier, in Chad. How, then, can shared memories be drawn from them, identical messages to pass on to future generations?


    8e RPIMa

    Ceremony in honour of the soldiers of the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (RPIMa) killed in the attack on Uzbin in Afghanistan, Castres, 18 August 2009. © 8e RPIMa


    Next, this remembrance is characteristic because of the period it concerns. Unlike the previous wars of the 20th century, which each last less than ten years, overseas operations have spanned more than half a century. The longer the period, the more difficult it is to draw overarching messages or a shared representation. Nor do overseas operations benefit from the critical mass of veterans of previous generations to pass on and keep alive their memory. Indeed, the service personnel who participate in overseas operations form a juxtaposition of small contingents that do not feel united by a shared past and do not as yet feel the need to pass on their story. Their memory is not created spontaneously around the sharing of their testimonies. Sent on short-term missions, they tend not to stop and write down their recollections of one operation before moving on to the next. Professional soldiers, their deployment far from French soil also has less of an impact on public opinion, which shows little interest in their story.

    Since remembering overseas operations contributes to the spirit of defence, it is regrettable, for instance, that only the most recent operations are known and talked about (Pamir, Serval, Barkhane, etc.), to the detriment of those of the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, the fact that these operations take place overseas means it is necessary to construct remembrance “at a distance”. Indeed, if there is no military cemetery for overseas operations, similarly it is impossible to visit the scenes of the fighting and to develop remembrance tourism like that of the First World War battlefields or the Normandy landing beaches. Yet remembrance tourism today plays a key role in passing on the remembrance message to future generations, who need to see and feel in order to understand and remember.

    Naturally, stone testaments in memory of overseas operations are found at local and regimental level, in the form of war memorials or commemorative plaques, each specific to a unit or theatre of operations and often not easily accessible to the public. By offering a tangible structure around which people can pay their respects, honour the dead or tell the story of these conflicts, the Memorial to overseas operations soon took on importance in the remembrance of these operations. For example, it was the setting for the ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Vrbanja Bridge in 2020, and that marking the 30th anniversary of Operation Daguet, in February 2021. The memory of the overseas operations is visible in the marble, by way of the list of dates and country names. For the time being, it is the only site illustrating this part of our military history.

    A memory under construction

    However, the most striking thing about the memory of overseas operations is that it is an open memory, being written while events are still underway. The memory of earlier conflicts was always written after the event, based on the recollections of direct witnesses and the work of historians, and is therefore part analysis and rewriting. But overseas operations are still going on; over 6 000 servicemen and women are currently mobilised outside our borders. How then to take a step back from a period that is not yet over? How to distinguish should be remembered and passed on to future generations from what is merely immediate information, not worthy of being preserved?


    monument OPEX

    Memorial to French soldiers killed in overseas operations, a major national remembrance site of the Ministry of the Armed Forces, Parc André Citroën, 15th arrondissement, Paris, 25 February 2020.
    © Laure Boyer/Hans Lucas/Hans Lucas via AFP


    In an ever accelerating society, remembering a form of engagement that is still in progress may seem like a formidable challenge. This particularity was nevertheless taken into consideration in the Memorial to overseas operations, when the decision was taken, for the first time ever, to build a deliberately unfinished monument. Empty spaces were left between each region, not to complete or correct the lists of names in the light of historical research, but to receive the names of the next servicemen and women who will die for France on overseas operations. Twenty-three new names have been added since the inauguration.

    While this memory has only recently been associated with the Memorial to overseas operations, its inclusion in our national calendar precedes its inscription in the landscape. By making 11 November the date for remembering all those who have died for France, thus including in the tribute those killed on overseas operations, the Law of 28 February 2012 gave a national dimension to the remembrance of these conflicts. Since then, the names of the service personnel who died for France in the previous 12 months are read out in all the communes, and are inscribed on the war memorial of their birthplace or last place of residence. They no longer belong only to their family or their unit, but enter our collective representation.



    Remembrance Day ceremony in Malemort (Corrèze), 11 November 2020. © Mairie de Malemort


    This concern with uniting the nation around shared combative values, at a time when the terrorist threat is increasingly significant, finds specific, concrete expression in the decision to intentionally “construct” the memory of overseas operations. Beginning by remembering the dead, on the principle, so well expressed by Ernest Renan at the Sorbonne in 1882, that “(s)hared suffering unites more than joy. In terms of national memories, mourning is worth more than triumph, for it imposes duties and requires a joint effort.” In his speech to inaugurate the Memorial to overseas operations, the President of the Republic invited us to take away three messages from this half-century of operations, and thus gave the outline of our national representation of overseas operations. A first message addressed to service personnel, to show them that those who are killed are not forgotten. A second message for families: through this monument, the nation expresses its gratitude to those who died for their country, which transcends generations. We have a collective debt towards them, and in a sense, they are presented to us an example, in an era often in search of heroes. A third and final message to all French people, to remember that peace should not be taken for granted, that our security requires our armed forces to go on being deployed, sometimes far from home, to protect us, show our solidarity or uphold our values. To remind us that, from the Gulf War, to Afghanistan, to the current fighting against jihadist groups in Mali and Iraq, there are a multitude of other operations in which we have lost servicemen and women.

    Remembering overseas operations: is France a special case?

    Remembering overseas operations is also an opportunity to recall our own recent history, and sometimes to rediscover it. 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the end of Operation Daguet (the name given to France’s participation in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the operations carried out by the United States after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, from September 1990 to June 1991). Yet the French army’s average age is currently 33, which means most of today’s service personnel were still at school when that operation was launched. Those who participated directly in the conflict are now generals, colonels or warrant officers, preparing to retire, if they haven’t done so already.

    Hence the urgency of gathering their testimonies and remembering this fighting, so that it can be passed on to future generations, within the armed forces and throughout society.


    memorial day

    Members of the Old Guard lay American flags on the graves of Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on 24 May 2018, in preparation for Memorial Day.
    © Mandel NGAN / AFP


    As France embarks on this commemorative initiative, it is worth taking a look at the process underway in other countries to remember those who have taken part in overseas operations. English-speaking countries have opted for a single commemorative day to remember all those killed for their country, whatever the conflict. It is Memorial Day in the United States (since the American Civil War), and Remembrance Day in the UK and Canada, where all those who serve their country are also celebrated.  That is the idea behind the 11th November in France, except that the law of 2012 did not do away with the other commemorative dates on which contemporary conflicts are remembered (there are 11 official ones).  While this law may not distinguish between the conflicts, it is primarily those killed in the First World War and overseas operations who are honoured on that date.

    Belgium, meanwhile, has since 1998 taken an anniversary, 7 April (the date on which ten Belgian Blue Helmets died in an air crash in Rwanda in 1994), to pay tribute to its 252 servicemen and women killed in operations since the Second World War.

    Some French veterans’ associations campaigned for France to do the same, choosing the date of the Beirut barracks bombing (the suicide bomb attack on the Drakkar barracks, on 28 October 1983, in which 58 French paratroopers were killed) as the commemorative date for overseas operations. However, although that day remains the bloodiest for the French armed forces, such a choice would have given pre-eminence to that operation over the others, and partly diminished the scale of the sacrifice in other theatres (90 servicemen killed in Afghanistan, 140 in Lebanon and 154 in Chad). The 11th November has the advantage of being a neutral date, which unites generations of service personnel and conveys an image of hero rather than victim.

    Spain has not chosen to set aside a particular date, but instead pays a special tribute at each national ceremony to the 186 servicemen and women killed in operations since 1987. The names of those killed that year are also read out on the Monday following the first Sunday of November, in all barracks, though not at a national ceremony as in France. Meanwhile, the Memorial to overseas operations certainly appears to be unique to France. Our neighbours have monuments dedicated to overseas operations, such as that in honour of the service personnel killed on 7 April 1994 in Belgium, or the various regimental war memorials in Spain, but none that is both exhaustive and national, and which bears the individual names of each victim.

    National and regional intermediaries for passing on this memory

    This memory, which had previously been relatively confidential – because it was too specific to a unit or theatre and/or had too much of an internal focus on the armed forces – now has a growing number of intermediaries to pass it on. To begin with, organisations concerned with overseas operations, like FNAME OPEX (the National Federation of Veterans of Overseas Missions) or ANOPEX (the National Association of Participants in Overseas Operations). Likewise, the major veterans’ associations, like the André Maginot National Federation for veterans and victims of war (FNAM), the National Union of Combatants (UNC) and the Federal Union (UF), which are giving more and more space to the current generation of service personnel, as the previous generations die out. Also, Le Souvenir Français, which has undertaken to locate the graves of service personnel killed on overseas operations and to offer to maintain them for their families.



    Inauguration of the plot in Montmorency forest (Val-d’Oise) in memory of the servicemen and women killed in domestic and overseas operations, 10 December 2020.
    Ceremony organised by ANOPEX and presided over by Geneviève Darrieussecq, Minister for Remembrance and Veterans. © Erwan Rabot/SGA-COM/Ministère des Armées

    Next come the institutional intermediaries, in the context of the 2020-22 remembrance directive issued by the Minister for Remembrance and Veterans, overseen by the Directorate for Heritage, Remembrance and Archives, and implemented at regional level by the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, with the aim of “reinforcing remembrance of overseas operations”. The media, too, which devotes more and more reports to overseas operations, often where there are deaths involved, but also for French people to share in the day-to-day lives of servicemen and women, like the reports ‘Cuisiniers sous les drapeaux’ (Cooks in the ranks) or ‘Femmes soldats, au cœur de l’opération Barkhane’ (Women soldiers, at the heart of Operation Barkhane), by Fabien Lemaire. Large amounts of written materials already contributed to a better understanding and transmission of the history of overseas operations.

    Each regiment, airbase or vessel also proudly shares its veterans’ accounts of their engagements, as shown by the series of articles ‘Les canons de Daguet’ (The Daguet guns), published on the 11th Marine Artillery Regiment’s Facebook page. Research and publications to make overseas operations accessible to the public, such as Cahiers du RETEX, published by the French Army’s Command Doctrine and Education Centre (CDEC), the special edition of Les Chemins de Mémoire published in 2017, the Dictionnaire des Opérations Extérieures (Dictionary of Overseas Operations), by Philippe Chapleau and Jean-Marc Marill, together with the dozens of web pages devoted to specific overseas operations.

    Lastly, today this memory is passed on to schoolchildren by means of resources made available to teachers and students, in particular via the defence education platform Educ@def on the Chemins de Mémoire website, and programmes run jointly by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of National Education, Youth and Sports, such as defence and global security classes, “defence and citizenship” days, and Universal National Service.



    Universal National Service launch day at Lycée Le Corbusier in Tourcoing, Nord, on 17 June 2019.
    © Sylvain Lefevre/Hans Lucas/Hans Lucas via AFP


    The decision was taken, at national level, to develop the memory of overseas operations by remembering the dead. It now seems necessary to go a step further, by taking more of an interest in their history, the heroic exploits that might be celebrated and the lessons we might learn from them. There is a vast memory to be gathered, through the testimonies of those who took part in the very first overseas operations, over 70 years ago. Material to be compiled, analysed, transcribed, so as to draw from it a collective account to pass on to future generations. Today, then, the challenge is for that history to be collected, archived and to find its place in our museums, as well as for the anniversary dates to provide an opportunity to remember and pass it on.

    As well as working hard to share and promote existing resources through publications, symposiums, documentaries, etc., in February the Ministry of the Armed Forces commemorated the 30th anniversary of Operation Daguet. In 2021, the 40th anniversary of Operation Barracuda (the French intervention in the Central African Republic, from September 1979 to July 1981), the 20th anniversary of the start of Operation Héraclès (the French participation in Operation Enduring Freedom, against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, from October 2001 to October 2013) and the 10th anniversary of Operation Harmattan (the French participation in the inter-allied operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector, in Libya, from March to October 2011) are also excellent opportunities for events to be organised in honour of overseas operations. 


    Marie-Capucine Vauzanges - Principal Commissary

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