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US military now rethinking links to Confederate army symbols

“The order is meant to ensure unit cohesion, preserve good order and discipline”

A woman shows her support for the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state house July 8, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina.
A woman shows her support for the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state house July 8, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. (2015 Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is rethinking its traditional connection to Confederate Army symbols, mindful of their divisiveness at a time the nation is wrestling with questions of race after the death of George Floyd in police hands.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, both former Army officers, put out word through their spokesmen that they are “open to a bipartisan discussion” of renaming Army bases such as North Carolina’s Fort Bragg that honor Confederate officers who led the fight against the Union and directly or implicitly defended the institution of slavery.

Separately, the Navy's top admiral announced Tuesday that he will follow the example of Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who last week directed Marine commanders to remove public displays of the Confederate battle flag carried during the Civil War. The flag, which some embrace as a symbol of heritage, “carries the power to inflame feelings of division" and can weaken the unit cohesion that combat requires, Berger has said.

“The Confederate battle flag has all too often been co-opted by violent extremist and racist groups whose divisive beliefs have no place in our Corps,” the Corps said in a separate statement last Friday. “Our history as a nation, and events like the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, highlight the divisiveness the use of the Confederate battle flag has had on our society.”

Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, directed his staff to begin writing a similar order. A Navy spokesman, Cmdr. Nate Christensen, said the ban would apply aboard Navy ships, aircraft and submarines and at installations.

Today, I directed my staff to begin crafting an order that would prohibit the Confederate battle flag from all public...

Posted by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday on Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Army and Air Force have not yet followed Berger's lead, but a defense official said Tuesday that the issue of banning Confederate Army symbols is now under discussion at the highest levels of the Pentagon. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing internal deliberations.

For decades, these issues have arisen occasionally within the military only to return to obscurity with little lasting effect. It may be too early to know whether this time will be different, but Esper's willingness to open the door to a renewed debate over these issues may suggest a chance for change. Esper has not spoken publicly on the subject but indicated through spokesmen that he is open to the idea.