Did you know that the percentage of Black Americans serving in the military is greater than their percentage of the overall U.S. population? In 2016, Black people made up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Army, 10.3 percent of the Marine Corps, 17 percent of the Navy and 13.5 percent of the Air Force on active duty were all Black. And Black soldiers have fought in every major conflict in United States history.
Yet we continue to ask Black troops to serve on installations named after Confederate officers — soldiers who chose to betray the United States of America in order to uphold slavery.
As a white American of Confederate heritage — and a proud Army veteran’s wife — when it comes to the movement to rename military bases that bear the names of Confederate soldiers, I say: Make it happen. And ban the Confederate flag and other symbols on all military installations, too, as soon as possible.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus made the case for renaming Army bases in The Atlantic this week, concurrent with the military pursuing a series of new initiatives to address the legacy of the Civil War and respond to pressure around racism in the armed forces. Last week, the Marine Corps announced a ban on Confederate symbols in public spaces. Earlier this week, the Navy did the same. Army sources have said they will make a decision soon; I hope they and the Air Force, which confirmed its first-ever Black chief of staff this week, will follow suit.
All branches of the military would do well to keep pace with the times and show respect to those who serve, and have served, this country. Even companies that one might not expect to join the movement to forbid racist symbols are doing the right thing. Late Wednesday afternoon, racing league NASCAR — yes, NASCAR — announced that it would ban displays of the Confederate flag at its events.
A military friend later joked: “So, in other words, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag before the Army did.”
The Army, this week, did reverse its long-standing position against renaming military posts currently bearing the monikers of Confederate officers, and the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved a proposal to commence renaming within the next three years.
President Donald Trump, however, is not warm to the idea of renaming bases. “It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc. These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” Trump tweeted, using his distinctive — and befuddling — freestyle punctuation.
Who are we honoring there? Gen. Braxton Bragg, a West Point graduate who first served the U.S. in the horrific Second Seminole War, actually had resigned his commission nearly six years before the Civil War, but felt obligated to take up arms against his countrymen in 1861 nonetheless. John Bell Hood, a graduate of West Point and native of Kentucky — which did not secede — was known for his zeal in killing Union soldiers and was even court-martialed for a dispute over capturing ambulances attempting to assist wounded Americans after the Second Battle of Bull Run. Henry Lewis Benning was a staunch supporter of the institution of slavery and one of the architects of secession who spent the entirely of the Civil War killing American soldiers, serving from the fall of 1861 until the fall of the Confederacy at Appomattox.
“The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars,” Trump added. “Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”
Given Trump’s dogmatic positioning — and racist dog whistling — it seems that the military may have to wait until there is a change in the administration to get the go-ahead to rename bases (and streets, housing areas, barracks, etc.) after Americans who never took up arms against their own country.
Until then, the Army and Air Force should follow the lead of the Navy and Marine Corps and ban the Confederate battle flag in public areas. When that day comes, a shameful course will begin its correction.
Permitting Confederate iconography on military bases and retaining the names of Confederate soldiers on installations are a tremendous insult to Black soldiers, past and present, who have supported America through their dedicated service.
The banning of the Confederate flag by all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the renaming of military installations will make history. Let history unfold — expeditiously and definitively.