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82nd Airborne Ceremonial Band on Stang Field, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Close-up of bass drummer carrying drum, sticks at the ready to perform, with other musicians.

The Shame of Fort Liberty

The renaming of Fort Bragg wasted an opportunity to inform and educate.

Words: Joe Buccino
Pictures: Gerald Zaffuts
Date:

The renaming of Fort Bragg, mandated by US Congress and formalized in a ceremony last month, was an opportunity to commemorate or inform not only current and future troops and families, but also the country more broadly, of the social value of its army. In selecting the name “Liberty,” that opportunity was wasted.

Fort Bragg has been the home installation for the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps for more than seven decades. It is also the home of the US Army’s Special Operations Command and training program. The post has developed a culture of rapid response and immediate readiness for combat operations.

The shedding of the base’s Confederate namesake was appropriate and overdue. Fort Bragg had been named for Braxton Bragg, a Confederate General in the American Civil War’s Western Theater. Bragg was among that war’s worst-performing generals; Jefferson Davison fired him from command after a series of lopsided defeats. The name of Braxton Bragg, a traitor to the Union and a bumbling general, has never fit the installation’s legacy or culture. But the moment could have been more than a simple cleanse of an unsanitary history. The name change offered a moment to inform, educate, and connect people to an idea, or to elevate another leader who better lives up to our current values and ideals. But the leadership did not rise to the occasion, opting instead for a bland and meaningless new designation for the fort.

To avoid offending anyone, the leadership disappointed everyone.

The installation’s leadership had an opportunity to name the post after a legendary figure from its grand heritage. The editorial board of the Fayetteville Observer, the daily local paper that has been covering Fort Bragg since its inception, advocated for “Fort Ridgway.” Ridgway’s role in the desegregation of UN forces fighting in Korea in 1953, a move that was remarkably unpopular with soldiers and generals across the army, remains an underexamined moment in American history. It was a bold move that had momentous ramifications for society at large for decades to come. The process shamed the army into belatedly and begrudgingly acting on President Harry Truman’s military desegregation order of 1948. The ceremonial process of renaming the fort after Ridgway could have brought his courageous decision into current discussions, even if just for a brief moment.

Another option would have been renaming the fort “Fort Porter” in honor of the original commander of the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. This designation would have brought national attention to the inspiring story of “the Triple Nickels.” During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service sent more than 9,000 incendiary balloon bombs to America’s Pacific Coast to ignite large-scale fires and drive down domestic support for American participation in the war. Toward the end of the war, the paratroopers of the Triple Nickels remained in the United States. They were tasked with inserting into raging forest fires from aircraft and containing the blaze. These troops performed so admirably in that mission that they were integrated into all-white units on Fort Bragg one year prior to Truman’s desegregation order.

Gavin, Benavidez, Trapnell — all of these would have given a sense of life and meaning to the post and community. More importantly, it would have offered a mechanism for current and future generations of troops to reflect on their installation’s history. 

What’s in a Name?

By contrast, “Liberty,” the name chosen for the installation, offers no such reflection. It is a banal bromide that can mean virtually anything to anyone. It’s lazy. It’s safe. It treats this enormous and historic institution as a mere commodity with no culture or legacy — they may as well have named the installation Fort Blue or Fort 1234567. The installation’s senior leadership, terrified of criticism and ignorant of the installation’s history, went a shameful route here. The new name was immediately and intensely unpopular with veterans and currently serving soldiers — deservedly so. To avoid offending anyone, the leadership disappointed everyone.

Naming streets, schools, and military bases after historic figures is an endeavor soaked in risk: no figure in American history can be classified as purely “good.” Not MLK, JFK, Lincoln, Washington. Not Eisenhower, Grant, Pershing. No, we are complicated creatures and legacies are messy, particularly when past actions are weighed against present social mores. With enough publicly available information, all heroic figures come under criticism. This is true of Matthew B. Ridgway. It’s also the reason we should honor the humanity, the moments of golden triumph, the examples of compassion that men and women like him give us. We don’t have to be perfect to be admirable, and we can celebrate achievement without deifying our idols. It is still worth honoring exemplary legacies.

“Liberty” is a lifeless, bloodless platitude, any installation in America could fit the sobriquet. The Home of the Airborne and Special Operations, the installation established to form an American artillery force for our first global war and then restructured in the Cold War by Ridgley Gaither as an experimentation center for a rapid-deployment force, deserves better. The fort deserves a name commensurate with its history, lineage, and legacy, a name befitting the soldiers who have served there for decades and will serve there for decades to come. 

Joe Buccino

Joe Buccino is a retired Army Colonel and writer and the author of the book “Burn the Village to Save it: The Myths and Lessons of the Tet Offensive,” set for release in the spring of 2024. He is the CEO of Joe Buccino Consulting, LLC.

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