The Beyond the Battlefield Project

Malaya Command administrative building, Fort Canning, Singapore

Beyond the Battlefield: The Impact and Legacy of the British Military Overseas

Despite monumental change – in the character of the international system and the relative power of Britain itself – one thing that links the seventeenth and the twenty-first centuries is the continuing deployment of British military forces in lands far distant from the British Isles.The British military has been one of the most significant institutions in shaping international, regional, and local affairs for hundreds of years.

Beyond the Battlefield is an innovative networking initiative bringing together academics, practitioners, museum workers, and other parties researching the manner in which British military operations overseas have impacted local communities and national histories. The project spans the continuum from deployments during the days of empire to deployments under the premierships of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron. From constructing causeways in Kefalonia during the Napoleonic Wars, to the use of RAF aerial photography in Iraqi archaeological studies in the 1930s and the vaccination of African children and the training of the new Afghan National Army, the British military has had profound, variegated, and controversial impact on overseas societies.

The core intellectual agenda of Beyond the Battlefield revolves around three themes: The impacts of British military interaction with overseas societies, the legacy impacts, and the impact of recent and ongoing military operations in places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Falkland Islands, Iraq, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone. The record of the military activities of British forces overseas is skewed towards combat and military operations focused around the battlefield. But the issue of the interaction of British military forces with overseas communities beyond the battlefield is less well documented. Study of the social, economic, and cultural impact of deployed forces, and their legacy after departure, is a distinctively different pursuit than studying their role in combat operations, peacekeeping, or internal security duties.

The project focuses on the social, economic, and cultural impact of deployed forces and considers their impact on politics and the evolution of new nations. Across the centuries, right up to the significant British deployment in Afghanistan today, the presence and activities of British military forces have had a profound impact upon cities and ports (Lisbon during and after the Peninsula War, for instance, or Cairo and the Suez Canal Zone), islands and enclaves (consider the history of Hong Kong and Malta), and has shaped the infrastructure, landscape, and historical memory and national identity of entire countries (such as Ireland, the ‘garrison state’ of Pakistan, and the island of Cyprus, where important military installations remain on British sovereign territory).

Considering the impact of British military deployments beyond the battlefield from a historical point of view leads naturally to a consideration of this topic today. Current British foreign policy situates military operations within the wider context of social, economic, and political development, from the local to the national, as Britain seeks to help ‘build’ new nations and national institutions and to solve regional problems, in places such as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone and through ‘peace support’ teams in places such as East Africa. Never before has the deployment of military force been so much focused on its role in shaping affairs beyond the battlefield. Related considerations are the implications for humanitarian organizations operating in Afghanistan of their perceived associations with the military.

Today’s military commanders and policy-makers – and the organs of state responsible for delivering ‘joined up’ foreign policy (especially the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development) are keenly interested in assessing the role of the military beyond the battlefield. One might argue that it is indeed their major focus. Today’s deployments have as their leading aim the need to ‘build’ institutions, economies, and nations – new governing institutions, new schools, new ways of living. Tony Blair’s 2002 Bangalore speech said that Britain would act as a ‘force for good’, and this term has become something of a mantra for the British armed forces and British foreign policy. Whatever the uncertainties as a new Strategic Defence Review is contemplated, there is little doubt that British defence planning will retain ethical and humanitarian intentions.

Elsewhere in Africa, small scale military deployments – British Peace Support Teams, British Defence Advisory Teams, and contributions to the joint MOD, FCO, DFID Africa Conflict Prevention Pool – seek to use British military resources to help transform nations and communities, through peace building, conflict resolution, de-mining, and security sector reform programmes. This is military activity beyond the battlefield, illustrative of the role played by the military in supporting British foreign policy.

Beyond the Battlefield focuses on a distinct area that is in need of better communication across academic disciplines. The project aims to bring dynamic cross-disciplinary scrutiny to a clearly defined subject – the impact of British military deployments since 1700 beyond the field of battle – to produce a coherent understanding of the impact of military deployments, and associated civilian activities.

Singapore War Memorial to the civilian dead