A Cobra And The Fangs Of Change
The year 2020 will be one that we will never forget. Half way through this year and our lives have been transformed forever. As one television news anchor said, welcome to the new normal. From the COVID-19 Pandemic, to the racial unrest in many of America's cities, America has yet once again come to the realities of race. However, unlike in previous decades and racial incidents, we've seen dynamic attempts and changes to honestly address this one major issue, that has plagued this nation for centuries.
In many American cities, statues and monuments that give reverence to the Confederacy of the Civil War and the generals who led it, as well as displays of the Confederate flag have been removed while protest demands are calling for the removal of many more. Several buildings on college campuses, libraries, streets/roads, and government buildings are being challenged to rename themselves. Now added to the dialogue are military bases named after Confederate generals. To many, these men were traitors who took up arms against the Federal government of the time. Therefore they are not worthy of such honor and recognition. President Trump has expressed his disdain and opposition for the renaming of American military bases and thus debate rages on.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy stated that
they were "open to a bipartisan discussion", but President Donald Trump said his administration would "not even consider" renaming what he called "Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations" that "have become part of a Great American Heritage, a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom.", according to the associated Press this past June.
A few months ago, the Commandant of the US Marines, General David Berger announced that the Confederate flag would be removed from any type of display on all US Marine Corps bases. This includes vanity plates, bumper stickers, clothing, posters, and other outward presentations. The US Marine Corps is the first US military branch of service to issue such a ruling. Currently there are 10 Army bases named after
Confederate military leaders from the Civil War. One of which is Ft Rucker, located in Dothan, Alabama. The base, which trains aviation related jobs, most notably Army Aviators, was named for Edmund Rucker, a colonel appointed acting brigadier general in November of 1864. Because these men took up arms against the US government, many have questioned, why are these bases named after former enemies of the state as well as those who came out of the defeated side of the war ?
Most of the high ranking Confederate officers were graduates of the US Military Academy West Point. Also many have served alongside the Union contemporaries during the Mexican War and battles with Native Americans during the westward expansion. Therefore many of these men weren't looked at as traitors but former schoolmates and comrades in arms. After the Civil War, as a means of reconciliation, these bases were named after these men.
For anyone who has ever left Ft Rucker as an Army Aviator, or some other type of aviation related Military Occupation Specialty (MOS), there's a sense of pride of saying that you're a son or daughter of "Mother Rucker". However in light of recent developments and dialogue concerning Confederate statues and monuments, has the time come to reconcile previous centuries with the modern era ? Is there not a way and means to compromise ?
When these bases were named, society at that time did not have a reverence for African-Americans nor women. The architects of the social order of previous eras never envisioned a future in which not just African Americans but other racial categories and women would play vital roles in every facet of American way of life. Its only logical that men held in high esteem would reflect the segregation, Jim Crow, and gender roles of their day. Perhaps the time has to come to honor recent history that reflects the ideals of contemporary society. Initially named Camp Rucker in 1955, the base didn't bear the name until nearly a century after the Civil War ended. Therefore it is not etched in stone that a base can not be renamed. If it could be renamed, who would it be named after ?
Born in Alabama in 1941 and later raised in Mississippi, Ezell Ware Jr. would eventually go from an enlisted Marine and later enlisted US Army soldier to a Brigadier General in the Army. His story is one of legends and awe inspiring, worthy of
commendation and retold on a massive scale for generations to come. Exposed to the suffocating segregation of the Jim Crow American south of the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's, he lifted himself out of poverty by enlisting initially in the US Marines and later Army. He went from working a host of jobs from General Dynamics to the San Diego Police Department.
He later re-entered the US Army as a Warrant Officer and graduated from flight school in Class 67-7 at Ft. Rucker. He was assigned to the famed 61st Attack Helicopter Company as an AH-1 Cobra rear seat pilot in Vietnam from 1967-1968. Just as in civilian life, he faced deep rooted racism in the Army in Vietnam. He like so many other black Vietnam veterans often felt more antagonized by their fellow comrades in arms than they did the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC). However, he felt convicted to honor his oath as an Army Officer to defend the US Constitution against enemies both foreign and domestic.
It was after returning from a close air support mission that his helicopter was shot down by the enemy. His pilot in command, Captain Burdett sustained a very serious leg injury that impeded his ability to walk or run on his own. The AH-1 Cobra was developed in the mid-1960s as an interim gunship for the U.S. Army for use during the Vietnam War. It put fear into the hearts of the enemy ground troops when they encountered it. Over time, the NVA and VC had begun to devise innovative ways to shoot the Cobra and their UH-1 Huey counterpart down by offering prize bounties. The typical maneuver and strategy was the Huey's and Cobra's would operate as hunter striker teams. It was immediately after being shot down that General Ware realized that the hunter was now the hunted.
Captain Burdett's injury was slowing the desperate pair down. The enemy did come within close proximity of the two and General Ware, then a lieutenant shot the enemy combatants with his service pistol. The two managed to allude the enemy who were hot on their trail for several more days. Feeling like his days were numbered and no longer capable of going on, Captain Burdett who already had a volatile relationship with Ware began to urge Ware to leave him behind and escape alone because Burdett was literally weighing him down. By then, days had turned into weeks. The men were starving to death, dehydrating, and falling victim to the jungle environment. They were surviving off of insects and the sheer will to survive. Although the two men had a very volatile relationship due to Burdett's racist views, Ware was compelled to aid his fellow pilot to safety.
Such conditions and situations only compel men to address the harsh realities as well as their own demons as they fear that imminent death awaits them right around the corner. An avowed racist, Burdett makes a startling revelation to Ware that would change the whole tone of not just their attempts to evade the enemy, but the remainder of their lives. Burdett revealed that not only was he a generational member of the Ku Klux Klan, but the Grand Imperial Wizard of the KKK. What do you do in a situation like that ?
Burdett had come to personify everything that was wrong in Ware's life and seemingly every black person in America at that point. The Vietnam War was a very unpopular war, taking place during the decade that forever changed America. The anti-Vietnam War protests, coupled with the Civil Rights Movement and civil unrests, there was a powder keg atmosphere ready to explode and implode as well. Many blacks at the time were vehemently against the war in Southeast Asia, most notably Muhammad Ali who refused to answer to the draft board. Now Ware began to question why was he even in Vietnam.
At that moment, he was faced with several choices. He first and foremost could succumb to anger, resentment, perhaps even revenge and hate and leave Burdett for himself. Second he could have actually killed him as a form of retribution. Or three, he could chose the high ground and honor the mantra of "leave no man behind". Ware chose the high ground and showed Burdett a higher sense of humanity and dignity that he admittingly would not have extended to any person of color.
This act is what ultimately caused Burdett to change his mind on race and his involvement with the KKK. Ware and Burdett would remain on the run until rescued after evading the enemy for three months. Accounts of the whole ordeal are chronicled in
General Ware's book, "By Duty Bound". Such a book should be required reading for college ROTC cadets and plebes entering into all service academies. It is only logical that Ft Rucker should bear his name as well. First and foremost, he was an actual product of Ft. Rucker. Secondly, he literally stood and stared racism in the face and chose not to yield to his personal politics, feelings, and emotions. He did however feel duty bound to honor the uniform and the men and women who wore it before him. And for that matter, he deserves to have a base named in his honor, for he is the epitome of honor.