Esper’s order seems designed to bar the flag from display without provoking the president.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a list of approved flags service members can publicly display on Friday, and the Confederate flag was notably not among them.
The list comes amid a national reckoning on race, and is the product of intense soul-searching inside the U.S. military following weeks of unrest after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. The tactic appears to be designed to ban the flag without raising the ire of President Trump, who has expressed consistent support for symbols of the Confederacy.
“We must always remain focused on what unifies us: Our sworn oath to the Constitution and our shared duty to defend the nation,” Esper wrote in the policy memo, which he released Friday on Twitter and which the Associated Press previewed on Thursday. “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.”
The new memo covers flags flown by troops and civilians in schools, barracks, office buildings, Navy vessels, commissaries, bathrooms and more. Exceptions include license plates, museums, grave sites, memorials and more. Find the full list on page two of the memo, here.
The U.S. Marine Corps took a high-profile stance on the issue when it banned public displays of the Confederate flag in early June. The rest of the Defense Department was much more reluctant, especially as attention gathered around the U.S. Army, which has 10 bases named for Confederate generals. The discussion grew more fraught after Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said June he was open to removing the generals’ names — and Trump the next day vowed to stop that from happening.
Army officials have since been trying to create and implement a policy on divisiveness far broader than a simple ban on the display of the Confederate flag, as Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reported nearly 10 days ago. But that effort slowed somewhat after June 30, when Trump threatened to veto the annual defense policy bill if lawmakers added a provision to kickstart the base-renaming process.
Trump’s threat followed a similar tweet on June 10 when the president referred to Confederate generals as “part of a Great American Heritage.” The president then forcefully defended America’s “heritage” and the need to protect Confederate statues and federal monuments across the country multiple times during a series of speeches over the July 4th holiday.
The issue of the Confederacy emerged again on July 9 when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs leaned into the discussion, slamming the Confederacy as “treason” during a hearing on Capitol Hill. Gen. Mark Milley’s stance stood in stark contrast to the commander in chief’s embrace of symbols of the failed secessionist movement.
Katie Bo Williams and Bradley Peniston contributed to this report.