The role of general officers (GOs) in peace and in war has been a topic of study and debate for centuries albeit in an unsystematic and unbalanced way. Numerous historical figures and authors from Socrates to Maurice de Saxe to Clausewitz have looked for the source of military genius in the actions of successful generals. This classical approach has been essentially a search for the essence of generalship.
GOs are a staple in all modern armies and few will deny their utility, but to what extent their presence is essential in peace and in war is often difficult to determine with certainty. To begin with, GOs do very little other than actually lead large organizations, but the aspect of leadership at the GO level—or generalship—is clearly different than at any lower level. It is generalship that presumably makes GOs “uniquely valuable,” as one insightful author put it, to both their institution and to the nation they serve.
The rank of general has been with the United States since the beginning. The first U.S. general officer insignia was established by general order on 14 July 1775. Ulysses S. Grant was the first officer of the Army to hold the rank of General and to wear the insignia of four silver stars. In the twentieth century, President Roosevelt appointed Generals George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Henry H. Arnold to General of the Army once the rank was established by Congress on 14 December 1944. A later act of Congress authorized the President to appoint General Omar N. Bradley to the grade of General of the Army, approved 15 September 1950.
Although GOs have been a part of the U.S. military since the beginning, what do they actually do? The simple answer is they command the largest groupings in a military force. But GOs are more than simply senior managers in a military force, they also represent the highest level of leadership. According to one Army study, the role of GOs is to provide organizational support above the tactical level; using many years of experience and focusing on more intuitive decision making, they represent the executive level of leadership in a military force.
To understand the role of GOs it is important to differentiate between leadership and management. Most simply, leadership is the process of clarifying the organizational vision and motivating individuals and teams to achieve identified goals, whereas management is the process of designing structures, setting work priorities, and allocating resources. GOs serve as both leaders and managers. In addition to commanding at the highest organizational levels, GOs also plan all varieties of operations, perform as staff officers on higher level headquarters, serve as logisticians, politicians and diplomats, as circumstances dictate. As one author observed of Dwight Eisenhower, “Generals sometimes find themselves forced to play the role of statesman.” During peacetime, GOs are looked to more as managers and custodians of national military assets; during wartime, GOs are usually looked to more for their role as high level leaders to marshal forces and sustain national military morale through sometimes difficult challenges. Although this is a simplification, it helps to explain why some GOs serve more successfully during peacetime and others more successfully during wartime.
There is no shortage of writings on successful generals because of their obviously very important historical impact. However, too much of this body of work is anecdotal, or merely a method of illuminating an already assumed greatness. Most studies of GOs have sprung from military history in general, and are based too much on the self-congratulatory, if not self-serving testimony of senior military commanders, the unexamined assertions of military theorists, and questionable post hoc analysis. In fact very few attempts have been made to develop a systematic study of generalship. The most systematic attempt has been the trait analysis approach but this suffers from a necessarily limited view and mostly devolves into explaining the obvious. The trait analysis approach is not well suited to explaining how very different leadership abilities and styles have produced effectively identical results in battle and during wartime.
The volume of writing on leadership in general is immense, although much less has been devoted to military leadership in particular. Despite the abundance of writings on leadership, there is surprisingly little on GOs considering that they have always contributed to the rise and decline of empires and other powers by their ability to win or lose battles. In fact far more has been written about soldiers and soldiering than about generals and generalship (not counting the numerous but simple narratives of operational commanders). Even considering that the exercise of leadership at senior levels is primarily intuition driven, it is instructive to note that U.S. Army leadership doctrine places greater emphasis on explaining in detail leadership at the tactical level than at higher levels.
Why is there not more on GOs available to the student of military leadership? It is possible that this general lack of systematic examination of GOs is because the topic is considered too parochial. But it may also have to do with the American value of egalitarianism and tendency to reject any outward displays of militarism. From general officer down to the newest recruit, Americans tend to think of themselves as Americans first and soldiers second. To the extent that it can be said any militarism exists in American culture it is wrapped up in the sporadic service of the citizen soldier who serves to protect national existence, but not in the lasting development of institutions and professionalism of arms and warfighting.
During the ancient period and up through the middle ages, most armies were personally directed by the king, or supreme ruler, who usually also served as the general in chief in all military matters. During these early periods, all soldiers were under the direct control of the king—at least nominally—so there was usually no such thing as a commanding general separate from the king. The king served as the head warrior in the field and led personally in battle in order to win the continuing loyalty and admiration of key lieutenants. This classical view of the GO was expressed well by Napoleon I when he said, “The personality of the general is indispensable; he is the head, he is the all of an army.” Before the development of the modern GO as we would recognize him or her today, there existed a clear connection between the political leader, the king, and the primary warmaker, or the general in chief, such that these functions were usually exercised by the same individual. In the pre-modern model, GOs appear usually as trusted officers who enjoyed the confidence of the king or ruler, were considered capable of executing special missions in a semi-independent role, and served as chiefs of staff or aides-de-camp, as required but usually not in a permanent role. Before the modern era, despite how talented and even driven GOs might have been, they served the aims and plans of the ruler who employed their services.
The rise of the general staff system was a response to the complication of the commander’s job on the battlefield and during campaign. As the nature of warfare changed and became more complex, the operational and strategic levels increased in scope and complexity, which resulted in a significant increase in the need for higher level leaders of different types, operational and strategic, to handle specialized needs like intelligence and logistics. Simply put, there was too much work to do and too many technical skills required. These changes began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but picked up speed significantly during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, and up through the First World War. “Previously, a commander could often view the entire battlefield. Now, the extended distances caused by large, dispersed formations made this impossible and forced him to rely on devices like the telegraph in addition to the traditional messenger system. In some armies, the inadequacy of communications contributed to the development of decentralized command and control techniques. Finally, the logistical considerations to support huge armies also became paramount and the commander grew to depend on general staffs to manage many of the new, technical details.” Although the evolution described here stretched across centuries, in general, the GO has transitioned from the individual leader-warrior in battle and directing war matters personally, to the leader with semi-independent lieutenants, to the general staff system with numerous, specialized GOs.
Although some continuity exists between the traditional and current roles, GOs today hardly resemble those of the pre-modern period. To begin with, GOs are still expected to be devoted, life long students of war. “Becoming a competent general officer takes a lifetime of education, training, and experience.” This responsibility to prepare for military operations exists despite the fact that democracies do not normally engage in predatory or opportunistic warfare. GOs are still entrusted to be the keepers of strategic skills, knowledge, and judgment in a way that does not apply to any other segment of society. Probably the most important role of GOs today is that of practitioners of national military strategy. The quintessential ‘warrior’ on the battlefield has given way to the contemporary ‘manager’ of military systems and ‘practitioner’ of strategic military force.
GOs study for war while the nation enjoys peace. As General Maxwell Taylor said in a speech to The Citadel in 1956, “The good general does not await a bright light, like that which appeared to Saul on the way to Damascus, to obtain a vision of the road to victory. If he has not behind him a lifetime of professional study, if he has not brought to this campaign diligent preparation, careful anticipation of all possibilities, and a body of men believing in him as their leader, it is most improbable that he will receive a stroke of genius to bail him out in a crisis.” To the extent that a military force such as the U.S. Army still relies on “military genius” to do its job and win the nation’s battles, which it does, then GOs are the level of leadership that is expected to develop, nurture, and exercise that level and kind of leadership. This is the level of intuition, judgment, the heavy art end of the spectrum in military art.
Military art will always be a balance between art and science. It is more science than art at the lower, tactical level where weapons’ ranges and capabilities, rates of march, and tons of required supplies dominate the minds of warmakers. At the other, higher end, military art is more art than science. It is more art because of the huge number of unknown variables, the inherent unpredictability of acting against an enemy, and the employment of vast numbers of warfighting systems. The so-called fog of war is most apparent the higher levels of war. GOs are the practitioners of the “higher” military art.
In 1966, one of the most outstanding combat commanders of the Second World War and the Korean War, General Matthew B. Ridgway, addressed a class of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College on the topic of leadership. “Throughout his speech,” according to one author, “Ridgway emphasized the important role of leaders in developing the climate that will ensure their subordinates’ development, earned success, self-confidence, foresight and vision.” Although Americans typically eschew trappings of militarism in the public life of the nation, GOs serve a key role in maintaining and shaping military institutions over time in light of national values and political realities. In general, GOs today—especially in the U.S. and other Western Democracies—are expected to shape the long term direction of the profession of arms and of military institutions since civilian leaders cannot be expected to be experienced or interested in doing so. At the same time, GOs are expected to shape the military in such a way that it supports societal values and is prepared to willingly defend the civilian society when called upon.
According to the distinguished theorist Huba Wass de Czege, GOs “…are important value shapers…. They shape command climates in the Army. They are long–term policy makers and goal setters…. They…shape organizations and make large, complex organizations function.” Senior GOs “…lead other general officers and senior field grade officers in direct ways and work hard to shape consensus among their peers. They are the very long–range institutional value shapers…. They shape the command climate on Army posts, within major commands and within the Army for long periods of time. They make policies and set goals that have impact many years beyond their tenure…. They shape institutions and make long–term important decisions frequently based on intuition because easily recognizable tradeoffs are not apparent.” Wass de Czege’s remarks about GOs provide a good clue as to the function and utility of GOs especially during peacetime. GOs are the long term organizational leaders, implementing long term plans and improvements to everything from training to procurement to professional advancement, while looking out for the service and the overall mission of the service.
Numerous authors have already established that there are significant differences between peacetime and wartime generalship. “[The] qualities of strength of will, boldness, and risk taking that characterize the successful warfighting general are not the same traits which lead to success in peace. The simple and quite understandable reason is that national values and the strategic situation are much different when war has not been declared. Peacetime generalship must be considerably more cautious and restrained in order to remain within the bounds of national policy objectives.” The qualities of the warfighting general are not the same as those of the successful peacetime GO. In some cases, due to grand strategic realities—including significant operational restraints and international considerations—and the peculiarities of a GO’s personality, the best operational commander will not exhibit the more acceptable traits of the ideal executive leader. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and “Chesty” Puller all fell into this category.
GOs who accept and exercise a profound sense of duty to nation are exceptionally important to the life of a nation (as long as war will be used to resolve international competition). An example of a GO accepting ultimate responsibility is GEN Eisenhower and the note he wrote for press release but never had to submit due to the success of Operation OVERLORD. He wrote that the decision to attack at that particular time and place was his decision alone. He emphasized that the soldiers, sailors, and airmen had done all that duty required of them, but if any blame was in order it belonged to him alone. “Of all the messages Eisenhower sent as a general,” wrote one author, “this one, which he never did send, best symbolizes his sense of duty and responsibility. Eisenhower was prepared to accept blame for failure as well as congratulations for success. The message emphatically shows his acceptance of command responsibility and leadership of the greatest military operation of modern times.” As lifelong soldiers, experienced in duty and selfless service, GOs are the ones that the profession and the nation cultivate to accept ultimate responsibility for the success and failure of military operations.
Warfare today is primarily joint and combined, which raises the need for GOs even more due to their breadth of experience, knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, foreign militaries, and in depth knowledge of supporting disciplines like international relations, economic development, and political economy. As one study pointed out, “Strategic level generalship requires the ability to deal with large, diverse organizations and diffused command by indirectly influencing such organizations through intervening subordinate personnel and organizations rather than by direct influence which is the norm at the tactical level.” To represent national interests in all areas—economic, diplomatic, and military—requires at least working knowledge in numerous different and overlapping disciplines and areas of study that were not necessarily taken seriously by GOs of the past. GOs become indispensable in the joint and combined arena, with the international and inter-service experience and understanding necessary to advance necessary policies at the highest military-diplomatic levels.
In some ways the traditional and contemporary roles of the GO have not changed. Many aspects of command at the operational level are similar across the ages; battles are still struggles between the wills of opposing commanders. Fuller’s three pillars of generalship—courage, creative intelligence, and physical fitness—actually go back to the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers in one way or another (except that physical fitness was stressed more by Fuller). Socrates and others have recognized that GOs must be intelligent, possess high physical stamina, and be brave in the face of battle. But in other ways, the current role has changed dramatically. The requirements of modern war would certainly overwhelm any pre-twentieth century GO. If GOs are to serve the political leadership they must have both the broad academic and experiential background to understand what military force is capable of achieving, and have the developed professional ethic to properly and effectively communicate military recommendations to civilian leaders.
1. Montgomery C. Meigs, “Generalship: Qualities, Instincts, and Character,” Parameters (Summer, 2001): 4.
2. See Patricia Harris and Kenneth W.Lucas, Executive Leadership: Requisite Skills and Development Processes for Three- and Four-Star Assignments (U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, August 1994).
3. William B. Huntington, Crusade in Europe: A Critique of Eisenhower’s Operational Art (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1992), 14.
4. Mitchell M. Zais, Generalship and the Art of High Command: Historical and Scientific Perspectives (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1985), 152-3.
5. See Gregory C. Gardner, Generalship in War: The Principles of Operational Command (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1987), 1.
6. Paul B. Parham, “The American Military Profession: An Egalitarian View,” Military Review (November, 1974): 27.
7. Quoted in Zais, Generalship and the Art of High Command, 45.
8. Thomas M. Jordan, The Operational Commander’s Role in Planning and Executing a Successful Campaign (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1992), 3-4.
9. Michael Flowers, “Improving Strategic Leadership,” Military Review (March-April 2004): 43.
10. Address by General Maxwell D. Taylor, Chief Of Staff, United States Army, before The Citadel, Charleston, South Carolina, 21 January 1956, 3.
11. See Michael W. Everett, Tactical Generalship: A View from the Past and a Look Toward the 21st Century (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1986).
12. H. Gray Otis, “Developing Military Genius,” Military Review (November 1989): 50.
13. Huba Wass de Czege, “A Comprehensive View of Leadership,” Military Review (August 1992): 29.
15. Gregory C. Gardner, Generalship in War: The Principles of Operational Command (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1987), 36.
16. Robert H. Berlin, “Dwight David Eisenhower and the Duties of Generalship,” Military Review (October, 1990): 22.
17. Maurice L. Todd, Soldier, Statesman, Scholar: A Study of Strategic Generalship (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994), 7.
- “You have to consider deterrence in the twin contexts of the full theory of strategy and the moving historical landscape. Strategy has many dimensions, and because deterrence is strategic behavior any and all of those dimensions can smooth the way, or impede the path, to deterrence success. Any dimension—people, culture, information and intelligence, time, and so forth—can provide details that unravel an intended episode of deterrence. Because deterrence worked yesterday, it does not follow that it will work tomorrow, and one may be hard pressed to prove that deterrence did work yesterday.” --- Colin S. Gray, “Deterrence in the 21st Century,” Comparative Strategy 19, no. 3 (July-September 2000): 259.