Following the shocking violence in Charlottesville, Va., many leaders from government, business and academia have acted in solidarity with common citizens standing against racism and hate.
The most senior U.S. military commanders made heartening statements of support. Notably, Army Chief of Staff General Mark A. Milley, tweeted: “The Army doesn't tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It's against our Values and everything we've stood for since 1775.”
Unfortunately, his words ring hollow: The U.S. Army maintains 10 major bases named for nine Confederate generals and one colonel in five separate states (Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia).
In 2015, when asked about these base names after the murder of nine African-American worshipers in their Charleston, S.C. church by a self-avowed white supremacist touting Confederate symbols and intending to start a race war, the official Army response was absurdly dismissive: “Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies. It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”
Textbook hypocrisy. These Confederate “soldiers” led an armed attack against the United States. Yes, they are historic figures and belong in the chronicles of history. But by honoring them the Army dishonors all loyal service members and especially African-Americans, who would have been enslaved by these Confederates. It also casts doubt as to how they are actually valued within the military today and reinforces perceptions of systemic repression of and hostility toward African-Americans. Retaining these names is therefore an enormous risk to good order and discipline, unit cohesion and ultimately operational readiness.
Moreover, keeping the Army bases named after Confederate leaders emboldens white supremacist and hate groups, some of which openly advocate secession yet often wear military style clothing, insignia and symbols.
Exacerbating this problem is America’s esteem for its armed services. According to Gallup, the U.S. Military has been the most trusted institution in America since the mid 1980s.
Fortunately, many other U.S. Army leaders actually deserve to be so honored — including Southerners, women and generals of African descent. From the World War II era alone, when America was particularly united, Dwight Eisenhower (Texas), Arthur MacArthur (Arkansas), Omar Bradley (Missouri), John Pershing (Missouri), George Patton (California), Lucius Clay (Georgia), Matthew Ridgway (Virginia), William Lee (North Carolina), Elizabeth Hoisington (a 1940 graduate of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland who was from Kansas), and Roscoe Robinson (Missouri) are obvious candidates.
Civilian leaders are already doing their part to remove honorific symbols of the Confederacy with great bravery in the face of serious threats of violence in their communities. Including Baltimore’s action last month, at least 67 Confederate monuments or statues have been removed from public spaces across America since 2015.
But many remain. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified some 1,500 Confederate symbols in public spaces throughout America. These include over 100 public schools, over 700 monuments or statues — including at least eight in a collection on Capitol Hill — as well as many public parks and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of miles of public roads such as Jefferson Davis Highway, which even runs alongside the Pentagon.
If specific communities or individuals have a heritage with the Confederacy and choose to openly embrace it, that is their right, but for the U.S. Army to hold leaders of a violent secession in a position of honor is irrefutably a violation of its values and undermines its own credibility — the U.S. Military oath includes defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
General Milley has a unique opportunity at this moment. By rebuking the Army’s previous statements accepting places of honor for Confederate leaders and renaming these bases, he might create a tipping point for the growing national rejection of racism and bigotry and the removal of unjust honors to the Confederacy in public spaces throughout the United States.
Congress has already started drafting legislation to force a change. But such legislation undoubtedly will be seen as political and likely face a veto. General Milley, however, can still make an institutional — and thus irreproachable — decision to uphold Army values.
Renaming bases and removing Confederate symbols from places of honor is not rewriting history. It’s ensuring that our nation venerates the honorable parts of our history in public and relegates shameful ones to museums lest we forget. The Confederacy is an unerasable part of American history, but any public honoring of it or its leaders — especially by the “Union Army” — is an affront to the U.S. Constitution and all for which it stands.
Sunil Desai (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and retired Marine officer.