clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


It's been 40 years since the last American general received five-star rank, and any rewards given to Gens. Colin Powell and H. Norman Schwarzkopf for their gulf war victory will probably not include elevation to the military's highest rank.

The last officer to wear the circle of five stars on his epaulet was Omar Bradley, who died in 1981. Including Powell and Schwarzkopf, there are now 12 four-star generals in the Army, but the military regards the fifth star as something to be bestowed only in extraordinary circumstances."There's no need to do it," one senior Pentagon military official said. "You'd be screwing around with the entire military structure, and we never liked an imperial military."

A fifth star requires presidential approval and an act of Congress, and "in the euphoria of victory, the U.S. Congress does many things," said military historian Trevor N. Dupuy, a retired Army colonel.

But Dupuy said it was unlikely the politicians could buck military tradition and resistance.

Even at the White House, there was no sense of a fifth star.

"They're usually not given as rewards but as promotions to people that are moving into significant positions," chief of staff John Sununu said recently.

Possibly the highest-ranking American military leader was World War I Gen. John J. Pershing, whom Congress named General of the Armies in 1919. "It was like a six-star rank," Dupuy said.

It wasn't until 1978, as part of bicentennial celebrations, that George Washington was elevated to the same rank.

Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were given the title General of the Army. But the first five-star general was not authorized by Congress until 1944, and then it was primarily a question of military expediency.

The Pentagon gave Dwight D. Eisenhower a fifth star so he would outrank his subordinate, Britain's Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.

But to promote Eisenhower, the military also had to give a fifth star to his superior, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshal, as well as Southwest Pacific theater commander Douglas MacArthur and Henry "Hap" Arnold, who was to become General of the Air Force.

Bradley received his fifth star in 1950 when he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff so he would not be outranked by MacArthur. No five-stars emerged from the Korean or Vietnam wars.

Military protocol rules out a fifth star for Schwarzkopf alone. As in the case of Bradley and Marshal, Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would have to receive a fifth star if he was to continue to outrank Schwarzkopf, who is field commander for the U.S. Central Command. So would Gen. Carl Vuono, who as Army Chief of Staff is also Schwarzkopf's superior.