The history of our Generals of the Armies (note the plural use of “armies”), Generals of the Army and, more recently, five-star generals and admirals is interesting, memorable and may I say, star-studded.
It is also a somewhat complicated story.
Thus, in my effort to summarize and simplify this fascinating bit of history, I hope that I won’t make any major gaffes.
The first and last living General of the Armies of the United States was General John J. Pershing who was promoted to that rank in 1924 in recognition of his World War I service–a four-star rank at the time.
Congress specifically revived this grade to honor General Pershing after having provided for it in an Act in March 1799.
George Washington held appointments with titles such as “General and Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United Colonies and of all forces now raised or to be raised by them…” during our War of Independence and, in 1978, “Lieutenant-General and Commander in Chief of all the Armies raised or to be raised in the United States,” in anticipation of a war with France and finally as the Senior Officer of the United States Army–a title and position that later became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.
George Washington, however, never held the title or rank of “General of the Armies of the United States” until long after his death.
In 1976, President Ford posthumously appointed George Washington General of the Armies of the United States, and a Joint Resolution of Congress granted his grade precedence over all other grades of the Army, past and present, stating that “it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington.”
In 1866, Congress authorized the grade of “General of the Army” and conferred that grade upon Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The prescribed insignia for the newly authorized position was four stars, but was later changed to two silver stars with the arms of the United States in gold between them.
Two more generals were promoted to General of the Army under various forms of subsequent, complicated legislation, such as the Act of July 15, 1870 which required that “the offices of general and lieutenant general shall continue until a vacancy shall exist in the same, and no longer, and when such vacancy shall occur in either of said offices shall become inoperative, and shall, by virtue of this act, from thence forward be held to be repealed.” (Not much has changed in Congress in 140 years).
The two generals were William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan.
The title General of the Army ceased to exist as a military grade in 1891.
During World War II, in 1944, the 78th Congress established the temporary five-star grade of “General of the Army,” a grade that became permanent in March 1946 under the 79th Congress.
In all, five Army Generals and four Navy admirals—“Fleet Admirals of the United Sates Navy”—have held the five-star rank.
One Army General, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, became the first and only five-star General of the Air Force after the Air Force became a separate service in 1947.
There have been no other officers appointed to five-star rank since General Omar N. Bradley who became General of the Army in 1950 while serving as the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While the U.S. was involved in the Korean war during Gen. Bradley’s tenure as General of the Army, some maintain that Omar Bradley’s promotion was done in recognition of his World War II and post-war service.
It is also widely claimed that the five-star rank is generally bestowed only in time of war with approval of the U.S. Congress.
Finally, some historians say that the five-star rank was created in part so that U.S. military commanders of joint forces would not be outranked by other allied military commanders.
This rather lengthy introduction is intended to arouse the reader’s curiosity and to possibly get some feedback on a couple of issues.
First, whether–since we are at war–we need or could benefit from the appointment of a five-star general.
Second, who should that five-star general be?
During the (First) Gulf War, there had been some discussion of promoting the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, to the five-star rank.
How about a fifth star for General David Petraeus?
During recent days, I have noticed that this topic and this idea have been picking up momentum in the blogosphere and the media.
I say “yes” to a five-star General Petraeus based on the following:
If we are serious about fighting and winning in Afghanistan, then let’s give the commander of that war the rank and the authority to match our seriousness and commitment.
General Petraeus has now become the face of the Afghanistan war–many say our only hope to win that war or to come home with honor.
It would show that the President and Congress truly trust and believe in Petraeus–Americans already do–and that he has the unambiguous support of the president, the Congress and the nation.
There is no better person to successfully lead that war.
As D.B. Grady, a former paratrooper with U.S. Army Special Operations Command and a veteran of Afghanistan, says at The Atlantic:
He is, quite literally, the only man for the job. He is the last man standing with the public who can credibly be called upon to not only win the war, but to do the impossible. He has, after all, done it before.
It’s difficult to find a war in American history where so much depended on any one man. He is the face of this war, the spiritual commander in chief amongst presidencies deficient in military authority. He is the only man, general or civilian, who can stand before the American people, the American soldier, and military families, and discuss the conflict without being second-guessed or dismissed out of hand as a partisan hack. Long gone are the days of “General Betray Us.” Indeed, even MoveOn.org has scrubbed its website of the controversial advertisement. Petraeus is the Army. He is the war. The fate of the region is in his hands.
What do you say?
Copyright 2010 The Moderate Voice