Retirement is not an option for ‘an old warhorse’ like Osinga
He has had to accept early retirement due to his military profession, or ‘FLO’ (Functioneel Leeftijdsontslag) as it is more commonly referred to within the Dutch Ministry of Defence, but the words ‘retirement’ or ‘winding down’ do not appear to be part of Frans Osinga's vocabulary. His appointment at Leiden University has just been extended. At home, FLO has been rebranded 'Frans Leren Ontspannen’ (teaching Frans how to relax), because he could do with a bit more in the way of work-life balance. 'Work is my hobby, although that's a strange thing to say since it’s all about war.'
An interview with professor of war studies, lecturer, general, commodore pilot, and war expert Frans Osinga. Divided into four themes: his own history and the origins of his fascination with war, war & media, his lectureship, and the future.
It’s simply not healthy to do nothing after 60
‘So, I was very happy with the offer from the Faculty Board. I cover a niche that few other people cover. It enables me to continue to work professionally in my intellectual field of interest of war, conflict, and modern warfare.’
'Can we meet a bit later after all? I’m about to be interviewed for Radio 1.' Since Frans Osinga retired from the Ministry of Defence and was appointed Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau on 22 February this year, things have by no means calmed down. Work as a war expert continues as long as the war in Ukraine continues and his endowed professorship at the Institute for Security and Global Affairs (ISGA) has been converted into a 'regular' professorship. 'It’s simply not healthy to do nothing after the age of 60. Besides, I really enjoy teaching. So, I was very happy with the offer from the Faculty Board. I cover a niche that few other people cover. It enables me to continue to work professionally in my intellectual field of interest of war, conflict, and modern warfare. Doing research and especially teaching. Work is my hobby, although that’s a strange thing to say since it’s all about war.'
A fascination for war from an early age
The fascination for everything to do with war started at an early age. When little Frans was 7, he went on a school trip to the Grebbeberg, which coincided with the celebrations for 25 years of liberation. 'I became aware of history for the first time. That made quite an impression.' When asked in his first year at secondary school about his dreams for the future, he said: 'I want to be a general and an F16 pilot.' Osinga bursts out laughing. 'Youthful enthusiasm and arrogance. But even back then I had this fascination with war as a theme. Precisely because of the terrible impact it has. And yet there always seems to be a war going on and I've been trying to understand why from a young age.'
After completing the KMA (Dutch Royal Military Academy), Osinga did, in fact, manage to fulfil his dream of becoming an F16 pilot. 'In my time, 2,000 men came up to become fighter pilots. In the end, only six men succeeded, of which I was one. A combination of hard work and being lucky enough to possess the right skills.'
Not an ordinary career path
He continued to work for the Ministry of Defence for more than forty years. 'I didn’t choose an ordinary career path, but thanks to certain so-called 'gentleman agreements', I’ve been able to accomplish a great many things. I’ve been given a golden opportunity for which I gave my heartfelt thanks during my farewell speech at the Ministry of Defence.' It was at the Krijgsschool (Dutch war academy) in 1997 that his love for teaching was born. 'Being able to pass on your knowledge, that's what gave and gives me energy. After completing a master’s degree in military strategy in America, I taught for a full year at the Krijgsschool before I was asked to do my PhD at Clingendael. I was definitely up for the challenge. It turned out to be a tremendous learning experience. It was during that time that the attacks in America and the invasion of Iraq took place. As a research fellow, I was forced to expand my frame of reference very quickly. Terrorism was lurking just around the corner; I could no longer rely solely on my knowledge from the military aviation domain. At this time, media appearances were also becoming a thing. I’ve learnt so much during that time.'
A year and a half of being on call for the media
'For the past year and a half, I've been on call, from morning to night. It takes a lot out of you. Every sentence has to hit the mark within the limited time you're given.’
At the time of the attacks in America in 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq, it was a new experience for Osinga to tell his story to the media. The exposure back then is nothing compared to how he has experienced the past year and a half with the ongoing war in Ukraine. 'On the one hand, it’s good. of course, that the media knew where to find me and several other experts. Useful for the recognition and acknowledgement of the academic field. It also shows that studying warfare is useful. Students see that too. It's basically happening just around the corner. The lecture halls are full. I see that as the positive spin-off from the devastations of this war.'
There is also a downside, Osinga knows. There are not many experts in his field, so everyone knows where to find him. 'For the past year and a half, I've been on call, from morning to night. It takes a lot out of you. Every sentence has to hit the mark within the limited time you're given. I’m not a journalist who has to drip-feed facts, but I’m there to provide a clarification, an analysis. And all that in 4 to 8 minutes on radio or TV. It's fascinating, but also a form of elite sport.'
Pulling out all the stops for the master
Since 2019, Osinga has been affiliated with Leiden University as (endowed) professor of war studies at ISGA (Institute of Security and Global Affairs). The master's track War and Peace Studies, co-founded by Osinga, started in September last year. 'I teach two courses that I designed myself. Compared to the bachelor and minor, I'm able to dive deeper into the subject matter. I can really pull out all the stops and that gives me a lot of energy; I enjoy passing on my knowledge to students. We did the master's for the first time this year and I’m already working on improving it. We’re updating courses and I plan to do more with guest lecturers from the field of operations.'
Future: develop an entire track on war studies
Apart from improving the current master's, the war studies expert is also looking ahead. 'I have the ambition to create an entire track on war studies. There’s so much more to tell. I’d like to focus on strategic dilemmas, deterrence, what do we know about that? Strategic theory, I hardly get around to it. A course on the future of war? That’s taught in Breda, but not here yet.'
But what about the rebranded FLO that is so desperately wanted at home? Osinga laughs and explains that he will definitely be focussing on maintaining a better work-life balance. 'I golf, am passionate about art in various forms, and we also plan to travel more. We just spent another week in the south of Germany. And I’d also like to free up more time for painting, which I really enjoy. I’ve not been able to spend too much time on it, but more than usual.'
Text: Margriet van der Zee
Images: Ministry of Defence and personal archives of Frans Osinga
Translation: Marleen van Koetsveld