Monday, 30 April 2012

Volunteering in foreign armies: the view from France

In mid-April the Ecole Normal Superieure, the Institut Remarque (New York University) and the Musée de l'Armée organised a three-day conference in Paris entitled 'Se Battre a L'étranger pour des idées: Volontariat Armé International et Politique XVIIIe-XXIe siecles'.
[Conference programme]
Discussions during the conference ranged from the eighteenth century right up to the present-day, where there was a particular interest in the role of war reporters and reportage a key role in the subject. I spoke about the seven thousand British, Irish, Polish and German men and women (plus some small numbers of other nationalities) who volunteered to serve in Simón Bolívar’s armies in the 1810s and 1820s. I argued that the volunteers who signed up in London, Edinburgh and Dublin were inspired by a mixture of motives, in which ideas of liberty and freedom from oppression mingled alongside hopes of economic advancement, and desire for adventure. As the question of armed volunteering attracts more scholarly attention, of course, we become ever more aware of the contemporary political dimensions of the decision to label one group of soldiers 'volunteers' or 'freedom fighters', and another group as 'mercenaries'. Does receipt of payment, when taken by someone born in a foreign land, automatically produce a 'mercenary'? But in that case, how is a 'volunteer' to eat unless they have considerable personal funds? Does this mean that only wealthy, aristocratic soldiers - Lord Byron, Lord Cochrane, et al - get to be classified as volunteers? That would seem to be rather limiting the scope of a fascinating question. There are plans to publish the papers of the conference, which no doubt will help to answer these and other questions.

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