The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Work to scrub the Confederate stain from military bases is off to a good start

U.S Army troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Jan. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer two years ago triggered national debates on all the ways in which the United States has not fully come to terms with its history of slavery and racial oppression. With that came long-overdue reconsideration of the myriad statues, university buildings, street names and other monuments to ex-Confederates in U.S. public spaces — and, perhaps most inappropriately of all, the U.S. military. Nine Army installations in Southern states — including iconic bases such as Fort Benning in Georgia or Fort Polk in Louisiana — memorialize rebel officers. They were named during the first half of the 20th century, often as misplaced gestures of North-South “reconciliation.” In fact, those who took up arms against their own nation to defend slavery deserve no pride of place.

Then-President Donald Trump objected to redesignating the bases when the idea gained traction in 2020, tweeting: “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom.” Congress, fortunately, took a more thoughtful approach. The bipartisan 2021 defense authorization bill — a law passed near the end of Mr. Trump’s term that he dared not veto — established a commission to come up with a plan for scrubbing the Confederate stain.

For 17 months, the commission has been studying the matter and discussing it with a broad spectrum of interested Americans, including those who live near the affected bases. On Tuesday, the eight-member panel produced recommendations for nine Southern bases. The commission proposes, for the first time, naming bases for Latino, Black, Indigenous and female heroes of American military history. The commission would rename Fort Gordon, Ga., for one already famous figure — former president and five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet it also recognized too-often neglected spouses and children of service members by proposing that Fort Benning be jointly renamed for Vietnam War hero Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and his wife, Julia Moore, an advocate for military families. Fort Bragg, N.C., would become Fort Liberty — to remind everyone of what they are fighting for.

The contrast between the commission’s process and the haphazard manner in which some of these bases were originally named could not be greater. Still, with so many worthy heroes to choose from — the commission sifted through more than 34,000 suggestions from the public — its choices are bound to disappoint some. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has no reason to second-guess the recommendations when they are formally submitted to Congress as part of a broader report due Oct. 1, however; the law says he “shall” implement them. That forthcoming document will also address Confederate names on a wider range of Defense Department assets, such as naval ships and U.S. Military Academy facilities.

Nor should Congress re-litigate the commission’s work. The commitment it made, in law, was to “remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments” honoring the Confederacy and Confederates no later than Jan. 1, 2024. Though far from complete, that important work is off to a good start.

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