With conference negotiations over the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) nearing conclusion in the coming weeks, it appears the chief remaining debate is over the renaming of military installations honoring Confederate figures. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the entire NDAA if it includes this provision. But given its widespread support in Congress and America’s moral reckoning over its failure to address issues of systemic racism, Congress should call his bluff. The names of these bases embrace the legacy of slavery and white supremacy and thus constitute racist affronts to all service members, especially those of color.
The renaming of these bases has garnered bipartisan and bicameral support. A provision approved by the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee calls for renaming or removing military installations, monuments, and other symbols commemorating Confederate figures within three years. The NDAA passed in the House requires the Defense Department to rename military installations and other defense property named after Confederate figures within one year. This provision was introduced as a bipartisan amendment to the NDAA and received bipartisan approval.
Given that the NDAAs passed by both chambers include provisions mandating the renaming of these installations, and the fact that House negotiators have already publicly signaled a willingness to support the Senate provision, there should be no barriers to the final NDAA passed out of Congress including these reforms.
Commemorations of the Confederacy on military installations are inconsistent with American values, which is reason enough to change course. And these potent symbols have pragmatic implications for the military as well, such as hindering efforts to root out white supremacy within its ranks. At best, maintaining Confederate commemorations glaringly undercuts the credibility and weight of these efforts. At worst, these tributes serve as affirmative signals to white supremacists that their cause is acceptable in the military. Confederate commemorations also risk undermining military recruitment, retention, and morale, which, due to its impact on the strength of the armed forces, ultimately jeopardizes U.S. national security.
A multitude of retired military leaders and former national security officials have expressed their support for renaming these bases and removing these commemorations. As laid out in a factsheet produced by our organization, Human Rights First, 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.
Given the historical significance of this moment and the variety of alternatives for commemorating real, American heroism, Congress has a moral and practical obligation to take assertive action on this issue. Should members of Congress not vote to include this provision in the final bill, they would not only be averting or delaying action on this critical issue, they would be abdicating their moral leadership and providing a vindication of the legacy of white supremacy in the military.