If TIME Magazine’s Mark Thompson has his way, the media-driven outcry over public displays of the Confederate Flag will eventually force the U.S. Army to start changing the names of some of its most venerable posts that dot the American south. There is no room for any individual or institution – including the U.S. Army – to defend the evils of slavery or the reprehensible actions of those who promote racism. But naming Army installations for officers who fought for the Confederacy is hardly an endorsement of the darkest aspects of that period of American history.
“It’s tough to top the historical amnesia that has let the Confederate flag fly over the South Carolina capitol for more than half a century. But the U.S. Army certainly can give Columbia’s banner a run for its money,” Thompson writes in a June 23 piece for TIME’s website. That the Army named some posts for Confederate officers shouldn’t surprise anyone, he claims, because “Both the Army and the South are tradition-bound entities that revere their past.”
This kind of conceit, that equates the Army’s proud traditions with the heinous past of slavery, reflects the growing divide between the nation’s cultural elite – including those in the media – and the quiet professionals who populate the ranks of the nation’s military.
Thompson muses that, “Every day, thousands of [African Americans] salute smartly, preparing to defend the nation on soil honoring their race’s oppressors.” The “soil” he references would be places like Ft. Benning and Ft. Gordon in Georgia, Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, Ft. Lee in Virginia, Ft. Rucker in Alabama, and Ft. Polk in Louisiana, among others. According to Army websites, the current Garrison Command Sergeant Majors at Forts Lee, Bragg, Gordon and Polk are African American.
The Army did not name these posts after Confederate officers because it agreed with the cause they fought for, although many of them served with distinction in the U.S. Army before the outbreak of the Civil War. Rather, the Army has a long history of learning what it can from the imperfect figures of history, even those it has fought against at one time or another.
Although no post is currently named for him, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s remarkable 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia on behalf of the Confederacy is still studied by military leaders. Jackson fought for the wrong cause, but that in no way diminishes the brilliance of his tactics of the relevance of his strategy. In the same vein, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf studied the desert warfare tactics of Nazi Gen. Irwin Rommel in the run-up to the Gulf War, and former West Point professor Col. Dave Grossman has written about the relevance of Rommel’s World War I experience for modern light infantry units. Neither officer endorsed the cause Rommel fought for, but each recognized that America’s sons and daughters in uniform could be more effective if they used the successful tactics Rommel devised.
If Thompson wanted to expand his horizons some, he could note that Ft. Carson, Colorado is named after an Indian fighter who is known to have scalped some of the Native Americans he killed. Or he could point out that Ft. Riley, Kansas was originally established to keep Native Americans away from white settlers moving west – a now politically incorrect mission to be sure.
Today, the names of these posts are iconic not because of their namesakes, but because of what they stand for in Army culture. Everyone in the Army knows that Ft. Bragg is the home of the airborne, Benning is the home of the infantry and the first phase of the famously demanding Ranger School, Rucker is the home of Army Aviation, and so on. Mentioning these names doesn’t conjure up images of an Army embracing officers who fought for a lost cause, but rather the mission that each post proudly fulfills in the present.
For Thompson and others looking to create hype, the names of Army posts may seem to be an appealing way to smear a service with charges of racism; but that only works if one refuses to recognize that history – including military history – is littered with complex figures who have much to offer as well as much to reject. The genius of the American system as borne out by history is not that it has always been perfect, but that it has always overcome, adapted and eventually come closer to living out the ideals expressed at the founding. That is the same tradition of the U.S. Army, to learn from the past, to change, and to become better even when it means learning from those who fought on the wrong side.