The United States military may be reconsidering its practice of honoring traitors to the United States by naming bases and other facilities after them. The top leaders of the Marines and the Navy have ordered the removal of displays of the Confederate battle flag, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy are “open to a bipartisan discussion” of renaming places like Fort Bragg and Fort Benning.
This is a debate in 2020. And it may be a losing fight (for now), since adherents of the Confederacy retain significant sway in this country, even though the Confederacy was 1) treason against the United States, 2) committed in defense of slavery, and 3) a losing effort. Retired Gen. David Petraeus pointed to those issues in an essay at The Atlantic calling for bases currently named after Confederates to be renamed.
“For an organization designed to win wars to train for them at installations named for those who led a losing force is sufficiently peculiar, but when we consider the cause for which these officers fought, we begin to penetrate the confusion of Civil War memory,” Petraeus wrote. “These bases are, after all, federal installations, home to soldiers who swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention.”
As Petraeus admits, lots of people aren’t paying attention—in the piece, he acknowledges that, despite serving at many of the forts in question, “It would be years before I reflected on the individuals for whom these posts were named” and “Nor did I think about the messages those names sent to the many African Americans serving on these installations—messages that should have been noted by all of us.”
It’s also the case that an extremely vocal minority is paying attention, and fighting to keep Confederate names on these federal facilities. As the Marine Corps said in a statement last week, “The Confederate battle flag has all too often been co-opted by violent extremist and racist groups whose divisive beliefs have no place in our Corps.” But while the official position can be that these “divisive beliefs have no place in our Corps,” the statement acknowledged the very real position those beliefs have in the United States today: “Our history as a nation, and events like the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, highlight the divisiveness the use of the Confederate battle flag has had on our society.”
It’s long past time to erase every official honor given to Confederate leaders. That isn’t erasing history—we should still teach the history. But a true reckoning with the history does not lift their names up.