Why does the Legacy of the Confederacy Persist in US Military Culture?

Dr. Matthew F. Delmont’s article in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/how-us-military-came-embrace-confederate-flag/613027/) addresses the multi-dimensionality of the Confederate Stars and Bars and how Confederate culture became interwoven within the culture of the US military.  During World War II, Dr. Delmont notes, several servicemembers who hailed from Southern states who wanted to commemorate the service and sacrifice of their forefathers – as well as the overly glorified and mythologically noble culture of the South – by raising the Confederate battle flag as part of American victories in the European and Pacific theaters.  While our contemporary perceptions of the US military largely accept the military’s victory over the trauma of segregation and segregationist impulses was manifested in President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 – which officially banned segregation in the US military – Dr. Matthew’s article brings forth the discussion that many of us who served in the military in the generations since World War II knew firsthand:  Confederate commemoration – whether in name or practice – has a long and multi-dimensional history within the US military and takes more than Executive Orders and the passage of time to overcome.

I’d like to reiterate some points about the modern US military I have raised previously.  Less than a full percentage point of the total population serves in the US military.  I’ve argued that this creates an exclusivity of military service and with roughly 60 percent of the military population being white and male, a culturally hegemonic universe persists within the ranks.  Of the 5 top flag level officers (the Chiefs of each branch of service as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), as of today there is only one black male – recently confirmed US Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. This is a cursory treatment of the numbers, but the picture of the US military universe begins to come into focus, nonetheless. Military service is less democratized than it once seemed to be at the height of World War II when more than 11 million men were in uniform.  With forces such as this – exclusivity as well as illiberal cultural blind spots – a mythology of military service seems likely because the concept of service is so removed from everyday American life.  Dr. Samuel P. Huntington spoke to the point I have made in The Soldier and the State:  The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations when he described the US military in the late 19th and early 20th century:  “Both those entering the officer corps and those reaching its highest ranks in the years after the Civil War were a cross-section of middle-class America.  As the officer corps became the mirror of the nation, it also became isolated from it. Representative of everyone, it was affiliated with no one.” (Huntington, p. 227).  Huntington argues what he calls “business pacifism” – the belief by 19th century and early 20th century liberal economic proponents that capitalist industrialization rendered war obsolete – was the primary philosophical driver for America’s anti-militarism.  

The strength of and the undoing of US military culture is its isolation from the rest of American society according to his view.In this context, post-Civil War US military culture was shaped by small, exclusive numbers and limited accessibility while also being subject to shifting American perceptions of the US Civil War.  Integrating former Confederates and their descendants within the ranks of US military contributed to the valorizing of Southern military and cultural history.  Concurrently developing with the rise of segregation, the whitewashing of the legacy of the South’s slave culture intertwined with the ascendency of American nationalism and American jingoism in the early 20th century.  American nationalism, jingoism, the whitewashing of Southern culture and the valorization of Southern military culture combined within multiple dimensions to normalize illiberal perspectives regarding race and patriotism in America.  In just over a century, what has been created is a universe in which names and legacies of Confederate generals are still commemorated as the names of US military bases and the Confederate flag is only now banned by US service chiefs.  That the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley – as well as the service chiefs of all our military services – took time within these past few weeks to reassert unifying values which include diversity dispels some of the myth that the great racial experiment which democratized military ranks through desegregation created a universe of diversity and equity within US military culture. As a veteran of the US Navy, I was more than angered by Capt. Scott Bethmann, the US Naval Academy Alumni Association Board Member who inadvertently posted a racist tirade on FaceBook Live (https://news.usni.org/2020/06/07/naval-academy-alumni-board-of-trustee-member-resigns-after-facebook-ouburst).  There are no accidental racists and I was not really overly surprised by the fact that whether the Confederate flag is shown or not, what persists are the attitudes of those from a socially dominant, hegemonic culture.  Yes, the flag needs to be folded and retired to history.  What is needed more is to shift the culture of the US military through increased democratization of service as well as eliminating bias in selections for senior positions and for specialty units. 

Published by: Bryon L. Garner

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Bryon L. Garner earned his Master of Liberal Arts in 2019 from Johns Hopkins University where he was a Roszel C. Thompson Fellowship recipient. Bryon has presented “Hegemonic Masculinity: The Soldier Athlete Identity as an Existential Paradox” and “The Soldier Athlete Archetype: Contrast of White and Black Masculinity in America” at the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs Spring Colloquia in 2018 and 2019. A current student in the Union Institute and University PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies program, Bryon’s areas of interest are Intersectionality of Identity, Masculine Archetypes, and Patriotic Identity.

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