Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have begun considering various proposals to prohibit Confederate commemorations in the military and replace the names of military installations honoring Confederate officers. Unfortunately, one of these measures serves only to undermine this bipartisan effort. With the momentum generated by the justified and remarkably peaceful racial justice protests, the surprising turn in public opinion in support of change on many fronts, and the plethora of alternatives for commemorating real heroism, Congress has a moral obligation to act now and to act decisively.

The United States has failed to address issues of systemic racism for generations. Now, a groundswell of excitement has emerged to focus on racial justice and human rights. This encouraging movement, characterized by a profound desire to not only identify these issues but also work collaboratively to effectuate meaningful change, appears to be sweeping the country.

Among the issues are the longstanding symbols and names that are a legacy of the Confederacy and yet remain prominent and visible in the U.S. military. Congress appears to be listening to calls for change, and many lawmakers have responded positively, though not all. In particular, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that purports to address the issue of Confederate names on military bases, but in truth creates an inadequate process for real change and even leaves room for the prospect of no change at all.

Given the historical significance of these events, any solution Congress or the executive branch adopts must be thoughtful but also decisive and pursued on a firm timeline. America’s political leaders must match this movement’s urgency while also acknowledging that the process of finally addressing America’s “original sin” cannot be completed overnight.

The path to meaningful change includes the removal of the legacy of the “Lost Cause” that has so long been intertwined with the U.S. military. Most notably, 10 Army bases and two Navy vessels currently honor the Confederacy, and various other forms of Confederate commemoration taint the military’s facilities and assets, such as Lee Barracks at West Point.

The Risks to the Military With the Status Quo

Commemorations of the Confederacy on military installations are inconsistent with American ideals, which is reason enough to change course. These homages embrace the legacy of slavery and white supremacy and thus constitute racist affronts to all service members of color. In addition, they lionize treasonous men who took up arms against the United States in an attempt to preserve the unconscionable system of slavery. In this sense, these men and their legacy stand in stark contrast to the oath sworn by the service members who train on these bases: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

There are pragmatic implications for the military as well, such as efforts to root out white supremacy within its ranks. These efforts include improved screening of new recruits, investigations, and administrative separations. At best, maintaining Confederate commemorations glaringly undercuts the credibility and weight of these efforts. At worst, the tributes serve as an affirmative signal to white supremacists that their cause is acceptable in the military.

In addition, Confederate commemorations risk undermining military recruitment, retention, and morale, which ultimately jeopardizes U.S. national security due to its impact on the strength of the armed forces. While three recent polls indicate that Americans overall are divided on the issue of base renaming, several specific findings from these polls are particularly germane to military personnel considerations. Two of the polls indicate that a majority of young Americans favor renaming the bases, and the other found that among Generation Z — the age group comprising the current and future recruitment pool — many more, 44 percent, favor renaming compared with 26 percent who oppose (30 percent didn’t know or had no opinion). What’s more, these polls show that a strong majority of Black Americans support renaming the bases, with one poll showing 77 percent in favor of such a move.

With these public opinion results in mind, the readiness risks become increasingly clear. Renamed bases and prohibitions on other forms of Confederate commemoration will put the military in a better position to recruit and retain young Americans, which is especially important at a time when the military’s current recruitment pool is already relatively small. And Black service members will not need to serve with the burden of seeing military-sanctioned symbols representing their enslavement and oppression. 

Hawley Amendment Avoids Serious Action

Despite these imperatives, legislation introduced by Senator Josh Hawley as an amendment to the NDAA woefully fails to meet the moment. Rather than prohibiting Confederate commemorations and requiring the renaming of installations and assets, it instead only creates a commission essentially to explore the possibility of such changes. The panel would be tasked with, among other responsibilities:

  • Developing criteria for assessing whether any name, symbol, or other relic actually “valorizes” the Confederacy.
  • Creating criteria to assess whether the “dominant meaning” of specific Confederate symbols has changed since first becoming associated with the Department of Defense.
  • Holding public hearings with local and state stakeholders to solicit their input.
  • Estimating the costs of renaming or removing Confederate commemorations.

The commission’s only deliverable is a congressional report by October 1, 2022.

Couched in language about fact-finding and local engagement, Hawley’s amendment is dangerous precisely because it seems, on its face, to be a reasoned, neutral approach to Confederate commemorations. Yet there is no room for neutrality on this issue, and beneath the amendment’s ostensibly benign text lies its reality: The amendment contains no concrete guarantee to abandon Confederate commemorations. Worse still, it creates space for Confederate symbols to again be deemed acceptable with a federal government stamp of approval.

Emphasizing local engagement, developing assessment criteria, and providing for other procedural measures are not inherently bad. But the Hawley amendment’s shortcomings are so gaping that it can only be interpreted as a deliberate way of avoiding real action, especially when assessments of the issue, and the mere potential for change, are no longer enough. In short, Hawley’s amendment focuses on whether to take action rather than asserting decisively that action must be taken.

In contrast, consider the different tack that some of his Republican colleagues have taken. Republican Representative Don Bacon (R-NE), a retired Air Force brigadier general, is helping to lead a bipartisan effort to rename the 10 Army bases named after Confederate figures, saying that “it is only right that our installations bear the names of military heroes who represent the best ideals of our Republic.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that he is “okay” with changing the names of Army bases named after Confederate officers. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican senator, also has strongly intimated support of such name changes.

A multitude of retired military leaders and former national security officials also have expressed their support for these ideas. As laid out in a Human Rights First factsheet, the effort to remove Confederate commemorations from military installations has found broad support among national security figures including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; retired Army General David Petraeus, who served as CIA director; retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, who served as CIA and NSA director; and Brett McGurk, former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, special assistant to the president, and deputy assistant secretary of state.

This support from congressional Republicans and from the national security community mirrors broader societal opinion that has shifted in favor of removing Confederate commemorations from public spaces. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, a majority of Americans now support removing Confederate statues from public spaces, a 19 point increase from 2017. There have also been widespread, bipartisan efforts by local and state officials to remove certain Confederate commemorations from public locations, including by the Republican mayor of Jacksonville, Florida and the Republican-led government of Mississippi.

 Legislative Alternatives

If lawmakers want to effectively align the military with the nation’s values, there are superior alternatives to Hawley’s proposed amendment, all of which expressly include a requirement to remove Confederate commemorations from military installations. These proposals include:

  • Bipartisan House legislation led by Representative Anthony Brown (D-MD), a retired Army officer, and Bacon. This bill, which is supported by Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger and John Shimkus, both of Illinois, would create a commission charged with renaming military installations named after figures of the Confederacy within one year. It is likely to be included in the House version of the NDAA in some form.
  • Bipartisan approval by the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee for an NDAA provision put forth by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that would establish a commission charged with renaming military assets commemorating the Confederacy within three years.
  • A bill put forth by Representative Yvette Clarke (D-NY) requiring the renaming of all Defense Department property named after Confederate leaders within one year.
  • A bill from Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) prohibiting federal funds from being used to display Confederate symbols on federal land or property.
  • A standalone bill from Warren and other Democratic senators with the same goal as her NDAA provision above, but with a one-year timeline and without a congressionally-established commission.

There is clear bipartisan momentum in favor of taking aggressive action on this issue. As such, any legislation enacted by Congress must at the very least require the renaming of all Army bases named after Confederate figures and removal of other Confederate commemorations. Merely setting up a procedure to consider potential changes is not enough. Certain exceptions may be in order — museum displays (provided that they are presented with the proper context and do not venerate or glorify the Confederacy, slavery, or racism) and gravestones, for example.

The rest is a question of procedure and implementation, and reasonable minds can differ on these points. For instance, an ideal timeline would be as short as possible, but Congress should ensure that any deadline beyond a year is not needlessly far in the future. A congressionally established commission may not be necessary, but any group charged with implementing the mandate, whether a congressionally established commission or a task force formed as a discretionary matter by the Pentagon, must have diverse membership.

Congress should also consider whether to proactively require the Army and the Air Force to follow the lead of the Marines and the Navy by prohibiting all service members from displaying any depiction of the Confederate flag. The Army recently considered doing so but declined to adopt such a ban at this moment. Codifying the measure in a statute for all military services would make it irreversible via executive action.

Hawley’s amendment, however, would simply provide cover for legislators who wish to keep commemorations of the Confederacy on U.S. military bases while creating the appearance of addressing the issue. And with so many alternatives for renaming these bases that would honor the types of heroism and diversity the military should celebrate, the choice for change should be even easier.

IMAGE: New entrance sign during the official opening ceremony of the Fort Bragg Air Assault School, Sept. 5, 2013 (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Paul A. Holston/XVIII Abn. Corps PAO, via Flickr)