“Those generals fought for the institution of slavery,” Gen. Mark Milley told a House hearing.
The top U.S. general in a public hearing on Thursday signaled his support for renaming Army bases named for Confederate generals, slamming the Confederacy as “treason” in a passionate tirade that stood in stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s embrace of symbols of the failed secessionist movement.
“Those generals fought for the institution of slavery. We have to take a hard look at the symbology,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee. “The Confederacy, the American Civil War, was fought and it was an act of rebellion. It was an act of treason against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution. Those officers turned their back on their oath.”
Milley said he had recommended a commission to look at the issue.
“The way we should do it matters as much as that we should do it,” he said, acknowledging that there are some in the military who see Confederate symbols as “heritage,” while others recognize them as “hate.”
The ten Army bases named for Confederate generals and one colonel, have come under scrutiny amid the nationwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Army publicly signaled that it was open to renaming the bases, but was quickly smacked down by Trump, who tweeted that his administration will “never” rename the bases — now a toxic flashpoint in the culture wars.
Milley’s speech was remarkable both in its severe language against the Confederacy and in the division it demonstrated with the president, who is known to like the tough-talking general but has laced into protesters pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments and implicitly supported the display of the Confederate flag at NASCAR races.
“These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” Trump tweeted on June 10. “The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Milley and other military officials have sought to cast diversity initiatives, like the potential renaming of the bases, as a necessary step to maintaining an inclusive and “cohesive” fighting force. Still, he acknowledged Thursday that the decision to name the bases for Confederate leaders in the first place was “political” and that the decision to change those names would be equally so.
The former Army secretary recalled a staff sergeant who approached him when he was a young officer at Fort Bragg, named for the Confederate general Braxton Bragg.
“He said he went to work every day on a base named that represented a guy that enslaved his grandparents,” Milley said.
Before Trump nixed renaming the bases on June 10, Army leaders had contemplated a commission-style approach to tackling a host of symbols of the Confederacy still visible on Army installations. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that was the same commission Milley said he had recommended, but in any case, officials say that effort has now stagnated. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s office is circulating a draft memo banning the display of the Confederate flag across the Defense Department.
The Navy and the Marine Corps have already taken steps to ban the display of the Confederate battle flag from public and shared spaces — including on things like T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs in individual work spaces. Announcing the change in late April, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said the flag “has the power to inflame feelings of division.” While acknowledging that to some, the flag is a “symbol of heritage or regional pride,” Berger wrote that “I am also mindful of the feelings of pain and rejection of those who inherited the cultural memory and present effects of the scourge of slavery in our country.”
“I am focused solely on building a uniquely capable warfighting team whose members come from all walks of life and must learn to operate side-by-side,” he said.
In Congress, committees led by Republicans and Democrats are trying to force the administration to rename military bases. Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees included amendments in their versions of the annual defense policy bill towards that end; the Senate version requires that they be renamed within three years, while the House version demands it within one. (Some GOP senators hope to strip the amendment out of the final version of the bill, but that effort from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., appears unlikely to get a vote.) Meanwhile, a pair of House spending bills would block funding for military construction projects at bases named after Confederate leaders unless a renaming process is underway, and allocate $1 million to the Army to rename the bases and any base street names.
Esper, testifying alongside Milley on Thursday, also broadly cast diversity initiatives as a matter of national security.
“Racism, bias, and prejudice have no place in our military, not only because they are immoral and unjust, but also because they degrade the morale, cohesion, and readiness of our force,” he said.