A vendor displays a confederate and Trump 2020 "Make America Great Again!" flag outside of the Bristol Motor Speedway prior to the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020.

A vendor displays a confederate and Trump 2020 "Make America Great Again!" flag outside of the Bristol Motor Speedway prior to the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Confederate Military Base Names Just Met Their Gettysburg

A Black admiral, a gruff Marine, a never-Trumper, and the maker of a viral video slamming Confederate sympathizers? Say goodbye to “Fort Bragg” and the rest.

Say goodbye to Fort Bragg. And Forts Benning, Lee, Hood, and all the other U.S. military installations named for Confederates from the Civil War.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the four people who will replace Trump administration appointees on a Congressionally mandated commission to study base renaming. It will be interesting to see what this esteemed group comes up with, but let’s be real: this is now an exercise for show. Start thinking up some new names while you read on.

Recall why this panel exists. Last summer, Donald Trump blocked his defense secretary and other Pentagon leaders from ordering the base names changed. Trump then threatened to veto any defense authorization bill that ordered the Defense Department to change the names. House Democrats and Senate Republicans decided to require only that a commission be formed to study the issue. Four members would be chosen by the Pentagon and four by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. 

Trump’s Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller in January named four people to the panel, but they lasted barely a month before Austin and the newly Democrat-controlled Senate replaced them.

The new panel is a slam dunk against the Lost Cause. It includes Michelle Howard, a retired 4-star Navy admiral, who is Black; Robert Neller, the most recently retired Marine Corps commandant; Ty Seidule, a retired 1-star Army general and emeritus professor of history at West Point; and Kori Schake, director of defense programs at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. 

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This is a stacked deck. Howard is the highest-ranking Black naval officer in history. Seidule is famous for posting a viral 2015 video while in uniform at West Point. It slammed Confederate apologists and revisionists and explained why slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. His book, released last month, is titled, “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.”

Schake, who served in the second Bush administration, is among the most respected national security strategists and historians. She’s also an outspoken never-Trumper, one of the conservatives who rejected the rebel president five years ago. Earlier this week, her fellow conservative Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, publicly quit the Republcian Party over its continued support for Trump. I asked Schake if she would be following him out the door. “I weigh changing my political affiliation often, but believe the Liz Cheneys and Adam Kinzingers deserve my continued support,” Schake said of the House members from Wyoming and Illinois battling Trumpists and their support for the Confederacy.

Neller, the former commandant, is as gruff a Marine from central casting that you’ll ever meet. Yet after his successor made the Corps the first service branch to ban Confederate symbols from its bases, Neller posted a public mea culpa about his own failure to issue such a ban. “I failed to do so. No excuses. And I will regret that failure to act for as long as I live.”

Neller explained that the Stars and Bars “represents a group of states that seceded from our Union in order to preserve the institution of slavery. Not to protect states’ rights or an economically based culture of a different region and its' [sic] people, but quite simply the right to own another human being. This Nation fought a brutal and horrific war over this fact and those that supported the right to subjugate another human being lost that fight. Yes, they fought with courage and tactical skill, but what they fought for was not honorable. In legal terms those that supported the secession of their state committed treason against the United States.”

Neller thus joined other prominent former generals, including David Petraeus and Stan McChrystal, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, in speaking out against Confederate fetishism and hagiography.

And those are just the white men. The addition of Howard to this commission is no surprise. If the military has a moral center, she is it. Howard is a revered leader who has embraced her role as a symbol of the military’s progress on advancing women and people of color — and of how much farther there is to go. Was there another 4-star woman of color that Austin could have appointed?

All to say that the era of Confederate revisionism is as good as dead, at least in the American institution of the military. Unfortunately, it will take much more for the racist sentiment at the core of Confederate fetishism to die. 

In his LinkedIn piece, Neller recounted confronting a Marine from Michigan about the Confederate flag sticker on his truck. (I’ve seen similar flag stickers on vehicles at the Pentagon and at Joint Base Andrews.) “How can you be from that same state and fly the Confederate flag? And how do you reconcile having that flag on your truck while wearing the uniform that says, ‘US Marines,’ and having taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States?" the general asked. The other Marine had no answer. They shook hands and parted, but the sticker remained.

The reality is that Confederate names and bumper stickers can be taken down and retired to the dustbins of history, by order or free will. We know better, now, what they really meant to the 20th-century revisionists who propped them up long after the Civil War. But the white supremacy and racism they represent will live on in the hearts of minds of many Americans, including some who make it into the military’s ranks. 

At the Pentagon, Austin, his fellow Biden appointees, and the Joint Chiefs face the enormous task of figuring out how big this problem really is, and showing that they are serious about cracking down on it with new rules, regulations, and punishments across the Defense Department. Too many of their predecessors have failed. Already, right-wing media personalities who have defended Confederate flag-flying and base names have turned on the U.S. military, calling the effort to ban extremism from the ranks a “purge” — Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., a Navy veteran, called it an exercise in “thought control.” 

Neller had a message for them in his June letter, too.   

“And for those Americans not serving in the military who persist in flying this flag for whatever misguided reason, I will continue to support your right to do so on your property.  But do not expect me to see you for anything else but someone who still supports the bondage and oppression of another human being who does not look like you. Period full stop.”