For a Grander Army of the Republic: Better Names for Bases

June 11, 2020
Robinson

With protests across the nation rallying against institutionalized racism, it is well past time for the Army to follow the Marine Corps and Navy in removing its monuments to the men who fought for its starkest embodiment: the Confederate States of America. This week’s statement from a Pentagon spokesman that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy are open to renaming the 10 bases named for Confederate officers is welcome and long overdue. Renaming these bases represents an opportunity to address a legacy of systemic racism that continues to honor slavers and those who fought to maintain “the peculiar institution,” whose military exploits ranged from middling to disastrous. Contrary to the President’s tweets on the matter, those honored by having posts named after them have little history of winning or victory and they disdained any freedoms except their self-claimed right to own other humans. New names should honor American heroes whose loyalty, distinguished military service, and connections to communities in which these bases are located can inspire “fellow Soldiers, employees and other citizens,” in the words of the Army’s own guidelines. Of the 10 installations requiring renaming, we look at five, explaining why the current honoree is unfit, and nominate another American who is unquestionably deserving.

From Fort Bragg to Fort Robinson

Consider Fort Bragg, named after Braxton Bragg, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The Army would have you believe it bestowed this honor to “General” Bragg in 1918 because “of his actions during the Mexican-American war.” A North Carolina native, he retired to Louisiana when his wife inherited a plantation operated by slave labor. His second military career began with an appointment to the Louisiana militia as a colonel, and he rose quickly through the Confederate ranks when the war began. Promoted beyond his skills to general and commander of the Army of Tennessee after Shiloh, his only major victory was at Chickamauga in 1863. Even this success was a debacle, as he failed to pursue Federal forces and defeat the Union Army. The remainder of Bragg’s command was marked by infighting, inaction, and incompetence. He was relieved of command and fought one last battle as a division commander, finally surrendering that division.

Today, Fort Bragg is home to U.S. Army Forces Command, the headquarters of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, a plethora of U.S. Army Special Operations Command training and operational units, and an assortment of combat support units. It is the largest military installation in the United States, with some 57,000 military personnel assigned to it. Surely, they deserve better than to work at a post named after a slaver who fought against the United States. Bragg may have fought well as a captain in Mexico, but his later failures preclude giving him this distinction for his military exploits, let alone the cause he served.

There is no shortage of honorable replacement candidates. The 82nd Airborne Division has seven Medal of Honor recipients in its history, including Alvin York in that unit’s incarnation during World War I. U.S. Army Special Operations personnel have earned 30 of those medals, many giving the ultimate sacrifice. James Gavin was one of the 82nd’s commanders during World War II and participated in all four combat jumps with his division. We suggest, however, that Fort Bragg becomes Fort Robinson after Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr. A 1951 graduate of West Point who attended the service academy before the Army was desegregated, Robinson served in Korea and Vietnam, with valor decorations in both conflicts, and as a training officer as part of the U.S. military support mission in Liberia. He went on to become the first black commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, deputy chief of staff for operations in U.S. Army Europe, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, the U.S. representative on the NATO Military Committee, and the first black four-star general in the Army. In his time at NATO, Robinson played a delicate role in military diplomacy, brokering the selection of the Dutch chief of defense as a consensus candidate to lead the Military Committee and quietly helping the alliance navigate difficult issues ranging from Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus to deployment of Pershing II launchers in West Germany behind the scenes.

Robinson retired after that capstone assignment in 1985 but was asked to serve in a number of commission roles, including reviewing the honor code at West Point and the military record of the 24th Infantry Regiment. The Army’s official history of the Korean War, published in 1961, contained unsubstantiated claims that the men of the 24th Regiment — a segregated unit of enlisted black soldiers — had fled in the face of the enemy and performed poorly in combat. The final review, published three years after Robinson’s death, affirmed Robinson’s view that the men of the regiment had comported well and concluded that some white officers of the 24th had unfairly cast aspersions on their men after the war.

A war hero, an exemplary leader, and a pathbreaker who exemplifies the quiet professionalism of the U.S. Army, Robinson deserves no less of an honor of which the residents of Fort Bragg would be proud.

From Fort Hood to Fort Benavidez

Fort Hood in Texas houses around 40,000 personnel, with a corps and two divisions assigned to it. The post is named after John Bell Hood, another West Point graduate, who never served in the U.S. Army above first lieutenant and had fought in only a few skirmishes with Native Americans. A native of Kentucky, his only connection to Texas was leading an infantry brigade from the state under the Confederacy. Hood was quickly promoted because of bold action as a midlevel officer, and well beyond his competency. During the defense of Atlanta and an ill-advised attack on Nashville, his inability to command decimated his army to the point where it was operationally ineffective and he was forced to resign in disgrace.

It boggles the mind that such a major Army installation is named after someone so lacking in distinction. We believe that Fort Hood, whose two divisions have 63 Medal of Honor recipients between them, should become Fort Benavidez.

Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez, a native son of Texas, was a Medal of Honor recipient whose actions are distinguished even among others who earned that commendation. In Vietnam in 1968, while volunteering to help extract a Special Forces team being overrun, he jumped from a helicopter that could not land due to fire. Wounded almost immediately, he took charge of the remaining team and began evacuating the dead and wounded. When a helicopter crashed during the extraction, he mustered the survivors into a defense, motivated his men to fight, and held off the significantly larger force. Wounded again and again, he oversaw the extraction of his men, casualties, and all classified materials. Before leaving the battle, he fought in hand-to-hand combat. With the enemy threatening to overrun the position, he took one last check of the area to make sure no one was forgotten. Benavidez’s wounds were so severe that he had to spit at the doctor before being placed into a body bag to let the doctor know he was not dead yet.

He is a legend not just in the Special Forces community, but in the Army as a whole. Benavidez is such a legend that Hasbro made a GI Joe action figure in his likeness. After retirement, he worked hard for veterans benefits and childhood education. He fought efforts to cut disability payments to veterans and helped achieve an expanded definition of disability in the Social Security Administration. He spent most of his last years giving speeches at schools around Texas about the importance of education. Fort Benavidez is a place any American would be honored to call home.

From Fort Benning to Fort Moore

The naming of the Army’s home for its infantry and cavalry units is similarly perplexing. Henry Benning, a Georgia native, was a staunch white supremacist and slavery promoter and joined the military only when he had the opportunity to fight to continue the institution of slavery. Not merely a supporter of “the peculiar institution,” continuing to enslave people, he was part of a delegation sent to Virginia to convince that state to secede specifically to defend slavery. His speech there was horrifying, decrying the idea of an America with “black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything” in which white men would be “overpowered” and “compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth.” “[A]nd as for our women,” he concluded in an especially lurid passage, “the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination… We will be completely exterminated, and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa or Saint Domingo.”

A commander of no particular distinction, save losing his cool during Chickamauga, his only claim to fame is the needless sacrifice of his own men in order to slaughter loyal American soldiers and defend the enslavement of African Americans. No aspect of his character or exploits warrants such a distinguished honor as having a U.S. Army post named after him. The late Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, buried at Fort Benning, was the complete opposite of Benning: a man of deep character who exhibited heroism as a commander in service of the nation. He served with distinction in Korea and Vietnam, famously captured on the page in Moore’s memoir We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, co-written with reporter Joe Galloway, and in its film adaptation.

In 1965, Moore commanded the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in Ia Drang Valley near the Cambodian border. Outnumbered by the North Vietnamese Army nearly 12-to-1, Moore famously declared: “I’ll always be the first person on the battlefield, my boots will be the first boots on it, and I’ll be the last person off. I’ll never leave a body.” His commitment to his men earned him the Distinguished Service Cross for repeatedly exposing himself to withering enemy fire while directing the defense of their position.

Beyond his contributions on the battlefield, Moore had a major impact on the institutional Army. Before his tours in Korea and Vietnam, he helped advance airborne and air assault equipment and tactics, playing a significant role in pushing both of these operational concepts into the modern era. Following his time in Vietnam, he contributed to transitioning the Army from the draft to an all-volunteer force. In 1970, he was given command of the 7th Infantry Division with the mandate to address the unit’s rampant drugs and racism problem, establishing an equal opportunity policy and severely punishing discriminatory leaders. As the very model of combat leadership, a catalyst of institutional change, and a man of character, Moore is an obvious choice to lend his name to the home of the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

From Fort Rucker to Fort Badham

Fort Rucker is the home of another U.S. Army Center of Excellence, this one for Army aviation. And it is also named after an amateur Confederate soldier. Edmund Rucker never served in the U.S. Army, never rose above the rank of colonel, and does not seem to have done anything of enduring military significance, though he was apparently the business partner of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the infamous former Confederate officer who was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan and presided over the massacre of surrendering black troops at Fort Pillow. Very little is written about Rucker, raising the question as to why he was given the distinction of an Army post in memorial. In memory of what?

Birmingham, Alabama, native William Terry Badham deserves such a memorial. Badham was among the first crop of Army aviators and was one of an elite number of  “aces” during World War I. Badham, an observer/gunner, enlisted in the French Air Force after graduating from Yale in 1917 and then joined the U.S. Army Air Service soon after its establishment in 1918. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for gallantry, for his actions on Oct. 23, 1918, when he encountered a formation of 30 enemy planes while conducting a deep reconnaissance flight behind enemy lines. He repelled the attack, shot down two German aircraft, and then returned to his mission, which produced “photographs of great military value” according to his citation.

Badham was also one of the first airmen to ever conduct a daylight bombing raid — albeit using improvised and highly risky methods. Prior to a mission with pilot Everett Cook, Badham cut a hole in the floor of his Salmson 2A2 beneath his seat and proceeded to roll 25-pound percussion bombs on German positions with his feet. In an interview with his son, he later recalled that the final part of his payload nearly detonated in the fuselage when Cook pulled the plane up suddenly, sending the last bomb flying toward Badham. After failing to block it, Badham unclipped his safety belt in the open air cockpit, crawled after the loose ordnance, and dropped it on the enemy position.

Upon returning to Alabama after the war with two Silver Stars in addition to his Distinguished Service Cross, Badham established a chemical business in Birmingham, remained active in the local amateur aviation community, and became an accomplished watercolorist in retirement. In honor of a local hero and aviation pioneer in several dimensions, Fort Badham would be a fitting name for the home of Army aviation in Alabama.

From Fort Polk to Fort Ridgway

Leonidas Polk, for whom the Joint Readiness Training Center is named, was a West Point alumnus, but resigned his commission soon after graduating to join the Episcopal clergy. He and his wife also had a large cotton plantation in Tennessee where they enslaved hundreds of people. When the war broke out, Polk obtained a commission as a major general, despite his lack of significant military experience, by petitioning Jefferson Davis, his West Point classmate and good friend. Known for courage in battle and incompetence with logistics, he was constantly embroiled in Confederate Army politics and argued incessantly with his commanders. The flip side of his personal bravery was his laissez-faire attitude to the lives of his men — his few victories came at high cost. In 1861, he invaded neutral Kentucky of his own volition, helping bring the state into the war on the side of the Union. It was a strategic disaster. After helping ensure through his lack of initiative that Bragg would not decisively win Chickamauga, Polk was relieved. Reassigned, Polk died in 1864 at Pine Mountain after being hit by a cannonball.

There is some irony in naming one of the Army’s premier training institutions after a clergyman who abjured the cloth to take up arms in defense of slavery as an amateur general. The Army should instead consider Matthew Ridgway, a consummate professional with a distinguished career as a commander in World War II and of all U.N. Forces in Korea, as well as Army chief of staff. In the early 1940s, Ridgway was stationed adjacent to present-day Fort Polk at Camp Claiborne, where he was the deputy commander and then commander of the 82nd Division. As commander of the nation’s first airborne division, he planned and commanded its first drop into Sicily, and then again into Normandy. Ridgway’s leadership of the 8th Army in Korea reversed its retreat and staved off defeat. His performance echoed beyond the battlefields of East Asia: His deft and democratic approach to his relationship with President Harry Truman restored a modicum of comity to civil-military relations after Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s firing. Furthermore, Ridgway supported and successfully oversaw the racial integration of his command in 1951, recognizing that segregation was “un-American and un-Christian” as well as “wholly inefficient, not to say improper.” At every level of command, he was known for speaking truth to power, displaying extraordinary courage, and being a master of his profession. Fort Ridgway would be an apt name for one of the Army’s most important training centers.

A Chance to Salute and Unite

The Army has no shortage of heroes whose names could readily replace those of 10 men whose political commitments were odious and whose military records were not particularly distinguished. Renaming these bases is less a cultural wedge issue than a moral imperative. It is also an opportunity to address our history in a way that reflects the highest values of the republic and celebrates the best of America’s military heritage. A bipartisan commission, comprising a diverse cross section of American statesmen, military leaders, and scholars, offers an opportunity to turn a page on one part of an ugly past: not to forget what came before, but to write a new and a better chapter together.

 

 

Will Quinn is a doctoral student in the American Foreign Policy department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He previously served as a professional staff member for the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services for Sen. John McCain.

Jason Fritz is a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, a senior editor at War on the Rocks, and an Army veteran and West Point graduate who deployed three times to Iraq. His research focuses on the politics of policing, political violence, and fragile states. 

Image: National Archives (Photo by Department of Defense)