In military terms, President Trump walked into an ambush yesterday when his Administration announced that it will “not even consider” renaming military bases that were named in honor of Confederate soldiers from the Civil War or, as we sometimes call it in the South, “the War Against Northern Aggression” or the “War Between the States.” The move will be popular among many in Trump’s base but there is a definite downside as well.
In a series of tweets, the president noted that bases such as Fort Benning, Fort Hood, and Fort Bragg have a long and distinguished history as the launching points for armies that helped to win two world wars. In his concluding tweet, Trump said, “Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”
That’s a reasonable argument that appeals to a lot of people, particularly those with a nostalgia for Civil War and WWII history. That’s a group that includes me.
As I’ve written before, I come from a family that has been in the South since at least the early 1800s and I had several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. My great-grandfather was a prisoner of the federal government at the notorious POW camp in Elmira, New York after the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was among the first integrated elementary school classes in my county in the early 1970s. When I attended the University of Georgia, I frequently drove past a historical marker near Athens memorializing the murder of Col. Lemuel Penn, a black army officer, by local Ku Klux Klan members in 1964. I currently live only a few miles away from Fort Benning.
When Gov. Zell Miller removed the Confederate emblem from the Georgia flag in 2001, I was against the move. At the time, I thought that it was mere historical reminder. Since then, I’ve changed my mind.
The flag that Miller changed in 2001 only dated back to 1956. The Confederate emblem was added that year to protest the sweeping civil rights advances. Rather than a nod to state history, the 1956 flag was a spiteful insult to a large share of Georgia’s population. As it turns out, a lot of the Confederate memorials date back to the Civil Rights era.
I still respect and admire many Confederates, imperfect as they were. Some were good men but they made the decision to support a cause that was evil. Although many argue that the war was about state’s rights, reading the Declarations of Causes for secession by the Southern states makes it apparent very quickly that the state right in question was “the subject of African slavery” as the document passed by Georgia stated.
What changed my mind on the issue was putting myself in the shoes of people on the other side of the argument. Not only is it understandable that black citizens would object to Confederate emblems and memorials, but a lot of whites do as well. There has been a lot of population shifting since 1865 or even 1956. A great many white residents of Southern states are just as offended by Confederate tributes as minorities are. My remembrance of my Southern heritage is not as important as national racial unity. This doesn’t mean erasing history but it does mean that Confederate memorabilia is more properly displayed in the context of museums and historic sites.
Enter Donald Trump.
President Trump’s tweets were in response to a statement by an army spokesman earlier this week that “The secretary of Defense and secretary of the Army are open to a bipartisan discussion on the topic.” In other words, no one was forcing the army to rename its bases. The army was voluntarily offering to do so. That is almost certainly a hint that the army prefers to change the names.
A better move by President Trump would have been to take a big swing at the fat, lazy curveball that the army pitched right across the center of the plate, by saying something along the lines of, “I call on Congress to rename bases that are named in the memory of Confederate soldiers. In light of our changing national culture on race, I feel that it is appropriate to rededicate these facilities to the memory of our great military leaders who helped lead our nation to victory in more recent wars.”
Instead the president whiffed at the pitch and got a strike.
While there are many passengers on the Trump train who will be elated to see that the base names will remain unchanged, Trump’s stance won’t endear him to black voters, moderates, or swing state voters outside the South. The move won’t even necessarily help a lot in Southern states where many white Republicans and conservatives are embarrassed by our Confederate history.
Trump already has the Southern states (minus Florida) locked up. Defending Confederate names won’t help him there but a Nixon-goes-to-China moment in which President Trump called for respectfully setting aside Confederate emblems would have been a boon outside of the deep-red states.
Instead, the president chose to deepen the racial divide. A great many Americans already view the Republican Party as racist and defending the honor of long dead Confederates is going to confirm that stereotype.
Likewise, the army had several good reasons for its readiness to change the names. For one thing, many soldiers serving on those bases are minorities and may have ancestors that people like Henry Benning, Braxton Bragg, and John Bell Hood fought to keep enslaved. Black soldiers make up 21 percent of army personnel, even though only 13 percent of the US population is black. It is not unreasonable that the army wants minority recruits to feel welcome.
Further, while the president notes that our military heritage is one of winning, the Confederates did not win. That was bad news for my ancestors who lived the war and then Reconstruction, but it’s good news for me. I would not want to live in a Confederate States of America where, if slavery didn’t still exist, something along the lines of Jim Crow or Apartheid probably would. People who say that Confederate memorials are participation trophies are not totally wrong.
Finally, it is ironic that so many big military bases are named for people who became famous as rebels who tried to rip the United States apart. People who say that the United States is the only country that celebrates people who unsuccessfully committed treason are also not wrong.
So what to do about the situation? In my opinion, the fate of local memorials should be decided locally. Let people vote on whether to remove them. Some will go and some will stay, but honor the wishes of the local citizens.
National military bases are a different problem. Military bases in the South are not the property of the states in which they exist. They are the property of American citizens from all over the country. These bases represent the country as a whole and really should be renamed.
There is no shortage of victorious heroes to name them after. Fort Benning could be renamed after George S. Patton, the famous (and infamous) armor general of WWII. Patton actually lived on Fort Benning in 1941 and 1942 while he commanded the 2nd Armored Division there. A good namesake for Fort Bragg, a special operations mecca and home of the 82nd Airborne Division, would be Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, who led the 82nd in the first large-scale airborne assault in US Army history, the 1943 invasion of Sicily.
Renaming the bases could have been a moment when Trump called the country to national unity in putting aside the vestiges of a time when we were even more divided as a nation than we are today. Trump’s intransigence means a deeper racial divide, however, as the president forsakes the opinions of a majority of Americans to pander after the votes of a shrinking number of Confederate-Americans.
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