Trouble at Fort Hood
As battles rage over Confederate symbols in the US military, Paul Demarty asks what the left has to learn
While protests continue at memorials to certain of America’s historic personalities, statues are not the only monuments that are subject to controversy.
One effect of the present crisis is to draw renewed attention to a matter that rewards a closer look - which is to say, the scattering across the American south of military bases named after Confederate generals. On and off for decades, a culture war has broiled over this, and the recent revival of Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder posed the question once more. Commander in chief Donald J Trump will have none of it, of course, as per a wildly-capitalised series of tweets:
The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars … Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!
On the face of it, this is a bizarre argument, because the men so commemorated - Robert E Lee, John Bell Hood, Pierre GT Beauregard and the rest - made war against the United States. It is as if there was a Fort Hohenzollern, or a Camp Võ Nguyên Giáp. In fact, it is worse, for the German army of 1914-18 and the Vietnamese National Liberation Front were just run-of-the-mill enemies, while
the Confederacy … was an act of rebellion. It was an act of treason, at the time, against the union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the US constitution. Those officers turned their back on their oath.
Those are the words of general Mark A Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the US armed forces and therefore a senior military advisor to the president - for now, anyway.
Milley’s intervention came at a congressional hearing, where he was determined to tell his audience that renaming the bases certainly was on the table. Not long ago, the Marine Corps decided to remove references to Confederate heroes and ban Confederate paraphernalia, such as flags, among its ranks and in its facilities. Similar moves are afoot in the other forces.
There is an ‘obvious’ leftist response to this dispute, which is to ridicule the idea that the US military could be thought of as a champion of the oppressed, and the liberals going all gooey over Milley only weeks after the moment when - as he escorted Trump to St John’s church for a bizarre photo-op - he provided set dressing for the president’s ‘send in the troops’ ranting (Milley has since apologised for his role in that incident, and stated that he should not have participated). And such a complaint is true as far as it goes: if The New York Times is looking to the American officer corps to rein in the president, the stench of desperation is rather overpowering.
To leave things there, however, would be to ignore the interesting questions. Why have the military brass risked their cushy jobs by repeatedly undermining Trump’s calls to send in the troops? How can touchy-feely anti-racism coexist with the notoriously brutalising training regimes of the forces? And why the hell are there major military bases named after traitors?
The story must start with the civil war - the second revolutionary war in American history. The first gave birth to a deeply contradictory society, which venerated liberty, but partly based itself on slave labour. The slave-owner class dominated all three branches of government and - as the industrial revolution generated enormous demand for cotton in Europe, especially the mills of north-west England - became enormously wealthy. Attempts to kick-start industry, led by northern manufacturers, were frustrated by southern planters; class interest was overdetermined by successive ideological waves - firstly of a Protestant revivalism, in which an apocalyptic abolitionism could take root, and then by the great migration of radicals exiled by the failed revolutions of 1848. These strains ultimately tore apart the Democrat-Whig two-party system in such a way that handed the new anti-slavery Republican Party the presidency, leading rapidly to war.
As Karl Marx predicted, the war initially went badly for the Yankees, but Abe Lincoln eventually understood that total mobilisation was needed, and - with the emancipation of southern slaves - ensured that only total victory for the confederacy would be enough to maintain the ‘peculiar institution’. The union’s naval blockade, which was sustained in part because proletarian solidarity in Britain prevented intervention on the side of the south, slowly starved the south out; innovative and brutal military strategies employed by northern commanders like Ulysses S Grant and William Sherman slowly tightened the noose until finally, after more than four years of hideously bloody conflict, Robert E Lee finally surrendered.
The armies raised by both sides in the war were the largest ever seen in the young republic. The revolutionary component of American ideology disdained standing armies as an instrument of tyranny, and in fact even after 1865 the union army was extensively demobilised - kept at a level needed to crush native American peoples in the west and, for a time, impose order on the conquered south. That effort ended in failure; the northern bourgeoisie, desperate for a return to normality and concerned about the links between radical reconstructionism and explosive labour struggles, cut a deal with the planters that robbed black Americans of the rights they had formally won and entrenched their former masters as an agrarian ruling class under the sign of white supremacy. It was vastly weakened from its antebellum power, but that was small comfort to the black workers subject to semi-free labour conditions and arbitrary violence. It worked out just fine for the northern bourgeoisie, who built America into a major industrial power and competitor for global dominance.
It was that dynamic, in the end, that gave us the first wave of today’s Confederate forts. A powerful political faction grew up that wanted greater influence on the world stage, dominated by Britain’s vast, but declining, colonial empire; under Woodrow Wilson, America entered World War I in its last stages, and Camp Beauregard and Forts Bragg, Benning and Lee were put together during and after that conflict. Wilson was a white-supremacist Democrat who promoted the ‘lost cause’ theory in his speeches, according to which the Confederate struggle was a noble defence of the founding liberties of the country, but doomed due to northern numerical and industrial superiority. Under this rubric, Beauregard, Lee and their comrades could pull off the trick of being national heroes, despite betraying the nation at appalling human cost.
The southern ‘Jim Crow’ regime intensified across the board in this period, with the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan, whose supporters caused mayhem at the Democratic convention of 1924. The army itself was maintained this time, and the rest of the bases named for confederate generals date from World War II, by the end of which the USA was global top dog and engaged in strategic struggle with the Soviet Union. Major cracks, however, were showing in the Jim Crow regime, which widened just as the cold war started generating ‘hot’ conflicts. The expanding US military absorbed ever more black soldiers, and by the height of the Vietnam war the contradiction was acute: thousands of African Americans, with political consciousness raised by the civil rights struggle, were thrown into a hopeless and demoralising war. Muhammad Ali spoke for many when he declared: “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” It was the crisis of morale, which extended to the killing by soldiers of their officers (‘fragging’), that ultimately forced the United States into humiliating defeat.
Overcoming ‘Vietnam syndrome’ has been a problem ever since. One important part of that problem has involved facing up to the fact that the armed forces are blacker than the general population (the officer corps, of course, are whiter), and thus popular racism in the ranks and especially among junior officers presents the risk of more mutinies. Another part, however, was an ideological counter-offensive of militaristic chauvinism, with ‘support our troops’ propaganda heaped on top of every major sporting event and metastasising to every new cultural form (see, for example, the enormous success of military-shooter video games such as the Call of Duty series). This, in the end, amounted to a variation on the Lost Cause theme: America’s aims in Vietnam were noble, its soldiers heroic, but it was tragically not to be … Suffice to say, it is no less preposterous than the neo-Confederate version.
Abolish the army
Thus the bizarre situation where Trump demands that Confederate paraphernalia remain in place, even as the forces themselves inch towards doing away with them, is not a clash of personalities, but a contradiction between, you might say, the efficient and the dignified parts of the armed forces - their function as armed bodies of men and women, and their function as ideological totem. Particularly in the acute, ‘insurrectionary’ phase of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, when Trump was most vociferous in his demands for violent crackdowns, the military was caught in an awkward spot - there was surely no guarantee of discipline being maintained if ordinary regiments were deployed to black neighbourhoods in American cities.
Though there is no recent incidence of conscription in the USA, given the disastrous effects of the Vietnam draft on morale and discipline, some of the same problems arise from the ‘economic’ conscription, which is far more extensive since the deindustrialisation of the Reagan years and after. On top of that, close to 20 years of directionless deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq have done as much as anything else to erode the political stability among the rank and file and veterans. In practice, the result has tended towards the right rather than the left so far, with troops being especially prone to the sort of Dolchstosslegende conspiratorialism that has so marked the Trump movement.
The importance of these contradictions is not that the armed state apparatuses in the USA are on the verge of splitting, as indeed happened in 1861. The question is rather strategic. A revolution - peaceful or otherwise - is essentially impossible without such a split. Leftwing groups, even very large mass parties, are vanishingly unlikely to dispose of a level of military force sufficient to dissuade the bourgeoisie from armed counterrevolutionary resistance, or else effectively repel such violence, without first obtaining the loyalty of substantial detachments of the armed state.
It so happens that the statue protests give us one great illustration of how not to do it. One of the statues pulled down at a protest in San Francisco was of Ulysses S Grant. It is not terribly well known that Grant himself was, for a short time, a slave-owner - he married into a family that owned slaves, and tarried about freeing them until after the war. This, it seems, is the motivation for pulling the statue down. Yet it is quite ridiculous to do so. Slavery was abolished in the US by war; Grant, above all others, delivered victory in the war. A statue of Grant celebrates not slavery, but its overthrow. He is famous for basically nothing else - winning the civil war, and trying (and ultimately failing) to get Reconstruction done on anything other than the south’s terms.
The action reflects a ‘revisionist’ strand of historiography that, by careful selection of topics of study, contrives to place resistance among black slaves as the primary driving force; but this serves the purpose of giving us a comforting image of ‘the oppressed liberating themselves’ rather than improving our understanding of the historical period. Slave resistance and abscondment was, of course, critically important at various junctures. Street battles over ‘slave-catcher’ activity in the 1850s - and the Dred Scott case - played a role in building up a core of people willing to fight to overthrow it; and mass desertions aided the union advance in the later stages of the war, providing soldiers and workers to the northern armies. The instruments of liberation, however, were artillery, rifles and bayonets, and the primary agents the men who wielded them (including small numbers of ex-slaves).
The left needs a strategic approach to the question of the existing military - and our strategy must surely be guided by our ambition to overcome war altogether. We must aim to end the existence of standing armies a lot sooner; and, while, rightly, the focus today is on the police, the armed forces are no less problematic. Recent calls for police abolition are motivated primarily by moral disgust at their antics in American cities; but the question in fact goes to the heart of political strategy. We cannot rely on the armed detachments of the capitalist class order to defend socialist governments; for the same reason, we cannot avoid fighting to break the loyalty of sections of them to the state order (historically far easier among troops than police).
That means going beyond moral disgust.