WASHINGTON (CNN) — Defense Secretary Mark Esper is set to unveil a policy aimed at barring troops from having racially or socially divisive symbols in public places on military installations, several defense officials tell CNN.
It is not publicly known yet if Esper will specifically announce a long-expected ban on the Confederate flag as part of the policy change, which could come as soon as this week, although the military services have all wanted a ban for some time. Esper could choose to ban the flag or set an overall policy banning divisive symbols and leave it up to the services to decide on specific measures.
Esper has been personally involved in a number of initiatives inside the Pentagon bureaucracy to improve racial inclusion in the ranks since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis in May sparked nationwide calls for racial justice and inclusion.
Whether or not Esper mentions the flag, leaders at the highest levels of the uniformed ranks have already been making decisions.
In June, Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, and Gen. Robert Abrams, the head of US forces in South Korea, issued memos specifically banning the Confederate flag in public places under their military jurisdiction.
‘A painful reminder’
After Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, the heads of the Army, Air Force and Navy had all been within days of issuing similar memos banning the flag but put any action on hold when Esper began his broader efforts on racial inclusion.
But on July 2, another top commander became the latest to ban that flag. Lt Gen. Kevin Schneider, head of US forces in Japan, issued a memo banning the Confederate flag from “workplaces, common-access areas, and public areas” as well as military installations in Japan.
His language was nearly identical to Berger’s and Abrams’, noting that while some may view that flag “as a symbol of regional pride, many others in our force see it as a painful reminder of the history of hate, bigotry, treason, and devaluation of humanity that it represents.”
For the military, anything that could harm the cohesiveness of a fighting force is something top commanders always feel they must address and try to remove from the ranks.
Now that three of the most senior officers have moved to bar the flag, several officials say they expect all the services to follow suit rapidly after Esper acts. Esper’s upcoming policy may give commanders enough “top cover” to avoid the wrath of President Donald Trump, who continues to support displaying the flag, one defense official familiar with the matter told CNN.
On Tuesday, Trump told CBS News that he believes the Confederate flag is “freedom of speech” and compared it to the same freedoms of the Black Lives Matter movement. While the President has been adamant that he opposes removing Confederate names from military bases, it is not known if he would essentially take on the military’s top brass over the flag issue.
Esper is aware the matter has historic importance to the military.
“I want to make sure that we have an approach that is enduring, that could withstand legal challenge but that unites us and more importantly helps build cohesion and readiness,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in July.
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