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Sunday, December 23, 2012


Steve Cole muses: Just thinking to himself about the rank of senior military officers.

In the US military, we have a rank called brigadier general, commonly known as a one-star general. In the British military, this is simply a brigadier, not a general, but in the US during the revolution, we had so few generals (the only generals being what is now the two-star rank of major general) that the brigadiers wanted to be introduced as "general" during social functions. So the Continental Congress called this rank Brigadier-General so that politically connected people who held that rank could be introduced at parties as "General Smith" without the distinction being made which kind of general they were. (One aspect here is that brigadiers were still part of a branch like infantry or cavalry, while generals were not part of a specific branch of the Army but were just "generally" good at being leaders.)

Various European navies (and the US) used the term commodore for an officer one step higher than the captain of an individual ship. American commodores were appointed as needed to command several ships. Congress, traditionally reluctant to appoint senior military officers, created the term "flag officer" as an official rank in 1857, this being the equivalent of a European rear admiral, which is now a US two-star admiral. (The term "flag officer" in a generic sense refers to any admiral or general as each has his own personal flag.) In 1862, Congress created one-star Commodores and two-star Rear Admirals as formal ranks, and that continued to 1899 although few commodores were actually appointed.

It might be noted that the US Congress did not like naming higher generals (fearing a coup). Only George Washington and Winfield Scott held the three-star rank of Lieutenant General, despite the unspoken question of who was a lieutenant general the assistant to as there was no higher general. Grant was made a lieutenant general so that two hundred major generals did not complain about him being in command of men technically senior to him by date-of-rank. Grant was made a four-star general in 1866 because the Confederacy had several four-star generals and things got confusing at post-war parties. (The Confederacy gave generals the rank of whatever kind of European general was commanding that number of men.) The US finally admitted that it was just silly not to use (European) ranks appropriate to the number of troops actually commanded (by European generals). Congress, however, really confused things by making the rank "general" instead of the European "colonel-general" partly because the British used the term "general" for someone higher than a lieutenant general and lower than a field marshal. This confuses everyone because a generic General Smith introduced at a party might be one, two, three, four, or five stars, and the only way to be clear is to introduce him by the unofficial title of "four-star General Smith." The theory was that there were so few of the big generals that you'd know them by name and not get confused.

European armies have a rank called Field Marshal which is higher than a four-star general. (This comes from the Middle Ages title of "marshal of the field" which was sometimes higher and sometimes lower than a general.) When the US finally needed five-star generals in World War II, George C Marshal refused to be known as Field Marshal Marshal so we got stuck with General of the Army as the five-star title. Somebody forgot to check the paperwork because John Pershing had been General of the Armies (note the plural) in World War I. Because of that plurality, lots of people who don't understand think Pershing was a six-star general.

The Navy constantly complained during 1870-1899 that one-star generals got to be addressed at social functions by the generic word "general" and sounded more important than the Navy's equivalent one-star commodores. The Army complained that the Navy had taken to skipping the one-star commodore rank and promoting captains straight to rear admiral. So, it was decided to eliminate the almost unused commodore rank and make one-star admirals "rear admiral lower half" with the silly lower-half thing referring to the Navy seniority list. Except it never really did, as there were a lot more "lower half" than "upper half" rear admirals, you had to be formally promoted to upper half (not just get there as you gained seniority over time), and all rear admirals (upper or lower) wore the same two-star uniform. (A handful of US naval officers held the official but temporary rank of commodore during World War II because a really big Navy needed more admirals than the limit Congress had given for them.) The Army complained constantly that lower-half rear admirals got to wear two stars like higher-ranking major generals, confusing civilians at parties as to who was more important. In 1982, the Army won a victory and forced the Navy to name any future one-star officers commodore instead of admiral. The Navy tried to convince everyone that these men were commodore-admirals (following the pattern of brigadier-general) so they could be introduced at parties as admiral so-and-so. Nobody was happy, and in 1986 Congress eliminated commodore once again, went back to upper/lower-half, but this time lower-half rear admirals only got to wear one star. The Army considered that fairness had finally broken out, and the armed forces lived happily ever after.