Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy recently announced he is open to renaming Army bases named after Confederate leaders. This is progress from February when Army officials indicated there were no such plans. And it comes years after myriad institutions have renamed buildings originally named after other Confederate totems.
But openness to renaming Army bases is not enough. McCarthy should do more. With the stroke of a pen and in accordance with Army Regulation 1-33, McCarthy can rename any Army installation he chooses. An act of Congress is not required.
The 10 forts in question include iconic installations: Bragg, N.C.; Lee, Va.; and Benning, Ga., to name a few. And similar to how some municipalities and institutions have deliberately approached their renaming processes, McCarthy’s proposal of a “bipartisan discussion” is not without precedent, or necessarily without warrant.
But there is other precedent that suggests McCarthy should move boldly, particularly after the police killing of George Floyd. I know because of my time serving under Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who championed diversity and inclusion in the Navy by naming naval platforms after progressive icons including LGBT activist Harvey Milk, civil rights activist Representative John Lewis, and Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee, the superintendent of the US Navy Nurse Corps during World War I and the first woman to earn the Navy Cross.
The Army would be well served to consider the Navy’s approach as McCarthy faces an urgent need to communicate to the more than 480,000 soldiers on active duty and 525,500 in the National Guard and Reserves — roughly 20 percent of whom are Black — that they are equal and belong.
Here’s how the Navy conveyed that diversity is an imperative for combat readiness. In February 2016, Mabus updated the Navy’s Diversity and Inclusion Policy, after bringing leaders of pertinent constituency groups to advise him at a Pentagon roundtable. He then directed his team to organize troop talks at Navy and Marine Corps installations throughout the globe, frequently beginning his remarks with, “The Navy’s strength is our diversity and our diversity is our strength.”
In June 2016, Mabus presided over the naming ceremony of the Sutcliffe Higbee at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. In July 2016, Mabus advised Congress of his plans for the John Lewis class of oilers, which included the navy ships Harvey Milk; Earl Warren, honoring the former chief justice of the Supreme Court; Robert Kennedy, after the former US attorney general; Lucy Stone, for the 19th-century suffragist; and Sojourner Truth, honoring the esteemed abolitionist.
Mabus presided over ship-naming ceremonies in August-October 2016 throughout the country: at San Francisco’s Treasure Island for the navy ship Harvey Milk, and at the Boston Public Library for Massachusetts native Lucy Stone. At the 2016 ceremony at the US Capitol naming the John Lewis, Mabus explained his decision to the audience: “...so that an entire generation of Americans who sail on her will know the struggle for civil rights.”
To be sure, naming a new platform is not the same as renaming a longstanding military installation. But the distinction should not make a difference. Due to the proud history of Black soldiers, there are more than a few veterans who, as Congressional Medal of Honor recipients or distinguished service members, warrant consideration. Consider Sergeant William Carney, a Civil War veteran and the first Black Medal of Honor recipient in the Army; Brigadier General Hazel Brown, who in 1979 became the first Black chief of the Army Corps, and the first Black female Army brigadier general; and Captain Riley Pitts, who after leading his men through enemy fire in Vietnam was the first Black Army officer to receive the Medal of Honor.
McCarthy can proceed swiftly by scheduling stakeholder roundtables at the Pentagon, announcing updated base names before July 4, and conducting naming ceremonies throughout the summer. The precedent of past secretaries’ actions, as well as the authority McCarthy has to make this possible to execute quickly, should be, as retired Army General David Petraeus wrote, an “easy, even obvious, decision.”
Maura C. Sullivan served as an assistant secretary at the US Department of Veterans Affairs and special assistant to the Secretary of the Navy during the Obama administration. A resident of Portsmouth, N.H, she is an Iraq War veteran and a former Marine Corps officer.