Military leaders pressure Esper to ban Confederate flagJuly 17, 2020
The leaders of the armed forces are pressuring their boss, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, to ban the public display of the Confederate flag at Defense Department facilities, amid opposition from the White House, according to three defense officials.
Esper is set in the coming days to unveil a policy dealing with the public display of racially or socially divisive symbols on military installations, the people told POLITICO. Yet it is still unclear whether the policy will specifically include a ban on the Confederate flag, and a DoD spokesperson declined to comment.
But Esper, the secretaries of the military departments and chiefs of the military branches discussed the issue at a meeting on Wednesday, one defense official said. A draft policy was circulated with the military departments, which provided feedback. It is now with the General Counsel and Personnel and Readiness offices, the person said.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, in particular, is pushing Esper “hard” to issue a ban on the Confederate flag, two defense officials reported. McCarthy has recently taken steps aimed at eliminating unconscious bias in the ranks, including doing away with the use of official photos as a requirement in the promotion board process for officers.
“Anything that is a divisive symbol, we do want to take those out of our installations and keep that sort of thing out of our formation,” McCarthy said during a call with reporters on Thursday. When questioned, he declined to say specifically whether the policy would include a Confederate flag ban, but noted that “We would have any divisive symbols on a no-fly list, if you will.”
CNN first reported that the Pentagon was weighing a general ban on divisive symbols.
Esper has taken steps in recent weeks to tackle diversity issues in the ranks. On Wednesday, he released a new memorandum ordering several immediate actions, including removing photographs from consideration by officer promotion boards, updating the department’s equal opportunity and diversity inclusion policies and reviewing hairstyle and grooming policies to prevent racial bias.
Esper also established a new 15-member Board on Diversity and Inclusion, which met for the first time on Wednesday. The board is chaired by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and includes Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan; Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ramón Colón-López; Air Force Brig. Gen. Troy Dunn; and more junior officers and enlisted personnel.
In addition, he directed a long-term defense advisory committee to provide an “independent and enduring” review of diversity and inclusion in the ranks.
“The actions I am directing are a necessary first step, but I have no illusion that these initial actions will fully address the concerns many of us know and which I have personally heard from many service members,” Esper said in a statement.
Yet Esper is facing pressure from the White House not to issue a blanket ban on the public display of the Confederate flag. Trump last month tweeted his opposition to an effort to remove Confederate names from Army bases just two days after McCarthy and Esper opened the door to doing so. Trump has also criticized a decision by NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag as infringing on freedom of speech.
“I know people that like the Confederate flag, and they’re not thinking about slavery,” Trump told CBS News’ Catherine Herridge during an interview this week, when asked about the issue in general. “I look at NASCAR. You go to NASCAR. You had those flags all over the place. They stopped it. I just think it’s freedom of speech, whether it’s Confederate flags or Black Lives Matter or anything else you want to talk about. It’s freedom of speech.”
Several branches and commands have taken steps to ban the flag on their own in the past few months, including the Marine Corps, the Navy, and U.S. Forces Korea. But Esper told the department to pause these efforts until he can issue a department-wide policy.
“I suspect he doesn’t want to get on the president’s bad side,” one defense official said.