The Naming Commission’s Diktats

by Donald Smith

The Congressional Naming Commission (CNC) was authorized as part of the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Its eight commissioners included two retired Army generals, a retired Navy admiral and a retired Marine Corps general. It also had academics with imposing credentials. One commissioner is a professor emeritus at United States Military Academy West Point and another is a senior official at the American Enterprise Institute. The commission’s chief historian, Connor Williams, took a leave of absence from his faculty position at Yale to serve on the CNC. The CNC even had an elected federal official — Austin Scott, a Republican congressman from Georgia.

The CNC recommended — among many, many other things — that all active U.S. Army bases named for Confederate generals be renamed. And, in the Preface to Part 1 of its report, it appears to pick a fight.

This is how the CNC report’s Preface characterizes monuments erected to Confederates and the Confederacy in the years following the Civil War:

Most importantly, during the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, the South and much of the nation came to live under a mistaken understanding of the Civil War known as the “Lost Cause.” As part of the “Lost Cause,” across the nation, champions of that memory built monuments to Confederate leaders and to the Confederacy, including on many Department of Defense assets. In every instance and every aspect, these names and memorials have far more to do with the culture under which they were named than they have with any historical acts actually committed by their namesakes. (Preface, page 3).

The obvious implication of this statement goes well beyond changing some base names. The commissioners presume to pass judgment on (a) what these names and memorials meant to everyone and (b) what the “real” motivations for those statues were. Think about that.

People who read the CNC report will naturally read between the lines and conclude that the CNC has determined that anything or anyone associated with the Confederacy is odious and not worthy of public recognition. The paragraph I quoted above talks about monuments to “Confederate leaders and to the Confederacy.” But a few paragraphs earlier in the Preface, the CNC said this:

In passing the 2021 William M. “Mac” Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act, the United States Congress determined that Confederates and the Confederacy no longer warrant commemoration through Department of Defense assets.

The average American can connect the dots. The CNC — which claims to be speaking with Congress’ approval — sure seems to be sending the message that “Confederates” (which presumably includes the lowest-ranking private) are unworthy of respect by the Defense Department. I’m sure that many of the descendants of those Confederates will not only get the message — they’ll notice its judgmental and arrogant tone.

Interestingly, the CNC does not define the term “Lost Cause.” I suspect that, for each of us, that term means something different. If the Lost Cause was something so odious that simply being associated with it justifies condemnation and cancellation, then shouldn’t we define it? Shouldn’t we all operate off one common, agreed-upon term? Especially when we’re discussing a contentious topic. There is no Glossary in the CNC report. So, it’s quite possible that, for the CNC, the term “Lost Cause” meant whatever the CNC wanted it to mean.

Did the CNC think we’d accept its judgments and recommendations as diktats? Apparently so. Unfortunately, there’s apparently no way to ask questions about, or demand explanations for, its recommendations. The CNC has dissolved itself. Its point-of-contact email for public relations matters now returns error messages when you try to contact it. Think about that, too.

What a fine way to handle our country’s heritage. You can read the report for yourself at The Naming Commission’s website.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.