General: The Rank Today
The rank and title of General represents a 4-star general officer in the United States Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. A General has the Pay Grade of O-10 and is equivalent to a Admiral in the United States Navy and Coast Guard. General is the rank following Lieutenant General, but subordinate to the 5-star General (General of the Army, General of the Air Force, or Fleet Admiral). However, a 5-star general is only appointed during times of declared war, so therefore a General is usually the highest rank in the US Armed Forces. While at one time there may be several full Generals in each branch, there is one superior for each branch. The Army Chief of Staff, Air Force Chief of Staff, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps are the highest in their respective branches, although still four star Generals. Their Naval and CG equivalents are the Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Coast Guard. All of these officers are coordinated and subordinate to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is also a 4-star general. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is selected from one of the branches by the President of the United States.
The insignia of a General is four, 5-point, silver stars in a row touching point to point. (An image can be seen at http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/almanac/almanac/people/insignias/images/ar_general.gif). The insignia is worn in different places and manners depending on the uniform. For Army and AF dress uniforms, the silver stars are embroidered on a epaulet (black for Army, dark blue for AF) and worn on the shoulder. On Marine Class B’s, the stars are worn on the collar. For all three, the stars are worn subdued and sewn to the collar of the BDU. A general also has the distinctive uniform insignia of general officers, such as their service cap visor decorations and pant leggings. Generals also have a personal flag, which is solid red for Army and Marine Corps and solid blue for the Air Force, with four, white, five-point stars centered on it. Their vehicles also carry a license plate in the front with the same color/star scheme to identify them while inside the vehicle. (The Chiefs of Staff and Chairman of the JCS have distinctive flag designs.)
History of the Rank
The title of General comes from the Latin generalis which means that which deals with a unit or group as a whole, rather than just a segment. Early history found generals only being appointed by a government or monarch in times of warfare. The term for the office became Colonel General until eventually the Colonel was dropped - although not in all instances (the former Soviet Union and the East German/DDR military used the title Colonel General until the fall of the communist bloc).
The US Continental Congress declared George Washington General and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, however he did not adopt any insignia over his 2-star Major Generals until 1798, when he became (America’s first) Lieutenant General and chose 3 stars as his insignia. In 1866, Ulysses S. Grant became the first full 4-star general when he was appointed General of the Army of the United States by Congress. Grant was elected president in 1869, he appointed William T. Sherman as the second General, who oddly enough changed the insignia to 2 stars on either side of a US coat of arms. However, this was only ever used by Sherman and was reverted to four stars after his death.
The next full generals came along with the outbreak of the Great War. Major Generals Tasker H. Blissand and John J. Pershing were temporarily promoted to General so that they would be on equal footing with the commanders they worked with in France. Payton C. March was made a full General following the end of World War I, and Pershing was made General of the Armies of the US (however he chose four, not five stars as his insignia). In 1929, the rank of General was given to the current Chiefs of Staff, and then to more and more officers with World War II.
Now, each branch of the Armed Forces has several Generals. They are referred to as “General” by title and receive all customs, courtesies, and privileges of a general officer. It takes a full military career of 20+ years to even entertain the possibility of becoming a General without some sort of special act of Congress. They also are entitled to the play of the General officer’s march with four ruffles and flourishes wherever they go. Generals are lifers and upon retirement also receive a handsome pension. According to 2002 Commissioned Officer pay scales, a General can expect to make between $10,000 - $12324 per month, base pay while active duty.
- Airman Magazine, January 2002: Commissioned Officer Pay Scale
- Naval Historical Center: (history.navy.mil): Rank: Officers: General.
- Personal Knowledge