General David Petraeus wrote an impassioned article in the Atlantic this week about the need to change the names of military bases that for over a century have been named after Confederate generals and to recalibrate iconic remembrances such as statues commemorating Robert E. Lee at West Point — points of reference he reminds us that have been central in his own experience and career.
His relevant points were twofold and ostensibly rational: Commanders such as Bragg and Benning (Petraeus proposes the renaming of other eponymous bases as well) were not especially effective commanders worthy of such majestic base commemoration. In some cases, as Petraeus notes, they were not even highly regarded by their peers. No one, certainly, would wish to defend the worldview of a Braxton Bragg. And, as Petraeus put it, as “traitors” they fought for an ignoble cause that perpetuated slavery. (Of course, the logic of renaming should then apply to the northern California community of Fort Bragg, also named after the unattractive Braxton Bragg — an idea to which some in the Democratic California legislature failed to win over the town’s mayor in 2015).
I think Petraeus is in many ways correct about his anguish. Yet, the bases were named not so much to glorify overt racists as for a variety of more mundane, insidious reasons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — from concessions to local southerners where many of these bases were to be located, to obtain bipartisan congressional support for their funding, and to address the need in the decades-long and bitter aftermath of the Civil War to promote “healing” between the still hostile former opponents.
We should note that not all Confederates were quite the same in terms of our current moral reexaminations. General Longstreet differed from, say, a General Nathan Bedford Forrest, not necessarily on the basis of their undeniable respective competency or even clear culpability in perpetuating the war, but on their quite different efforts at postwar outreach and healing. But then again such assessments would be to assume that we are all mortals and not deities.
Again, is this moment really the proper time to begin renaming bases and removing statues? We are in a middle of a national frenzy and chaos, in which such major decisions won’t always be done systematically and carefully to heal rather than further to inflame the country. I have long questioned in print the deification of Robert E. Lee, but after 150 years I think we can wait a few more months for introspection and discussion before damning him from memory. This week Christopher Columbus was toppled — with the predictable response, why not some of those statues in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection? That idea has next only fueled further iconoclasm, which has quickly progressed to why not the slave-owning Washington and Jefferson and their eponymous D.C. landmark monuments, though perhaps cranes and woke engineers rather than mere ropes and hammers will be needed to topple an obelisk or crash a dome, purported testaments to slavery. Who is to say that one slave owner is any different from another, given mortal sin allows no compensation or calibration, no allowance for, or distinction of, a Jefferson from a Forrest?
In particular, on all fronts, military, educational, and governmental, if we are to engage in iconoclasm, Trotskyization, damnatio memoriae, and cancel culture, then we need some common standard to weigh good against bad, to calibrate modern versus long-distant moralities, and to be sure that replacement names meet these new exalted criteria. Recently our university community received an official letter from an administrator quoting the inspirational “loving refrain” of Ms. Assata Shakur, a terrorist and convicted murderer of a policeman and fugitive from justice residing in Cuba. There were no public repercussions for such an endorsement.
In terms of 19th- and early 20th-century racism, it would be hard to match the deleterious efforts of President Woodrow Wilson to poison race relations. He resisted integration in the armed forces, as well as the civil service, and thus set back those efforts for decades. Harry Truman did what Wilson might have done more than three decades earlier.
In 2015 the Atlantic itself ran an essay detailing the extent to which Wilson systematically institutionalized race-based prejudice. In some sense, he put back race relations far more as commander in chief than did the 19th-century overtly racist Confederate rebels who were defeated and their cause repudiated. Yet, Wilson remains a progressive icon as a prime mover of the League of Nations and author of the Fourteen Points. As president he was no rebel general, but in an all-powerful position to enact needed racial change. He also was the beneficiary of the moral evolution of some 50 years since the Civil War. But most perniciously, his racism was pseudoscientific, based on bankrupt progressive ideas of genetic purity and thus often exempt from liberal criticism of the age.
Leland Stanford in many ways went well beyond the racist orthodoxy of the late 19th century in his demonization of Asians, without whose labor his railroad empire and fortune that funded present-day Stanford University would have evaporated. So to what degree might we now in our time of self-introspection rectify the past by quickly renaming Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, of which Petraeus himself is a distinguished Ph.D. graduate, and thereby end our own compliance in perpetuating the wages of racism that now manifest in the streets? And after Princeton, why not rapidly Stanford and perhaps with dispatch Yale as well?
I remember not too long ago, in the furor of the Iraq War and the raging anger over the surge, at a time when the commander in chief was also unfairly labeled a racist, a Nazi and a traitor, that General Petraeus himself was subject to the sudden furor of contemporary resistance. The New York Times dropped its policies of avoiding ad hominem ads to print a full-page Moveon.org smear of “General Betrayus,” even as Senator Hillary Clinton in her fury to abort the surge and leave Iraq, in her congressional cross-examination of Petraeus, essentially and falsely accused him of lying under oath. As many of us wrote at the time, the nation was gripped by a sort of collective madness, to which Clinton herself contributed, by demonizing a heroic and gifted general tasked with carrying out an unpopular policy of a then widely ridiculed and disparaged president.
By all means let us reexamine the names of all military installations, the statues of all our supposed heroes, and extend such scrutiny to all institutions of government and higher learning, public and private, given that the latter depend on the taxpayer for massive tax exemptions on their endowments.
But let us wait until the fires in the streets, the occupations, the defacements, the looting, and the violence have dissipated, if only not to reward the bullhorn rather than the majority vote of elected or representative bodies. Let us make sure that the logic of our efforts is systemic and applicable in general rather than ad hoc and of the moment. And finally let us wonder why those who wish such prompt action had not spoken out earlier, in calmer times, a year, a decade, a generation ago, when the present histories of our counterfeit icons had been long well known, but at a time when the pushback to such independent and principled lone voices would have earned far different professional consequences than is true of this week.