Addressing the Confederacy’s Continuing Legacy in the U.S. Military
Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent the official position or policy of the Hoya Battalion, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
The past week has seen a mass unearthing of historically suppressed racism in the United States. The death of George Floyd has catalyzed protests against racism across the country, leading to the defacing and removal of Confederate statues in Alexandria, Virginia; Birmingham, Alabama; and even the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. The citizens of these communities and their representative governments have chosen to recognize the implications of celebrating the Confederacy with powerful public symbolism. Now is an opportune time to address these issues and act as a community.
The US military is facing its own challenges with the legacy of the Confederacy. In April, Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger ordered that Confederate symbols be removed from military installations, citing that it “has the power to inflame feelings of division.” This was a major step towards confronting white supremacy in the military. However, the issue runs deeper. There are standing legacies celebrating the Confederacy in the US Army that many citizens may not be aware of. Multiple military installations in the United States are named after Confederate Generals. Bragg (NC), Benning (GA), A.P. Hill (VA), and Hood (TX), are the more notable ones, but there is also Gordon (GA), Lee (VA), Pickett (VA), Polk (LA), and Rucker (AL). With the various functions that these bases serve, it is nearly impossible for a soldier in today’s Army to go his or her career without living and/or working at a base named after a Confederate leader.
Indeed, some of the most important functions of our Army are housed at these bases. Fort Benning is home to the Maneuver Center of Excellence, the home of our Infantry and Armored forces; the lifeblood of the United States Army. These are the forces which the rest of the Army exists to support and enable. As a result, the name Benning has become synonymous with the Army’s core task of its mission—"ready, prompt, and sustained land dominance”. This is the same man who lamented to the Virginia Convention that. “…the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything… Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand that?”. Fort Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne and the United States Army Special Operations Command, two distinguished and highly notable organizations. Mike Pietrucha of War on the Rocks notes that Bragg was a plantation and slave owner and a “staggeringly incompetent Confederate General”.
The naming of these bases trace back to the World Wars. Mark Herbert, writing for Task & Purpose, describes how Army bases sprung up across the country to train new recruits for service overseas. Naming was delegated to local authorities who would choose local or national military heroes; in the South, these were Confederate generals. Bragg, Benning, Lee, and the like were viewed as “tragic heroes, not treasonable racists”, a primary narrative perpetuated by the “Lost Cause” of the South. While this may have been accepted in a segregated Army, black Americans now comprise 21 percent of Active Duty personnel, 21 percent of Reserve personnel, and 16 percent of National Guard personnel, as of FY19. Today’s Army has no room for outdated and racist narratives of Confederate moral superiority. There is no reason why the US Government should continue to count Confederate generals among its national military heroes.
What message does it send to our black soldiers and leaders when they see portraits of Confederate leaders proudly displayed in the lobbies of the bases they live and work at? Black soldiers like the Commanding General and Command Sergeant Major of Fort Benning—MG Gary Brito and CSM Martin Celestine respectively—have worked extraordinarily hard to reach the upper ranks of the military yet serve an installation that honors a man who would have them in physical, moral, and mental chains. What is the underlying narrative? It is a choice to continue to celebrate the bygone history of a violent rebellion against the legitimate United States government. It is a choice to appease rather than confront racist ideologies. At the very minimum, it is an outdated relic of an America we have all worked hard to overcome.
Some may contend that changing the names of these bases is erasing American history, effectively burying the past in favor of arbitrary “political correctness” and refusing to recognize the talents of soldiers who were Americans all the same. Their history cannot be erased or forgotten as it is one of the seminal moments of the American story. While this history is indeed complex and nuanced, there remains a plain and simple fact—the Confederacy and its soldiers fought, bled, and died for their right to own black Americans as property. Claims that Confederate soldiers have been granted US military veteran’s status, popular after the 2017 Charlottesville rallies, are patently false. There is a crucial difference between remembering and celebrating the Confederacy. US Army officers should continue to diligently study the Civil War and even appreciate the strategy, tactics, and bravery exhibited by Confederate soldiers and leaders. Every American high school student should know the names Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. They should know why they fought and how. They should not know them as heroes, though. They should not see their government continue to regard them as such.
The Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Army must now undertake a review of who their bases are named after. In the past week, the use of military force in cities across the county has threatened citizens and how our military will address racism and injustice. There is a palpable irony in sending troops from Fort Bragg to help address protests against racism, especially when the military currently faces a resurgence of white supremacist ideologies in its ranks. Right now there would be no better message to American soldiers and citizens than changing the names of these bases. There are a wealth of American military heroes to choose from that meet the criteria of the Army Memorial Program, “…deceased heroes and other deceased distinguished individuals of all races in our society,… inspirations to their fellow Soldiers, employees, and other citizens” [emphasis added].
Already senior DoD leaders are directly confronting these issues; on June 1st, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright passionately spoke out about his experience as a black American in the armed forces. "Who am I? I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force," he wrote on Twitter. “I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice”. General Officers, including Chief of the National Guard Bureau GEN Joseph Lengyel, have released statements urging soldiers to address injustice and uphold their oaths to the Constitution.
Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) Casey Wardynski, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the DoD must reaffirm their commitment to the Constitution by choosing to refuse to celebrate those that directly waged war against it.
Matthew Levengood is a third-year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. He is also a member of Army R.O.T.C. on A.U.'s campus. He is a columnist for the Agora.
Image courtesy Scott Elmquist, Creative Commons