Sen. Roy Blunt said last week he is open to removing the names of Confederate generals from U.S. military facilities. Blunt's fellow Missouri Republican, Sen. Josh Hawley, on the other hand, has decided to place himself squarely on the wrong side of this moment in history. Hawley might want to consider the lessons about historical reckoning that are playing out in front of us right now.
It's always been an American oddity that many of the government's military installations are named for enemy military leaders. Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood and others were all U.S. military officers who defected to a foreign government to take up arms against the United States — the dictionary definition of treason — for the irredeemable purpose of preserving slavery. In what sane world do their names adorn 21st century American military bases and forts?
The killing of African American George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer has put the nation's tortured racial history center stage in a way that feels different this time. Polls indicate white America is finally starting to understand what black America has always known: that systemic, oppressive racism remains real today, not just in police departments but in American society as a whole. Symbols of that oppression are starting to come down, with widespread public support. Confederate statues that have stood more than a century are being slated for removal. Confederate flags are being banned from NASCAR.
And the historical paradox of U.S. military holdings being named for the nation's enemies is being rethought, and not just by progressives. Pentagon leaders are open to reviewing it. The Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday voted to require the Pentagon to strip Confederate names and symbols from military bases within three years. The Republican-majority committee, chaired by outspoken conservative Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., passed the measure with just one dissenting vote: Hawley.
"I just don't think that Congress mandating that these be renamed and attempting to erase that part of our history is a way that you deal with that history," Hawley told reporters.
It's time to retire the transparent old trope that this is a debate for or against preserving history. No one suggests purging these generals from the history books — just from places of honor that their actions don't merit. Support of such veneration today is a dog whistle for white nationalists and others to whom the inherent racism of the Confederacy is not a historical relic at all, but is alive and well.
That explains President Donald Trump's opposition to renaming the bases, given that racial division is shaping up as a chief reelection campaign strategy. Hawley may be well served politically in the short term by standing with Trump on this issue. But as we're seeing now, history has a long memory.
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