Rename our military installations…and do it now

At exactly the point where the nation doesn’t need any more divisiveness in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy, a truly unnecessary dispute has erupted as the President has announced he wouldn’t even consider renaming military bases carrying a designation of a Confederate general.

Apparently, the President mistakenly believes that doing so would amount to tampering with U.S. history and be disrespectful of the military.  I strongly disagree; we need to rename the bases, and do it now.

“Undistinguished, if not incompetent”

According to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report “Confederate Names and Military Installations,” the Army has this explanation for the names of its installations:

“The naming of U.S. Army installations is considered to be a memorialization of a distinguished individual. “Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history,” said Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost, then Chief of Army Public Affairs, on June 24, 2015. ‘Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.'”

In a thoughtful essay in The Atlantic, “Take the Confederate Names Off Our Army Bases,” retired Army general David Petraeus discussed many of the reasons to rename bases, and specifically rebuts the Army’s rationale.  A true scholar (he holds a Phd in international relations), Petraeus points out:

“It also happens that—Lee excepted—most of the Confederate generals for whom our bases are named were undistinguished, if not incompetent, battlefield commanders.”  (Emphasis added.)

Still, what about Lee?

A 2017 PBS Newshour online report, “Robert E. Lee opposed Confederate monuments,” points out that “Lee himself never wanted such monuments built” and quotes Lee as saying:

“I think it wiser,” the retired military leader wrote about a proposed Gettysburg memorial in 1869, “…not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

Additionally, the Newshour cites Lee’s biographer Jonathan Horn who indicated that:

“In his writings, Lee cited multiple reasons for opposing such monuments, questioning the cost of a potential Stonewall Jackson monument, for example. But underlying it all was one rationale: That the war had ended, and the South needed to move on and avoid more upheaval.”

Horn explained:

“Lee believed countries that erased visible signs of civil war recovered from conflicts quicker,” Horn said. “He was worried that by keeping these symbols alive, it would keep the divisions alive.”

I’m convinced that if Lee were alive today, he’d be vigorously arguing for renaming our military installations.

Tampering with history?

Renaming a base is not tampering with history.  As Petraeus put it while discussing Lee, we can still learn from Lee’s “battlefield skill and, beyond that, from his human frailty, his conflicting loyalties, and the social pressures that led him to choose Virginia over the United States.”

We also certainly don’t want to erase history.  Petraeus is right when he warns we must avoid the trap of emulating authoritarian regimes “which routinely and comprehensively obliterate whole swaths of national history as if they never happened at all.”  He adds:

“What distinguishes democracies is their capacity to debate even the most contentious issues vigorously and in informed, respectful, deliberate ways and to learn from the errors of the past.  But remembering Lee’s strengths and weaknesses, his military and personal successes and failures, is different from venerating him. “(Emphasis added.)

Action needed now

Renaming bases would not mean that we can only honor those who lived faultless lives.  Humans are frail, and America’s most revered leaders had their imperfections.  Indeed, if bases are renamed for other individuals, no doubt they will be people with flaws.  Whether such flaws are outweighed by their good works will rightly be a topic for robust discussion. (Perhaps we should avoid renaming these bases for any individual.)

Yet the question today is whether it serves the interests of the nation – not to mention the armed forces – to keep the names of these particular people who fought against the United States on our bases even temporarily.  There can only be one answer to this question, and that has to be a resounding “no.”   People need to see change.

As we consider what new names are appropriate, let’s make interim changes now that address this issue (e.g., Ft. Bragg can become “Fayetteville Army Post”).  We don’t need any elaborate studies or commissions to do that, we just need a sign painter ready to work.The American people want – and need – a military where everyone feels welcome to serve, irrespective of race.  More than that, they need to know unequivocally that racial discrimination is an anathema to military values.

Having military bases named for Confederate generals sends all the wrong messages, so we need to change the names, and do so immediately.

Some things really are that simple…renaming these military bases is one of them. 

Some things really are that meaningful, just and vital…renaming these military bases is that. 

Some things just can’t wait.

 

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