As an inveterate Yank who still thinks William Tecumseh Sherman showed a bit too much restraint for my tastes, I’m not particularly sad to see the Confederate flag being taken down from anywhere. Thus, when the Pentagon decided last week it should no longer be flown or displayed at U.S. military installations, I wasn’t exactly outraged.
“Flags are powerful symbols, particularly in the military community for whom flags embody common mission, common histories, and the special timeless bond of warriors,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote in a July 16 memo effectively banning the Confederate flag, according to Fox News.
“The flags we fly must accord with the military imperatives of good order and discipline, treating all our people with dignity and respect, and rejecting divisive symbols.”
Unfortunately, this was government work, and even as much as I generally like Defense Secretary Esper, he fell into the bureaucrat’s trap and managed to screw it all up.
The text of the memo doesn’t just ban the Confederate flag or anything associated with the Confederacy from being displayed, because that would have been too easy. Instead of a list of exclusion, it’s a list of inclusion.
You can still fly or display flags that represent states, U.S. territories and Washington, D.C.; military service flags; general officer flags; flags of U.S. allies; flags of organizations the United States takes part in, like NATO; the POW/MIA flag and several other types of flags.
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 problem with an order of inclusion as opposed to exclusion is that you’re bound to miss something. In this case, it’s the Jolly Roger.
— Paul Szoldra (@PaulSzoldra) July 17, 2020
The Washington Post noted in 2017 that the use of the pirate flag on Navy submarines goes back more than a century.
“The Jolly Roger’s presence on the conning tower of submarines goes back to 1914, at the beginning of World War I, when a British submarine, HMS E-9, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Max Horton, sank the German battle cruiser Hela, according to Richard Compton-Hall in his book ‘Submarines at War 1939-45,’” the newspaper reported.
“Upon his return to port, Horton raised the iconic pirate flag, signaling he had sunk an enemy warship. As Horton’s kills accumulated, he began denoting them by affixing bars to the flag.”
The tradition didn’t end with Horton:
USS Jimmy Carter, 1 of the most secretive subs in the USN, returns to home port flying the Jolly Roger flag – indicating operational action. pic.twitter.com/vpMYZ9xqki
— Ian Keddie (@IanJKeddie) September 13, 2017
Task & Purpose tried to wade through the new flag regulations to figure out whether the triumphant Jolly Roger would still be permitted.
“When asked if submariners could still fly the Jolly Roger on returning from missions, Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence told Task & Purpose: ‘The memorandum does not authorize public display of unlisted flags in the Department of Defense,'” the publication reported on Friday.
“However, the Defense Department policy does allow services and units to fly ceremonial flags, though it’s unclear whether the Jolly Roger might be considered one of them.”
Esper’s decision to only allow flags approved by the Pentagon had a certain warped logic to it, it should be noted. The rationale behind banning the Confederate flag is that divisive flags aren’t conducive to the kind of unity necessary to keep operational focus — and there are plenty of other flags that fit the bill.
Not only did the order avoid the thorny prospect of culturally relitigating, for the millionth time, the meaning of the Confederate flag, it also precluded other divisive banners like Black Lives Matter flags from being displayed.
That also brings up other issues on the left, though. LGBT groups were particularly rankled that the Pride flag wasn’t included in the order.
“It’s absolutely outrageous that Defense Secretary Mark Esper would ban the Pride flag — the very symbol of inclusion and diversity,” Jennifer Dane, the interim executive director for the Modern Military Association of America, told The New York Times.
“In what universe is it OK to turn an opportunity to ban a racist symbol like the Confederate flag into an opportunity to ban the symbol of diversity? This decision sends an alarming message to LGBTQ service members, their families, and future recruits.”
It’s a strange day when I find myself on the side of Jennifer Dane, if not for the same reasons she enumerated. (Dane apparently lives in a bubble where the Pride flag doesn’t carry implicit connotations that certain religious beliefs are bigoted on their face — which doesn’t necessarily make it “the very symbol of inclusion and diversity.”)
Esper’s order was a way to get rid of the Confederate flag without saying the words “Confederate flag.” In doing so, he neglected to realize there were numerous flags not covered under the order that have a significant part in the history and lore of the U.S. Armed Forces, an oversight that makes the order look overzealous.
Task & Purpose noted the Army’s guidance on flags was that “individuals are authorized to display or depict representational flags that promote unity and esprit de corps.” This should have been the guiding spirit of the document Esper issued. Instead, we got this.
The Jolly Roger doesn’t need to be banned to get rid of the Confederate flag in the military. This is the kind of cancel-culture solution you would expect from a Democratic administration.
Unless the Pentagon wants to constantly keep amending this so as to not look ridiculous, it’s time to scrap this memorandum and go back to the drawing board.
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