Research overview

Funded by a Leverhulme grant (RPG-2019-198) and based at the University of Oxford and the University of Sussex, the Global Soldiers project takes as its focus the men and women of the Cold-War era liberation armies in southern Africa and the global exchanges of ideas that shaped them. A striking effect of the combination of Cold War competition and decolonisation was the multi-directional movement of people, ideas and things across the globe. Ground-breaking research on this phenomenon has traced a great range of political, social and cultural exchange, shifting our understanding of the locus and content of Cold War-era solidarities and struggles. This work has however paid little attention to the content, experience and legacies of military exchanges, and specifically military training, in sites dispersed around the globe. Tens of thousands of men and women from dozens of countries participated in these exchanges and uniquely complex militaries were made by them.

In southern Africa, one of the ‘hottest’ regions of Cold War-era contestation, these military networks were essential to the prosecution of the liberation struggles whose outcomes would dramatically remake the region. Armies were made whose soldiers were motivated by the desire for freedom at home, but which were also marked by the exchange of ideas about strategy, tactics and soldiering from elsewhere in Africa and the world. For veterans in both southern Africa and the former Eastern bloc the effects of these wars have endured in a host of ways. These ‘global soldiers’ and the exchange of ideas that shaped them and created ‘military cultures’ in globally dispersed sites of training are at the centre of our studies. Our methodology relies primarily on oral histories of rank and file soldiers and military instructors and advisers, both African and those of Cold War allies.

In addressing this topic, we bring together two important bodies of scholarly work: studies of the global Cold War and transnational liberation movements on the one hand, and critical military studies on the other. Connecting these literatures allows new questions to be posed and new concepts and methodological approaches to be developed. These may be applied not only to the study of southern African global soldiers but to the military formation of other transnational armies, both older and more recent. The study thus offers the potential for comparative work in different times and places using the concepts and methods developed here.

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A note on acronyms

For any scholar working on liberation movements and transnational history, the multiplication of acronyms is an unavoidable hazard. We use acronyms throughout this website. They refer largely to liberation movements and their armed wings. The key movements, armies and parties referred to in this project are as follows:

ANC: the African National Congress of South Africa.

CPSU: Communist Party of the Soviet Union

MK: Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing.

FAPLA: Popular Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola, the liberation army that became the armed forces of the independent Angolan state.

MPLA: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, in power from 1975.

PAIGС: African Party of the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde

FRELIMO: Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, in power from 1975

UNITA: the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, the MPLA’s internal adversary during the postcolonial war.

ZAPU: the Zimbabwe African People’s Union.

ZPRA: the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, ZAPU’s armed wing.