U.S. Defence Department effectively bans Confederate flags on military bases

After weeks of wrangling, the Pentagon on Friday will ban displays of the Confederate flag on U.S. military installations, in a carefully worded policy that doesn't mention the word ban or that specific flag.

Flags from states, military units and POW flags are all acceptable, according to edict

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper seen last week at a briefing in Doral, Fla., has committed to a review of Confederate symbols and names on military installations. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

After weeks of wrangling, the Pentagon on Friday banned displays of the Confederate flag on U.S. military installations, in a carefully worded policy that doesn't mention the word ban or that specific flag.

The policy, laid out in a memo obtained by The Associated Press, was described by officials as a creative way to bar the flag's display without openly contradicting or angering U.S. President Donald Trump, who has defended people's rights to display it.

Signed by U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday night, the memo lists the types of flags that may be displayed at military installations. The Confederate flag is not among them — thus barring its display without singling it out in a "ban."

"We must always remain focused on what unifies us, our sworn oath to the Constitution and our shared duty to defend the nation," Esper's memo states. "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."

Acceptable flags listed in the memo include the U.S. and state banners, flags of other allies and partners, the widely displayed POW/MIA flag and official military unit flags.

Confederate flags, monuments and military base names have become a national flashpoint in the weeks since the death of George Floyd. Protesters decrying racism have targeted Confederate monuments in multiple cities. Some state officials are considering taking them down, but they face vehement opposition in some areas.

According to a Defence Department official familiar with the matter, the decision not to name a specific prohibited flag was to ensure the policy would be apolitical and could withstand potential legal challenges based on free speech. The official said the White House is aware of the new policy and that it takes effect immediately.

Trump, a native New Yorker, has continually defended the symbol.

"I know people that like the Confederate flag, and they're not thinking about slavery," he told CBS News in an interview broadcast earlier this week.

"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," Trump added.

Last month, the president promised to veto any defence authorization bill which include provisions to begin renaming bases currently named after Confederate commanders.

Democrat Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island praised the move on Twitter.

"This is the right move [and] it's long overdue. [The] decision to ban the Confederate flag may not be the outcome Pres Trump wanted, but it's the one our troops, military leaders, & the American people overwhelmingly support," said Reed.

Democratic congressman Mark Pocan was more pointed.

"It's really something when the Defense Secretary can't say the words 'ban' or 'Confederate flag' because our President is racist," the Wisconsin representative tweeted.

No Republicans had publicly commented on the new policy as of Friday afternoon.

Marines 1st to ban the flag

According to Esper's memo, the display of unauthorized flags — such as the Confederate banner carried during the U.S. Civil War — is acceptable in museums, historical exhibits, works of art or other educational programs.

The Marine Corps has already banned the Confederate flag. Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, directed his commanders in early June to remove public displays of the Confederate battle flag. That flag, which some embrace as a symbol of heritage, "carries the power to inflame feelings of division" and can weaken the unit cohesion that combat requires, Berger said.

Military commands in South Korea and Japan quickly followed suit. The new policy does not affect or rescind those bans.

The other three military services were all moving to enact similar bans, but they paused when Esper made it known he wanted a consistent policy across the whole department. Now they will instead issue this new policy to their troops and employees.

An early draft of the Defence Department plan banned display of the Confederate flag, saying the prohibition would preserve "the morale of our personnel, good order and discipline within the military ranks and unit cohesion." That version was shelved, and officials have been struggling since then to come up with a policy that would have the same effect but not create political havoc.

WATCH l Debate over Capitol Hill symbols, which are contributed by each state:

Should Confederate monuments be on display in the U.S. Capitol?

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4 years ago
Inside Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill, Lyndsay Duncombe revisits the issue of whether Confederate monuments should still be on public display 5:55

Esper discussed the matter with senior leaders during a meeting Wednesday, including some of the legal issues surrounding a variety of bans, which some officials believe could be challenged in court.

The final version is a compromise that enables Esper to enact a ban that passes legal muster and gives military leaders what they want, but doesn't infuriate the commander in chief.

According to the official, the new policy doesn't undo the bans already in place, and service chiefs and secretaries will still be able to enact additional more stringent policies restricting symbols they believe are divisive and harmful to unit cohesion. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss decisions not yet made public.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters on Thursday that he is still working on a policy that would remove all divisive symbols from Army installations.

He didn't mention the flag, but said, "we would have any divisive symbols on a no-fly list."

With files from CBC News