Given President Trump’s zealous defense of the Confederate flag and tributes to Confederate military figures as a free speech right—he recently railed against NASCAR and even the U.S. Army—the Pentagon is playing it safe with a new order that effectively bans the Confederate flag from most military premises.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a memo Friday to military forces that listed the only appropriate flags permitted on Department of Defense facilities. Conspicuously absent was the Confederate flag, which has long been a symbol of pain for the Black community, and which has come under renewed scrutiny following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter protests that ensued.
The memo, which Esper also posted on Twitter, shares a list of acceptable banners, including the American flag, state and territory flags, military service flags, command or unit flags, and flags of allied countries, among others. Those authorized flags will be allowed in facilities including office buildings, aircraft and vessels, galleys, barracks, and any outside areas including yards and parking lots.
Unauthorized flags—which now includes the Confederate flag—will still be permitted in historical or museum exhibits, art displays, and grave sites.
Today I issued a memorandum to the force on the display of flags at @DeptofDefense facilities. With this change in policy, we will further improve the morale, cohesion, and readiness of the force in defense of our great Nation. pic.twitter.com/YQPc3kxf4V
— Dr. Mark T. Esper (@EsperDoD) July 17, 2020
The subtlety of the order is likely intended to avoid legal challenges and a political ruckus with President Trump. Via Twitter, the commander-in-chief recently took aim at the U.S. Army over its consideration of renaming the 10 military bases that are named for Confederate leaders, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas, both of which take their names from Confederate generals.
Separately, Trump criticized NASCAR after it banned the flag from its premises, and specifically Bubba Wallace, the driver who was racially targeted with a noose in his garage stall. The president called the episode a “hoax,” and later doubled down on his support of the flag. “My stance is very simple: It’s freedom of speech,” he told a reporter July 7.
An earlier version of Esper’s order did directly target the Confederate flag, but that was walked back, according to the Associated Press, which first reported the story. The Marine Corps had already explicitly banned the flag, and the three other branches of the military were considering following suit. They’ll still be permitted to implement more stringent policies, an official told the A.P.
The announcement did not mention the renaming of military bases, though it’s likely that members of Congress will attempt to put forward a bipartisan amendment to ban names, symbols, and monuments with Confederate references. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told the House last week, “There is no place in our armed forces for manifestations or symbols of racism, bias, or discrimination.”