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Confederate symbols and statues ‘belong in a museum’, says former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who joins push to rename bases

Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates speaks with village elders in the village of Tabin, Tuesday, March 8, 2011, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Photo provided by: ISAF Regional Command -South)

Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, joined a recent push among bipartisan lawmakers and some military leaders to rename bases that honor Confederate generals.

President Donald Trump last week said his administration “will not even consider” the renaming of up to 10 military facilities named after Confederate leaders. The stance put the president at odds with the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee, which approved an amendment by Sen. Elizabeth Warren requiring the Pentagon to remove Confederate “names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia” from all U.S. military installations within three years.

The Pentagon has been under increasing pressure to change the bases’ names amid protests over generations of racial injustice and the death of George Floyd. Several states and cities have removed Confederate statues in recent years, and the U.S. Marine Corps banned the display of Confederate symbols earlier this year. Several military leaders and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have recently called for renaming the facilities so they no longer honored traitors to the Union.

Gates told The New York Times on Sunday that Confederate symbols represent “the dark side of our history.”

Gates said Floyd’s killing, while pinned under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, put the spotlight on racism at a time when the military is becoming more diverse.

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“The events since the killing of George Floyd present us with an opportunity where we can move forward to change those bases,” Gates said. “It’s always puzzled me that we don’t have a Fort George Washington or a Fort Ulysses S. Grant or a Fort Patton or a facility named for an African-American Medal of Honor recipient. I think the time has come, and we have a real opportunity here.”

Gates noted that he was “very sensitive to the notion of rewriting history.”

But Confederate symbols and statues “belong in a museum someplace so we’re not celebrating them, we’re learning from them and the mistakes they made,” he said.

Trump and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said last week that the bases should not be renamed because they are hallowed grounds where American soldiers were trained.

“Fort Brag is known for the heroes within it,” McEnany said. “It’s an insult … to tell them that what they left was inherently a racist institution because of a name.”

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, in a recent piece in The Atlantic, said the bases were named after “traitors” who were by and large “undistinguished, if not incompetent, battlefield commanders.”

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