Militarized landscapes in the twentieth-century: Britain, France and the United States

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


The decimation of Vietnamese jungles with Agent Orange in the 1960s and the black smoke billowing from burning oil wells during the Gulf War of 1990-1991 directed media and public attention toward war's environmental impact. Yet even before the first bomb is dropped, militarism and the preparation for warfare materially and imaginatively reshape landscapes and environments. However, this form of military mobilization remains under-researched. This project seeks to rectify this neglect through a comparative analysis of military mobilization of land to prepare for and to wage war. We will also explore the role of military lands as reservoirs of biodiversity often superior in 'green' value to surrounding non-militarized landscapes subject to intensive agricultural practices and other customary forms of human encroachment. The relationship between this high conservation value and the status of defence estates as landscapes emptied of human residents and civilian activities is a central ingredient of our study. Also integral is the study of tensions between ecological restoration and the preservation of the historic environment represented by military structures (also the pre-military features of the humanized landscape).

With the development of increasingly powerful weaponry between the first and second world wars, European military organizations appropriated ever more land for training recruits and testing hardware (acquisition peaking in Britain during 1940s but continuing in France into the 1970s). At present, the military is the largest landowner in France and the British Ministry of Defence controls approximately one percent of UK territory. This project will focus on the military's justification for its control of national territory and the strategies it adopts to maintain its authority. It will also consider the challenges to militarized landscapes from those seeking access and a share of decision making and control: local communities, conservation organizations, environmentalists and other government bodies such as national park authorities. Of particular interest here is the interplay between the imperatives of defending the nation and defending nature. Yet nonhuman nature is also an integral part of the story. An analysis of the environmental history of military sites will address a central paradox in the war-environment relationship, namely, the suggestion that militarized landscapes sometimes become unexpected refuges for rare species of animals and plants. The French army has signed conservation agreements with the Ministry of the Environment, established 'Natural Zones of Ecological Interest for Flora and Fauna,' and advertises its ecological credentials, pointing to restrictions on intensive agriculture and urbanization on its bases. In Britain, Ministry of Defence lands hosts over 170 Site of Special Scientific Interest. How and why have military authorities embraced nature conservation policies? No environmental histories of militarized landscapes in France and Britain (nor of these nation's overseas holdings) have been written to date.

As well as exploring how the military and social forces such as environmentalism interact, this project investigates how militarized landscapes have become sites for competing claims and conceptions of landscape and environment, natural value and historic value, and national defence and national heritage. Our case studies will be drawn principally from France (including sites in Fontainebleau forest, the Vercors, and Canjeurs) and southwest England/South Wales (including Dartmoor, Salisbury Plain, Tyneham Range, Castlemartin and the Brecon Beacons). These will be supplemented by an American case study (decommissioned weapons manufacturing plants in Colorado, whose former sites now host national wildlife refuges). This comparative focus contributes to the breaking down of monolithic concepts such as "militarism" and "militarized landscapes". The focus on British, French and A


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Title 'Back from the brink: The great bustard' 
Description A short film about the return of the great bustard to the Salisbury Plain Military Training Area in Wiltshire, for BBC's 'The One Show', made in conjunction with project partner Icon Films. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2009 
Impact Icon Films (a Bristol-based independent film company specializing in history and natural history documentaries) agreed to collaborate with project PI Peter Coates to include a short documentary about the recent reintroduction of the great bustard to Salisbury Plain among the six species it would submit to the commissioning editors of the BBC's The One Show for the second instalment of its series on endangered British wildlife, 'Back from the Brink'. The programme received an audience of 5.2 million. 
Description This project has focused around a comparative analysis of the emergence, management and meaning of militarized landscapes in Britain, France and the US. A research team of four has explored the role of military lands as "reservoirs of biodiversity" often superior to surrounding non-militarized landscapes, and offers a historical perspective to questions of military land use and environmental responsibility. One of the key findings of this project is that the British military are at the forefront of environmental protection.
Exploitation Route N/A
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

Description Two walks in militarized landscapes for the Royal Geographic Society-Institute of British Geographers 'Discovering Britain' series of web-based walks 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The two walks prepared by the former research student on the 'Militarized Landscapes; project - 'Military environmentalism on Salisbury Plain' and 'Mynydd Epynt: one place, two identities' - are among the most heavily downloaded of the walks in the 'Discovering Britain' project. They have also led to interviews with/articles by the author in walking magazines.

The two walks prepared by the former research student on the 'Militarized Landscapes; project - 'Military environmentalism on Salisbury Plain' and 'MYnydd Epynt: one place, two identities' - are among the most heavily downloaded of the walks in the 'Discovering Britain' project. They have also led to interviews with the author by walking magazines.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013