Fort Pickett military base in Virginia formerly took its name from a pro-slavery Confederate general. However, on 24 March, the US will rename it after an American soldier decorated for heroism during World War II.
The Virginia National Guard installation is the first of nine American military bases slated to drop the names of figures who served the Confederate States of America. The base will be renamed to honour Van Barfoot, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Barfoot received the Medal of Honor – the highest US military award for valour – for his actions against fascists in WWII. This included taking out two German machine gun nests, capturing 17 enemy soldiers, and destroying a tank.
Fort Pickett was previously named for Confederate major general George Pickett. He graduated last in his class from West Point and served in the Mexican-American war. Then, he resigned his commission to join the Confederacy. In an ill-fated attack at Gettysburg called “Pickett’s charge”, he was responsible for the deaths of more than half his own men.
Calls to rename the bases gained momentum during nationwide protests against racism and police brutality that were sparked by the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
In the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, Congress required the establishment of a commission to plan for the removal of Confederate-linked “names, symbols, displays, monuments, or paraphernalia” from Defense Department property. It gave the secretary three years to carry out its recommendations. Then-president Donald Trump opposed the renaming effort. He vetoed the defense bill, but Congress overrode it.
More than nothing, less than enough
It is, of course, a good thing that a Confederate name is being dropped from a military base. It’s ludicrous that it took until 2023 to recognise that fighting to defend slavery should not be lauded. The same applies to all Confederate monuments in the US as it does statues honoring slavers in the UK. These are not ‘marks of history’. Rather, they are proof that our governments do not, or did not, believe that trading in Black lives should disqualify someone from honoured memory.
Bree Newsome was an activist who rose to prominence for removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse. Her words are just as applicable to this situation as they were then:
We can’t think just because we removed these things then the problem is solved. We have to have an honest conversation about history and the history of slavery. Removing the flag in South Carolina was one thing, but racism exists in South Carolina as policy and social practice. We have to look at policy and how we are interacting with each other if we are going to address racism.
Indeed, as the Canary’s own Afroze Fatima Zaidi recently wrote:
There is indeed a fundamental difference between ‘diversity and inclusion’ work and anti-racism. The former, in effect, allows institutions to appear to be doing something about racism without actually addressing it in a way that might cause those in power any great discomfort.
The renaming of Fort Pickett is merely an example of these easy, comfortable actions. They are a fig-leaf offering – and necessary – but they are by no means enough.
We must recognise that moves like this are easy for governments to perform. They do no real work to counter the very present racism in society at large, or the military in particular. The US army has distinct and pronounced racism within its ranks. As Associated Press reported:
The military said it processed more than 750 complaints of discrimination by race or ethnicity from service members in the fiscal year 2020 alone. But discrimination doesn’t exist just within the military rank-and-file. That same fiscal year, civilians working in the financial, technical and support sectors of the Army, Air Force and Navy also filed 900 complaints of racial discrimination and over 350 complaints of discrimination by skin color, data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows.
This racism extends as far as white supremacist extremism. As the Conversation reported regarding military participation in the 6 January 2021 insurrection:
Of the 884 criminal defendants charged to date with taking part in the insurrection, more than 80 were veterans. That’s almost 10% of those charged.
More remarkable, at least five of the rioters were serving in the military at the time of the assault: an active-duty Marine officer and four reservists.
Service members’ involvement in the insurrection has made the spread of extremism – particularly white nationalism – a significant issue for the U.S. military.
In light of these facts, it is plain that the Confederate legacy of the US military is not present only in the names on its bases. Rather, it is riddled throughout the whole institution. The work to counter this deep-seated racism is far harder, far more necessary, and sadly far less likely from any government.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Idawriter, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license, resized to 770×403