Change them

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OPINIONS -

Tra­di­tion holds that some­time around 1953, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Harold Macmil­lan was asked what was most likely to change his­tory or knock gov­ern­ments off course. Macmil­lan fa­mously re­sponded, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Whether he re­ally said those words is in ques­tion. The ac­cu­racy of them is not.

The events of the past two weeks have sud­denly sent Amer­ica down an un­charted, un­planned course at break­neck speed. The hor­rific killing of Ge­orge Floyd by a Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer on Memo­rial Day sparked an an­gry out­cry and de­mand for change that had been sim­mer­ing for decades.

In a mat­ter of days, we have seen en­trenched be­hav­iors and at­ti­tudes chal­lenged. It has been a time of harsh ac­cu­sa­tions and sel­f­re­flec­tion as white Amer­i­cans have sud­denly had to come to terms with how deeply sys­temic racism ex­ists in so many facets of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

In April, even be­fore Floyd’s death, Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, was warned of a grow­ing num­ber of white su­prem­a­cists in the mil­i­tary. The gen­eral de­cided to ad­dress that racism. In a let­ter to the en­tire Corps, he an­nounced the dis­play of Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags and other sym­bols on all Marine Corps in­stal­la­tions was banned. Berger ex­plained that the Marine Corps is “a warfight­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion, an elite in­sti­tu­tion of war­riors who de­pend on each other to win the tough bat­tles. Any­thing that di­vides us, any­thing that threat­ens team co­he­sion must be ad­dressed head-on.”

When Army of­fi­cials were ques­tioned at the time by me­dia out­lets as to whether it would fol­low the Marines’ lead, a spokesman for the ser­vice re­sponded: “We have no plans to re­name any street or in­stal­la­tion, in­clud­ing those named for Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als.”

How times have changed in just a mat­ter of weeks. In a state­ment is­sued Mon­day, the Army said that Sec­re­tary of De­fense Mark Esper and Sec­re­tary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy are open to hold­ing a bi­par­ti­san dis­cus­sion with Congress on chang­ing the names of those in­stal­la­tions named for Rebel lead­ers.

There are 10 Army fa­cil­i­ties scat­tered across the South that are named af­ter South­ern mil­i­tary lead­ers. Three of them — Forts Lee, A.P. Hill and Pick­ett — are in Vir­ginia. Fort Lee, lo­cated in Peters­burg, is one of the mil­i­tary’s largest train­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to its web­site, more than 70,000 troops train there an­nu­ally.

In fair­ness, many of those bases were opened more than a cen­tury ago when there still was much dis­sen­sion be­tween the North and the South. A state­ment from the Army’s pub­lic af­fairs office ex­plains that “the nam­ing of in­stal­la­tions and streets was done in a spirit of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, not to demon­strate sup­port for any par­tic­u­lar cause or ide­ol­ogy. The Army has a tra­di­tion of nam­ing in­stal­la­tions and streets af­ter his­tor­i­cal fig­ures of mil­i­tary sig­nif­i­cance, in­clud­ing former Union and Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral of­fi­cers.”

Those bases, like Fort Lee, were opened when the mil­i­tary was seg­re­gated. But Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man ended that 72 years ago. To­day, in that same spirit of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, it is just as im­por­tant to re­name those fa­cil­i­ties so as “not to demon­strate sup­port for any par­tic­u­lar cause or ide­ol­ogy.” To­day’s events dic­tate that the Army change the names.

There are plenty of heroic Vir­gini­ans who have served hon­or­ably and more than 70 Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ents to name a mil­i­tary post af­ter.

In a mes­sage to soldiers last week, McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Army Sergeant Ma­jor Michael Grin­ston ac­knowl­edged the ser­vice’s strug­gle with racism and pledged to do bet­ter, writ­ing: “Over the past week, the coun­try has suf­fered an ex­plo­sion of frus­tra­tion over the racial di­vi­sions that still plague us as Amer­i­cans. And be­cause your Army is a re­flec­tion of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, those di­vi­sions live in the Army as well. We feel the frus­tra­tion and anger. We need to work harder to earn the trust of moth­ers and fa­thers who hes­i­tate to hand their sons and daugh­ters into our care.”

We urge the Army to go for­ward with the name changes. Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary — the best in the world — is made up of young men and women of ev­ery race, color and creed. The brav­ery of African Amer­i­cans is undis­puted. Al­though black Amer­i­cans make up only 13% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, they rep­re­sent 22% of the Army.

It is time Army lead­er­ship do a lit­tle of its own self-re­con­nais­sance and re­spond to the events of the past few weeks. Change the names. They’re anachro­nis­tic and di­vi­sive.

— Robin Beres


More than 70,000 troops train an­nu­ally at one of the 200 ser­vice schools lo­cated at Fort Lee.

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