Military leaders have hastened to denounce racism amid the furor over President Donald Trump’s defense of white supremacists who violently rallied last week around a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But they are also presiding over their own controversial symbols of the Confederacy — including 10 Army bases named for generals who commanded armies of the slave-holding South during the Civil War, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Rucker in Alabama.
On Friday, a group of mostly African-American Democrats in the House proposed legislation that would require the defense secretary to rename any military property “that is currently named after any individual who took up arms against the United States during the American Civil War or any individual or entity that supported such efforts.” They argued that the names undermine the military’s commitment to American values of “freedom, equality, and democratic governance.”
The office of the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, told POLITICO that he too he supports renaming bases named for Confederates.
“There are no bases in Germany named for Hitler or Goering,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader and former Democratic candidate for president, said in an interview Friday, referring to the Nazi leaders defeated in World War II.
Jackson, whose Rainbow PUSH Coalition has been active in Charlottesville since the deadly clashes last weekend, said leaders of the Confederacy similarly should not be memorialized. “The losers of that horrendous war are symbols of the vanquished, to be studied but not to be glorified.”
But for now, the Pentagon has no plans to rename the bases. “We do not comment on pending legislation,” said Navy Cmdr. Patrick Evans, a department spokesman.
One defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly pointed out that public schools, parks, veterans hospitals and countless other government facilities are also named after Confederate leaders. The official said the military is likely to defer to Congress as the ultimate authority on the matter.
The Army, which was literally torn apart by the war — its troops had to choose sides — carries the conflict’s biggest legacy among the military branches. It also declined to comment publicly on the issue.
“I think the Army doesn’t want to get out too far ahead,” said George Eaton, a retired Army officer who is now a historian at the Army’s Sustainment Command in Rock Island, Illinois. “Let’s take Robert E. Lee. He was a great officer before 1861 and there are things he did we should remember. Do we expunge his entire record? Or do we find a way to reconcile what he did for the nation but not celebrate him?”
Eaton, who was expressing his personal views and not speaking in an official capacity, added that “having been a soldier for 21 years, this always bothered me.” Yet he insisted that the solution is not as simple as renaming the installations. “That is a very complex issue,” he said. “It would take a long time to sort out and be very expensive.”
The debate over whether to rename the bases has simmered for years, most recently in 2015 when the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State Capitol following a massacre of nine worshipers at a historically black church in Charleston.
A number of the bases got those names in the early and mid-20th century, at a time when military leaders needed to fill the ranks and relied heavily on Southern states. Some were named in the lead-up to World War I and others on the cusp of American entry into World War II. Many of the names were put forward by the states, and the Army, in desperate need of manpower, agreed.
They include Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the infantry, named for Gen. Henry Benning, who had been one of Georgia’s most vocal supporters of secession following President Abraham Lincoln’s election. Fort Bragg in North Carolina, one the Army’s most iconic bases, is named for Gen. Braxton Bragg, who defended the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Two installations not far from Charlottesville are Fort A.P. Hill, named for a general killed in action, and Fort Lee, named for Robert E. Lee, the commander of all Confederate armies.
The Fort Lee post was named in the weeks following the U.S. declaration of war with Germany in 1917. Lee’s home, which was seized by the Union Army, is now Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington and does not bear his name.
Also in Virginia is Fort Pickett, which was named in 1942 in honor of Maj. Gen. George Pickett, whose charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 gained him notoriety. After the war, Pickett temporarily fled to Canada out of fear of prosecution.
Fort Hood in Texas, the largest military base in the world, honors Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, who was wounded at Gettysburg. The post was also named at the outset of World War I.
In Louisiana sits Fort Polk, founded in 1942 and now home of the Army’s jungle training center, honoring Gen. Leonidas Polk. Polk was killed in action during the Atlanta campaign of the Civil War.
The debate on whether to retain these names has received new attention since the events in Charlottesville — especially because the military brass so swiftly launched a rhetorical assault on white nationalism, publicly disavowing all racism and bigotry, in stark contrast to the commander in chief’s rhetoric about violence from “many sides.”
When Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley tweeted Wednesday that the service does not tolerate racism, Todd Harrison, a leading D.C. national security analyst, responded: “But why does the Army continue to tolerate 10 bases named for Confederate officers?”
Harrison is a descendant of Mississippi slave owners who grew up in Forrest County — named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, another Confederate general and a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan who remains a revered figure among white nationalists.
“Naming a base or a ship for a person or event is an expression of honor that reflects the values we hold as a military and as a society,” Harrison told POLITICO. “When senior military leaders condemn hatred, racism and bigotry on Twitter but tolerate bases named in honor of Confederate war leaders it sends a mixed signal to service members.
“Given what is going on in cities around the country today,” he added, “I think leaders in Congress and the military should ask themselves two questions: First, are these really the people we want to honor? And second, what message does this send to racial minorities who work on these bases or live in the local community?”
Other advocates of renaming the installations said the fact that many of the bases were named to encourage unity in the armed forces is irrelevant.
“Generations after many of these posts were named, reconciliation can boomerang,” Mark Thompson, a national security analyst at the left-leaning Center for Defense Information, wrote in an essay published Wednesday.
He added that “the Army’s reliance on Confederate names is particularly unseemly, given that it has always been, by far, the service with the most African-American troops. For decades, even as the nation has become more enlightened on racial matters (remember: the military was segregated when these posts were named), untold thousands of black soldiers have readied for war on soil honoring their ancestors’ oppressors.”
The new legislation — whose co-sponsors include a dozen African-American, two Jewish, three white, four Hispanic and one Asian lawmaker — says that “the American Civil War of 1861-1865 was fought over the desire of the seceding States to keep human beings enslaved based upon their race. The Confederacy was so committed to preserving the institution of slavery that it killed more than 360,000 American soldiers in its failed effort to achieve this goal.”
What seems clear is that Congress will have to lead the way.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat who co-wrote the Honoring Real Patriots Act of 2017, has sought unsuccessfully to have two streets that are named for Lee and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson changed at Fort Hamilton, an Army installation in her Brooklyn district.
“Monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders have always represented white supremacy and a continuing attempt to deny the basic human rights of African-Americans,” she said in a statement.
Whether the bill will get traction is hard to say, according to Jason Dempsey, a retired Army officer who is now a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
“The military does not lead on these issues,” Dempsey said. “Military leaders are small ‘c’ conservatives, in that they don’t want to get ahead of anybody. And they’re also, by the way, products of their generations. All of the guys running the military now joined 35 to 40 years ago. They hate being seen as drivers of change on any contentious issue.”
But Eaton, the Army historian, said that beyond removing the racist symbolism, another reason exists to give these facilities new names.
“If we are going to name posts after guys we ought to name them after competent leaders,” he said. “Bragg, Hood and Polk were not great leaders.”
Connor O’Brien also contributed to this report.
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