Top general: US military needs to take 'hard look' at Confederate symbols

Top general: US military needs to take 'hard look' at Confederate symbols
© Greg Nash

The top general in the United States said Thursday the U.S. military must take a “hard look” at Confederate symbols on its installations.

“The Confederacy — the American Civil War was fought, and it was an act of rebellion,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said. “It was an act of treason at the time against the Union, against the stars and stripes, against the U.S. Constitution, and those officers turn their back on their oath.”

“Now, some have a different view of that. Some think it’s heritage. Others think it's hate,” he added.

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Milley was speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing called to discuss the Pentagon’s response to nationwide protests over racial injustice.

Milley and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon sends 3 cargo planes to Lebanon filled with aid as questions on blast remain Overnight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death Trump tempers his description of Beirut explosion as an attack: 'Nobody knows yet' MORE, who was testifying alongside the general, came under sharp criticism during the height of the protests for their role in President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE’s response, including accompanying him to a photo-op at church across from the White House made possible after federal law enforcement forcibly cleared the area of protesters. Both Milley and Esper have since expressed regret for accompanying Trump.

Esper and Milley used the hearing to reiterate their defense of the National Guard’s role in responding to the protests and their commitment to upholding the Constitution, including the First Amendment right to peacefully protest.

Since the protests first erupted last month, institutions across the country have revisited removing Confederate statues and other symbols.

Trump, though, has dug in on defending the display of Confederate symbols, railing against NASCAR for banning the Confederate battle flag and publicly rebuking the Army for considering renaming bases named after Confederate leaders.

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The Army had said it was open to changing the names of its 10 bases named after Confederate military officers before Trump tweeted he would “not even consider” doing so. Trump has also threatened to veto a defense policy bill if it includes a requirement to rename the bases.

Both the House and Senate versions of the policy bill include a requirement to rename bases and other properties. The House would demand it be done in a year, while the Senate would require it be done in three years.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Milley said changing the base names will ultimately be “political decisions.”

But, he added, he recommended the establishment of a commission to study the issue, saying “the way we should do it matters as much as that we should do it.”

“The military equity here is divisiveness and, as you mentioned, cohesion,” Milley told the committee. “And for those young soldiers that go on to a base, a Fort Hood or a Fort Bragg or a fort wherever, named after a Confederate general, they can be reminded that that general fought for an institution of slavery that may have enslaved one of their ancestors. I had a staff sergeant when I was a young officer who actually told me that at Fort Bragg, and he said he went to work every day on a base that represented a guy who enslaved his grandparents.”

In addition to the base names, the military is debating banning the Confederate battle flag. The Marines and U.S. Forces Korea have already done so, and the Navy has said it would follow suit.

Esper sidestepped a question about a department-wide ban of the flag, saying he would defer to reviews that are in progress. Esper announced several reviews on diversity and inclusion in the military last month.

“I have a process underway by which to look at a number of issues, both substantive and symbolic,” Esper said. “We want to take a look at all those things. There is a process underway by which we affirm what types of flags are authorized on U.S. military bases. I want to make sure we have an approach that is enduring, that can withstand legal challenge, but that unites us.”