As a four-star general in the U.S. Army, David Petraeus has just about done it all.
But he’s not alone in that accomplishment. George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were all preeminent commanders who led their troops to victory in ways that defined their generation. Closer examination, though, reveals something Petraeus’ predecessors had that he lacks: A fifth star.
The idea of giving Petraeus a fifth star has been picking up steam lately on the blogosphere and in the media.
He was a West Point standout, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom and later commanded the multi-national force there. Since 2008, he was the head of Central Command, overseeing any U.S. military effort in the vast stretch of land from Egypt to Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
Petraeus is credited for the counterinsurgency manual that many say provided the framework for the successful surge in Iraq. That same manual is being adapted for the fight in Afghanistan. He survived a bullet through the chest and, on a separate occasion, a 60-foot drop when his parachute collapsed while skydiving.
He accomplished so much, in fact, that, when President Barack Obama needed a new commander for the International Security Forces in Afghanistan, he hand-picked Petraeus.
So why not give the man five stars?
J. Michael Waller, Annenberg professor of international communications at the Institute of World Politics and a pre-deployment instructor for the Army, noted that Petraeus’ new post was effectively a demotion and flies in the face of the usual “up or out” approach for American commissioned officers.
“It’s one thing to have an exception that’s being made for Petraeus now, based on who he is as a person” with the perfect combination of military leadership and political savvy, Waller said. “But you can’t have a military running like that. You need a rank to go along with it to reflect a person’s authority and capability.”
That’s why five-star generals were appointed in the first place.
Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, said, “Initially there was a very practical reason to make somebody a five-star general.”
During World War II there was no consistent system for determining rank between different countries so you had situations where, for instance, a five-star British field marshal, say Bernard Montgomery, was taking orders from Eisenhower, a four-star.
“When you have a meeting of the British and American chiefs of staff, the British are all five-stars and their American counterparts are four-stars — that just didn’t look good,” Crane said.
Today, the five-star General of the Army ranking, and its British equivalent, is a wartime-only ranking by law, and the U.S. hasn’t been involved in any official war since WWII. In fact, the last person to hold five stars was Bradley in 1950, and even then, since the war had ended, the commission was largely honorific, Crane said.
But Petraeus doesn’t have to vie for authority. As Waller put it, “I think Petraeus is golden right now. Whatever he wants, he can have,” at least on the battlefield.
However, noted Waller, “There’s a certain niche to it that would give him an incredible amount of political power, both within the Pentagon and also within U.S. politics. I think if Obama was smart, he would incentivize him to stay in the military as long as possible so that he didn’t have to run against him as a civilian next time around.”
That being said, the fifth star is not a be-all, end-all. One need only look to five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was relieved of his command by President Harry Truman during the Korean War, as an example of that, noted Crane. MacArthur (and McChrystal more recently) was quickly reminded of who was boss.
“Having four-stars, five-stars, 10-stars doesn’t matter,” Crane said. “The president’s in charge.”