Confederate Heritage Is Nothing to Bragg About

How do we decide whom to memorialize?
U.S. soldiers salute in a mass re-enlistment ceremony, November 2008 (CNS photo/Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters).

The most elite U.S. Army soldiers, Special Operations Command and XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, have little to look up to in their base’s namesake. Militarily, Braxton Bragg was a mediocre to poor general. Worse, he committed his unexceptional talents and unstable temperament to preserving slavery as a general in the Confederate Army. Presently, at the direction of President Biden, a commission is determining whether and how to rename Fort Bragg and nine other southern forts named for Confederate generals. Those of us not on congressional committees can skip to the almost certain conclusion: removing the Confederate names is essential. But whom to properly memorialize in their place? How to strike the appropriate balance between connecting to regional military heritage and honoring those who embody democratic principles? For guidance, the commission should look to the way in which Germany’s Bundeswehr has incorporated the examples of resistance against the Nazi regime into its concept of military tradition.

In 1955, West Germany needed to establish traditions around which the newly formed Bundeswehr could develop unity and common ideals. This need had to be balanced against public fear of a regression to the martial traditions of the previous Reichswehr and Wehrmacht. To combat the Prussian-German tradition of strict subservience while resisting any identification as a new Wehrmacht, a new soldierly ideal was found—Innereführung or “inner leadership.” Innereführung is the mettle a soldier finds to resist the social and military pressures that push him toward the unlawful and immoral. Leadership comes ultimately not from above but from the values of “human dignity, the rule of the law…and the obligation to support freedom and peace,” held within.

We choose our values by choosing figures to honor.

Heroes remind us that these ideals are achievable. For the German military, Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow resistance members became examples of Innereführung in action. A high-ranking officer in the Wehrmacht, von Stauffenberg resisted and sought to assassinate Hitler in an attempt known as Operation Valkyrie. Decried as traitors by their Nazi executioners, von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators are now held up by the Bundeswehr as “[exhibiting] exemplary soldierly and ethical attitude.” Bendlerblock, the headquarters of the assassination attempt, now houses the German Resistance Memorial Center, which teaches Germany’s soldiers and civilians alike about these men’s bravery and sacrifice.

While the problems facing the Bundeswehr and the question of renaming U.S Army forts in the south differ, strong similarities exist. Both Germany and the United States have to confront aspects of their military traditions that are explicitly and irrevocably tied to an immoral cause. The Bundeswehr’s example honors “professional combat skills only…if they are linked to the values of the free democratic order.”

The United States Department of Defense has put a lot of work into making the military services more inclusive and severing connections with its racist past, including the Confederate cause. But as Susan Neiman points out in Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, “Narratives start with words and are reinforced by symbols…Which heroes do we valorize, which victims do we mourn?” How believable is the narrative of inclusivity and morality to a Black soldier working at a post named after a man who fought for slavery? I am willing to go further than Neiman and say that in building a military tradition, valorizing heroes is the principal task. While recognizing victims’ suffering is important, a military tradition of strength, honor, and commitment to fighting for freedom needs, well, fighters. Neiman and others suggest Harriet Tubman and John Brown, who are both excellent examples of Innereführung. Tubman is especially well-suited to replace Braxton Bragg—her spying for the Union proved both her professional capability and her courage, as she repeatedly risked her life for others’ freedom.

There are many others who, like von Stauffenberg, resisted the social and traditional pressure of their time to fight for what was right: Robert Smalls, Newton Knight, Elizabeth Van Lew. What I aim to suggest is not simply individuals, but qualification by an ideal—Innereführung. We choose our values by choosing figures to honor, and the commission should honor those who bravely broke from institutional pressure or even physical restraint to fight for a higher moral purpose. 

Martin D. Heli is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he studied political science and Russian. He has lived in Europe for the past ten years, half of which were spent in Germany.

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