Friday, July 09, 2010

A Fifth Star?

I forget precisely where I saw this blurb, but I saw a note this week suggesting the promotion of General David Petraeus to the rank of General of the Army, a rank that hasn't been held by an American officer since the death of Omar Bradley in 1981.

I don't think this will happen, nor do I think it should. Let's review the history of this rank, and see why it was ever awarded in the first place.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the nations of Europe began using universal conscription to fill their armies. This was by itself nothing new. What was new was the fact that the men, once discharged, remained in reserve formations that would meet once a year or so to update their rolls. The theory was that, if a war broke out, a nation with a large trained reserve could in very short order have a very large army indeed.

This was one of the few theories of World War I that was borne out in reality. The European armies were huge, on a scale heretofore unseen in history. They were, in fact, so huge as to be unmanageable by an ordinary general officer. It's the basic span of control problem: one man can only effectively manage three to five direct reports. If you add more, he can pretend to manage them, but won't actually do very well. If you have ten million men under arms, that pretty much spells out for you how many echelons of command you need. You cannot run a war with a committee of ten four-star generals, you have to put one in charge. Therefore, they all found it necessary to appoint Field Marshals, officers superior in grade to every other general officer, who could then assemble a command staff to run things. The system seemed to work tolerably.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, Congress was presented with a bit of a problem. The man they had tapped to lead the American Expeditionary Force, John J. Pershing, would be junior by definition to his alleged peers in England and France. But America did not have a rank higher than General ... so, Congress made one. John J. Pershing was appointed to the rank General of the Armies, one of only two men to ever have been appointed to that rank. (Three guesses as to who the other was...)

But this was an ad-hoc solution. Pershing was authorized to design a rank insignia for his new post, but never wore more than four stars.

The problem arose again in World War II, for basically the same reason. This time it was worse, since Dwight D. Eisenhower was supposed to be in overall command of the European Theater of Operations. Until late 1944 this wasn't a problem, since Eisenhower was of equal rank with his peers ... but Bernard Montgomery was about to be promoted to Field Marshal.

This ... was a problem. Because, inter-service politics had become rather more complex in the inter-war period.

If Eisenhower were promoted to a new super-grade, the Chief of Staff of the Army, George C. Marshall, would also have to be so promoted. And General MacArthur, the Army commander in the Pacific. And General Arnold, the head of the Army Air Force. And the Navy wasn't about to be left out ... you'd have to advance the Navy men in equivalent positions to equivalent rank.

So, Congress would have to create two new ranks. The Navy rank, Fleet Admiral, was obvious. There was a brief consideration given to naming the Army rank Field Marshal. Field Marshal Eisenhower ... has a nice ring to it. Field Marshal MacArthur. Yes, that might work, too. But then they got to Field Marshal Marshall, and Marshall was not amused. (And who can blame him? Go ahead, try to say it without snickering.) So, the new Army rank was to be called General of the Army.

By the end of 1944, three men were promoted to Fleet Admiral: William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, and Chester W. Nimitz. Four men were promoted to General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Henry H. Arnold. Two additional appointments were made to that rank, for Fleet Admiral William Halsey and General of the Army Omar Bradley, but none have been appointed since. (It is interesting to note that the most senior five-star officer -- by date of rank -- was a Navy man. The Navy has always been held to be the senior service. Army people don't like to hear that, but there it is...)

(By the way -- Ray Spruance was robbed. He should have gotten Fleet Admiral. But that's beside the point.)

With that said, it should be readily apparent why no new appointments to General of the Army will be made. None of our allies have any serving officers of a rank higher than our full General, so an American General is a peer in all respects to any general officer of an allied service. If the British were to elevate one of their officers serving in the Middle East to Field Marshal, we'd have a legitimate discussion. But since that's vanishingly unlikely, General Petraeus will most likely never hold a rank higher than the one he currently possesses.

Now, if he successfully pulls our fat out of the fire in Afghanistan, it might not be wrong to let him carry a fifth star with him into retirement. I don't think that'd be out of line. It just isn't necessary right now. And that rank, historically, has been all about necessity.

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