Names Matter: The US Military Must Take a Strong Stance on Bases Named after Confederate Leaders
By Dave Hansen, US Army. The opinions in this article are his own and not an official representation of the US Army, DoD or the US Government.
On Monday the 8th of June US Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy stated that he is open to a bipartisan discussion on renaming its bases which are presently named after Confederate leaders. There are presently 10 US Army bases around the country named for Confederate leaders: Fort Lee, Fort Hood, Fort Benning, Fort Gordon, Fort Bragg, Fort Polk, Fort Pickett, Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Rucker and Camp Beauregard. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it is far from a decisive commitment. The conversation has rapidly evolved, including support from retired General David Petraeus, and the Senate Armed Services Committee inserting a mandate into the Defense Authorization Bill which, if passed, will require the Pentagon to strip military bases and equipment of Confederate names.
Last week, the Ryan McCarthy, Secretary of the Army, General James McConville, United States Army Chief of Staff, and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston jointly penned a letter to all US military Servicemembers, reminding us we swear an oath to uphold and defend the constitution. They told all leaders “Lead with compassion and humility, and create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing grievances. Let us be the first to set the example.” If we wish to be the leaders who uphold the values of our nation and the underlying principles enshrined within our Constitution, then yes, we must do this. That is true for uniformed individuals just as much as it is true for the US military’s larger institution. Both I and the institution must demonstrate what equality looks like without prejudice or bias: we must take actions to heal the imbalances of racial disparity, and we must rename our bases. We cannot just consider this moment as ‘opportunity for discussion,’ or state that we are ‘open to the idea’ of renaming bases. This is not that kind of moment.
America is watching us, and we should seize this opportunity to demonstrate positive actions which symbolize the fact that America’s fighting force will do what is right.
Core values and unit cohesion
Earlier this year, US Congressional hearings discussed the increased presence of white nationalism and extremism in the US military, an issue closely tied with the presence of Confederate monuments, flags and naming conventions. The US Marine Corps recently took proactive measures to combat this. USMC Commandant General David Berger recently ordered all “Confederate-related paraphernalia” removed from US Marine bases. The reasoning was that removing this symbol would “support our core values, ensure unit cohesion and security, and preserve good order and discipline.” The official US Army position, in February of this year was that there were “no plans to rename any street or installation, including those named for Confederate generals. The US Army statement noted that the naming of those sites was “done in a spirit of reconciliation, not to demonstrate support for any particular cause or ideology.” While the US Army now appears to be reversing course, this premise is patently false and plainly ignores and deflects the cold realities about how and when the naming of these US Army bases came to be. And for that matter, ‘reconciliation’ with what exactly…. racism?
The truth is, the veneration of Confederate Generals grew up not in the immediate aftermath of Civil War reconstruction, but decades later throughout the early 20th century, as a predominantly-white South reasserted dominance through legal frameworks such as Jim Crow Laws, and then again in the 1960s, in response to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. One example is Lee Barracks at West Point, NY which opened in the early 1960s as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Fort Bragg, North Carolina for example, was named in 1921. Was no honourable name from World War I available? Braxton Bragg is generally considered among the worst generals of the Civil War. “He was extremely unpopular with both the men and the officers of his command, who criticized him for numerous perceived faults, including poor battlefield strategy, a quick temper, and overzealous discipline.” Ultimately, he was relieved of command.
Fort Pickett, Virginia, was named in honour of a Confederate General who faced a war crimes investigation for the executions of 22 Union soldiers at Kinston, NC, near the end of the Civil war. A recent New York Times op-ed pointed to a military panel investigating Pickett and the Kinston killings after the Civil War. “It is the opinion of this board,” the panel wrote, “these men have violated the rules of war and every principle of humanity and are guilty of crimes too heinous to be excused by the Government of the United States.” Fort Gordon, GA was named after a Confederate General who later led the Klu Klux Klan. The history of these men is beyond appalling. Is this truly a legacy we should hold onto? How is this even worthy of ‘bipartisan discussion?’ This should not be a political issue. It has become politicized.
Excellent leadership includes making difficult decisions when necessary, but leaders must also muster the courage necessary to admit when they are wrong. Both are now required. The morals and ethics the US Army uphold are demarked by symbols and naming conventions. People everywhere name streets, towns, schools, and military bases after important figures whom we should aspire to be. The US Army must therefore reexamine why these military bases were named after civil war Generals. We must decide this was wrong, and we must now rename our bases and posts with fitting alternatives that not only embody our warrior ethos and spirit, but also reflect who the US people are as a people and a nation. Now is the moment for the US Army to rightly display personal and moral courage in front of all Americans, to show how an institution can evolve and improve, and that its Servicepeople may earn and deserve the “thank you for your service” so often rendered.
The very presence of confederate monuments, flags, and naming conventions symbolizes the US Army’s reluctance to address the difficult truths about my nation’s past, and instead inflames feelings of division in our ranks. The names of barracks, bases and streets does matter. These names can and should represent an important part of a history which could be used to teach young soldiers coming into military service about distinguished and honourable figures who have served before. I personally served five of my current 24 years of active duty at Fort Bragg. I recall zero times in five years where I received a lecture about General Bragg and why he is significant to the US Army. Certainly, venerating Civil War Confederates is not presently happening at the institutional level. It is a remnant of an early 20th century effort to glorify so many of the wrong things from our history. We could instead be using names to honour and recognize any number of American heroes. Some have suggested US Army bases with the names of Confederate leaders should be renamed after Medal of Honor recipients. This has merit.
Some argue that removing Confederate leaders’ names negates the US Army’s history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Naming bases, erecting statues, and so on are examples of misguided glorification, not the manner by which we record our history. Are these men truly who represent the US Army’s diverse culture, our ethos of selfless service, inclusivity, and a merit- based profession? In 2020, we are an evolved and inclusive military, and the names of our Army Posts, barracks, buildings, and streets ought to reflect that. The US Army has scores of heroes who deserve to have their names revered in history. So yes, I agree with General McConville. Let us lead by example. But let us be more than just ‘open to the idea.’
Leaders must recognize that base renaming is merely one step in a litany of necessary reforms toward improving racial disparities. The USAF Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein announced this week he would seek an independent review of the service’s legal system, racial injustice, and opportunities for advancement. But if the US military are going to fix this across the entire Defense enterprise, then it must consider demonstrable DoD-wide actions to tackle the rise of racism in all forms. Renaming Army bases is one gesture long overdue.
The US Army has made vast and significant improvements in the stand against institutional racism which include efforts to combat prejudice in the workforce. No group is more diverse and culturally integrated. It has the opportunity right now to do even more to bring about lasting change and demonstrate to all Americans that long-entrenched norms are not acceptable and must be admonished. Names matter. They are symbols of what we aspire to. And leaders need to understand that.