Best Defense

It’s time for the Army to look at how it remembers and honors Confederate leaders

Twice a day, every day, the 4,000 young men and women who make up the Corps of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy file into that storied institution’s cadet mess and are served as one.

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By Dan Berschinski and Rob Berschinski
Best Defense guest columnists

Twice a day, every day, the 4,000 young men and women who make up the Corps of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy file into that storied institution’s cadet mess and are served as one.

As they enter, America’s sons and daughters pass by the portraits of West Point’s former superintendents, all of whom save one spent their careers in service of an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The outlier is among West Point’s most famous alumni, a man who led the armies of a traitorous rebellion, the aims of which were to dissolve the Union and perpetuate the slavery of human beings. A man whose historical legacy, particularly after last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, sits at the center of America’s white hot, wrenching, and much needed conversation on race and prejudice.

Robert E. Lee’s image hangs over West Point both literally and figuratively. The future general graduated second in his class in 1829, and went on to serve as the school’s ninth superintendent. As the country’s preeminent military leader in the run-up to the Civil War, Lee famously declined President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to lead Union forces against the rebellion, instead deciding to adopt the cause of the Confederates as his own.

The armies Lee led were, thankfully, defeated on the field of battle. Yet an unknowing visitor to West Point today could be forgiven for mistaking the man for an American hero. It might shock many Americans to know that their tax dollars pay for future Army leaders to rest their heads at night in a dorm named after the cause célèbre of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Yet this is reality. Lee’s name graces one of West Point’s nine cadet barracks, alongside those named after men like Eisenhower, Sherman, Bradley, and Grant.

One hundred and fifty-odd years after the restoration of peace, if not justice, at Appomattox Court House, West Point seems to have made its peace with Lee. His defenders say that this is not without some merit. A slave owner, Lee was conflicted on the practice of treating humans as property. His actions following the Civil War, in the five years prior to his death in 1870, can appropriately be credited with limiting southern revanchism and perhaps saving the country from widespread guerrilla warfare. He was, by all accounts, a model cadet, and later, superintendent.

Is this reason enough that he be granted the honor of having his name affixed to a cadet barracks at West Point? That’s a question that ultimately the U.S. Army must decide. But as taxpayers and veterans, we are concerned that our nation’s military continues to support the legacy of men like Lee, who, for whatever personal attributes they may have possessed as warriors, clearly serve as symbols today of hate and division.

West Point’s continued embrace of Lee mirrors the U.S. Army’s continued support for Confederate leaders. Today, 10 Army posts scattered about the southern half of the United States are named in honor of Confederate officers who sought to forcibly dismember the Union. These include Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, which is named after the Confederate general who shelled Fort Sumter and initiated the Civil War, and Fort Gordon in our home state of Georgia, which honors Confederate Lieutenant General John Brown Gordon, a man who headed Georgia’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War’s end.

When asked why the U.S. military and taxpayer dollars should tacitly support men who fought against the United States and for white supremacy, the Army has in the past responded that early and mid-twentieth century base naming decisions reflected local popular opinion and should be seen as honoring individuals in the spirit of reconciliation, not the ideologies they represented. It is now clear that popular opinion has changed substantially since such decisions were made, and are no longer valid, if indeed they ever were.

Over the course of American history, the U.S. military has often pioneered policies of racial and social inclusion. This includes, most famously, President Harry S. Truman’s landmark decision 70 years ago to desegregate the armed forces. More recently, the military’s personnel policies have again entered the news concerning the ability of transgender people to serve their country.

In keeping with its dignified and praiseworthy customs, the Army needs to take a fresh look at how it treats Confederate leaders. In some cases, for instance those that place Lee and other Confederate officers with ties to the U.S. military in educationally-relevant context, current policies may be appropriate. In instances in which honor is conferred without nuance, however, such as in the naming of installations and barracks, the Army would do well to reevaluate the costs and benefits of change.

To do so would accord with an institution both rightfully proud of maintaining its traditions, and one that has pioneered innovation on and off the battlefield since the nation’s founding.

Dan Berschinski is a former Army infantry officer, Afghanistan War veteran, recipient of the Purple Heart, and 2007 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. He is a small business owner in Atlanta, Georgia. Rob Berschinski is a former Air Force intelligence officer and Iraq War veteran. He is the Senior Vice President for Policy at Human Rights First.

Photo credit: U.S. Post Office/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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