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U.S. military reviewing its ties to Confederate symbols, names

The U.S. military is rethinking its traditional connection to Confederate Army symbols, mindful of their divisiveness at a time the nation is wrestling with questions of race after the death of George Floyd in police custody.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, both former Army officers, put out word through their spokespeople that they are “open to a bipartisan discussion” of renaming Army bases such as North Carolina’s Fort Bragg that honour Confederate officers who led the fight against the Union and, directly or implicitly, defended the institution of slavery.

Separately, the Navy’s top admiral announced Tuesday that he will follow the example of Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who last week directed Marine commanders to remove public displays of the Confederate battle flag carried during the Civil War. The flag, which some embrace as a symbol of heritage, “carries the power to inflame feelings of division” and can weaken the unit cohesion that combat requires, Berger has said.

“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,” the Corps said in a separate statement last Friday. “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.”

Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, directed his staff to begin writing a similar order. A Navy spokesperson, Cmdr. Nate Christensen, said the ban would apply aboard Navy ships, aircraft and submarines and at installations.

Esper, pictured at a cabinet meeting last month, has not spoken publicly on the subject but indicated through spokespeople that he is open to the idea. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

The Army and Air Force have not yet followed Berger’s lead, but a defence official said Tuesday that the issue of banning Confederate Army symbols is now under discussion at the highest levels of the Pentagon. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing internal deliberations.

For decades, these issues have arisen occasionally within the military only to return to obscurity with little lasting effect. It may be too early to know whether this time will be different, but Esper’s willingness to open the door to a renewed debate over these issues may suggest a chance for change. Esper has not spoken publicly on the subject but indicated through spokespeople that he is open to the idea.

Diversity issues come to the fore

Other aspects of the military’s struggle with race relations have come to the fore in the aftermath of the Floyd killing. Senior officers who are Black have spoken publicly about it, including Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as the Air Force’s first Black chief of staff. He and other Black military leaders have noted that Black people, who make up about 17 per cent of the active-duty armed forces, have long been under-represented in the military’s most senior ranks.

An emotional video in the wake of Floyd’s killing featuring Brown Jr. talking about the racism he has faced and the contradictions of serving as a Black man in the military was posted last week to the Pacific Air Forces account on Twitter.

The military prides itself on a record of taking the lead on social change, including in racial integration. But it also has had incidents of racial hatred and, more subtly, a history of implicit bias in a predominantly white institution.

Ten major Army installations are named for Confederate Army officers, mostly senior generals, including Robert E. Lee. Among the 10 is Fort Benning, the namesake of Confederate Army Gen. Henry L. Benning, who was a leader of Georgia’s secessionist movement and an advocate of preserving slavery. Others are in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. The naming was done mostly after the First World War and in the 1940s, in some cases as gestures of conciliation to the South.

WATCH |Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. on serving in the military as a Black man:

Few voices in the military are openly defending the link to Confederate symbols, but some of the bases named for Confederate officers are legendary in their own right. Fort Bragg, for example, is home to some of the Army’s most elite forces. Any decision to change the name at Bragg or other bases likely would involve consulting with officials from the affected states and localities.

David Petraeus, a retired four-star Army general, says the renaming move, which he supports, amounts to a “war of memory,” and that before deciding to rename bases like Fort Bragg, where he served with the 82nd Airborne Division, the Army must be ready to follow its own procedures for such change.

“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,” Petraeus wrote in an essay published Tuesday by The Atlantic. “Now, belatedly, is the moment for us to pay such attention.”

Fort Bragg was named for Braxton Bragg, a native North Carolinian and Confederate general with a reputation for bravery and mediocre leadership. His forces were defeated at the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863.

Few in Congress have spoken out on these issues, although Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot, wrote Monday to the leaders of each of the military services urging them to follow Berger’s example in banning public displays of the Confederate battle flag.

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