The Military Must Break from the Past

Bad history begets bad politics.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has generated widespread approbation, along with some ill-deserved opprobrium, for his decision to take down statues honoring Confederate war heroes Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee. His speech explaining his actions is a rhetorical masterpiece which, as I have previously noted, is well worth reading in full.

So compelling is the case that he makes for pulling down monuments to the Lost Cause—a Confederacy that stood for slavery and secession—that it makes me wonder why the descendants of the soldiers who won the war continue to honor the losing side? As Mark Thompson of Time magazine pointed out in 2015, the U.S. Army has ten major installations, all in Southern states, named after Confederate generals. The more famous of them:

Fort Benning, Georgia, honors Brigadier General Henry Benning (1814-1875), a Georgia lawyer, politician, judge and supporter of slavery.

Fort Bragg, North Carolina, honors General Braxton Bragg (1817-1876, West Point class of 1837). He waged war ploddingly with frontal assaults, and a lack of post-battle follow-through that turned battlefield successes into post-battle disappointments.

Fort Hood, Texas, honors native Kentuckian General John Bell Hood (1831-1879, West Point class of 1853).

Fort Polk, Louisiana, honors Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk (1806-1864, West Point class of 1827), an Episcopal bishop born in North Carolina.

One might argue that these posts are designed to honor individuals and not the causes in which they fought. Indeed, that is just what the Army argues: “Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history,” a U.S. Army spokesman told Thompson. “Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies. It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”

But if we are to take this rationale seriously, why limit the names of bases to Confederate generals? Why not create a Fort Giap? A Fort Rommel? A Fort Guderian? A Fort Howe? Or Naval Air Station Yamamoto? No one would ever seriously consider naming bases after Vietnamese, German, Japanese or even British generals who fought against the United States, but somehow the Confederacy gets a pass because it was composed of Americans. That’s true, but they were Americans who turned their backs on their country, committing treason to fight in the name of an evil cause that will forever be associated—and rightly so—with slavery and segregation.

Ironically, one of the few Confederate generals who did something in the postwar period to atone for his wartime offenses is not among those honored with a base. James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s corps commander, joined the Republican Party, which championed Radical Reconstruction, and fought at the head of an African-American militia against the racist White League in Louisiana. He was subsequently vilified for his devotion to civil rights—as well as for his role in losing the Battle of Gettysburg–by his former Confederate colleagues.

No one is suggesting that history books be expunged of accounts of the Confederacy. This is not a matter of “rewriting history.” It is perfectly possible to do justice to the bravery and skill of Confederate soldiers, but it is impossible to divorce their acts from the cause to which they were devoted. War is an inherently political activity, as Clausewitz taught. By honoring these men, the U.S. Army is sending the wrong message.

It should not be hard to rename these major military installations for heroes who are far more worthy of the honor—and far better known. How about a Fort Grant? Fort Sherman? Fort Sheridan? Fort Pershing? Fort Marshall? Fort Eisenhower? Fort Bradley? Fort Patton? Fort Ridgeway? Or—to include lesser ranks–a Fort (Alvin) York or a Fort (Audie) Murphy? Such changes are long overdue.

All of the installations in question were created during World War I or World War II at a time when Jim Crow—the American version of apartheid—was the law of the land in the South and its champions exercised disproportionate influence in Washington. Our country has moved on, but our prominent military bases remain rooted in an unhappy past. It should be simple enough for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to change that offensive status quo with the stroke of a pen. If he needs any convincing, he should sit down and read Mitch Landrieu’s compelling speech, a model of moral reasoning.