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Brass Attack: Light & Lean Marines Get 5th Four-Star

Posted by Otto Kreisher on


UPDATED: Krepinevich Says Marines Boast Lots Of Good Senior Leaders
The Marine Corps, which always prides itself on being the leanest of the U.S. armed services and having the lowest officer-to-enlisted ratio, now has five four-star generals, the nation’s highest military rank.

That is quite a load of brass for a service that never had a single four-star officer on active service until 1945, the 170th year of its existence.

The Marines got their fifth four-star general Monday when Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly put on another star and took over the U.S. Southern Command, relieving Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser.

Kelly joins at that elevated rank Generals James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant; James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command; Joseph Dunford, the assistant commandant, and John Allen, commander of International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Given all the focus these days on the peccadillos among general officers following the embarrassing resignation of CIA chief and former Army Gen. David Petraeus and exposure of “flirtatious” emails sent by one of the Marines’ four-stars, getting a load of top generals may not be such a good thing.

It was Allen whose e-mails to a Tampa, Fla., socialite got spotted during the FBI probe that revealed Petreaus’ adulterous affair. Allen’s nomination to become Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the top NATO military post, has been put on hold pending the outcome of a Pentagon inspector general’s review.

If Allen is cleared and his nomination goes ahead, the Marines will be in position to have six four-star generals by next spring. Dunford has been nominated to replace Allen in Afghanistan and Lt. Gen. John Paxton, currently commander of Marine Forces Command, has been nominated to succeed Dunford as “ACMC,” as the number two Marine is known inside the Corps.

Despite a popular image of the Marines as being mainly tough but unthinking fighters, a succession of defense secretaries have praised senior Marine officers for their intelligence, flexibility, and innovation and chosen them for high-ranking military and diplomatic positions.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, pulled Gen. James Jones from his position as commandant to take the NATO command, which had been dominated by Army and Air Force generals. Jones later served as President George W. Bush’s personal envoy to the Middle East. Rumsfeld also made Gen. Peter Pace the first Marine ever to serve as Joint Chiefs chairman.

Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta similarly have chosen Marine generals over more senior officers from the other services for sensitive regional commands, such as Central Command and the top Afghanistan post.

But Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a retired Army officer, saw this as one of those times when “a service boasts an unusual number of senior officers who are particularly valued by the political leadership.” He compared it to the long stretch between 1982 and 2001 when Army officers held the Joint Chiefs chairmanship with only one break.

The Marine boom also was aided by the end of the tradition that certain services always get a particular regional command, such as the Army’s near monopoly on SACEUR. That “gives the political leadership more opportunities to place senior officers in these slots irrespective of their branch of service,” Krepinevich said.

The Marines got their first four-star in the last year of World War II, when the commandant, Lt. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, was promoted, perhaps in recognition of the Marines’ heroic and bloody service in the Pacific.

By that time, however, the Army had four men wearing the very rare five stars that denote a General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff and President Franklin Roosevelt’s closest military adviser; Douglas MacArthur, allied commander in the Southern Pacific; Dwight Eisenhower. allied commander in Europe, and Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who led the Army Air Force. The Navy had three five-star Fleet Admirals: William Leahy, military adviser to Roosevelt; Ernest King, chief of naval operators and commander U.S. Fleet, and Chester Nimitz, Pacific Fleet commander.

The Army would get another five-star shortly after the war when Omar Bradley was promoted; the Navy got a fourth Fleet Admiral as the war ended, when William “Bull” Halsey was elevated.

For a very long time the Marines were stuck with one full general, until Lewis Walt, the assistant commandant, was promoted to four star in 1969 while the Marines were heavily engaged in the Vietnam War.

Later, the Marines would on occasion accumulate three or even four full generals at a time when one or more of their officers held one of the regional combatant commands and when Marine Gen. Peter Pace was vice chairman and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Despite their unusual mass of four-stars, the Marines still have the fewest officers of all ranks and a fraction of the generals or admirals of the other services.

The Navy currently has something like 340 flag officers, from rear admiral lower half to four-star full admirals, of which it has 10. That total is almost 50 more admirals than it has ships in its combat fleet.

The Army has several times more general officers than it has combat brigades and the Air Force has many times more general officers than aircraft wings.

And all the services have more general or flag officers than they did at the height of World War II, when the United States had about 14 million men and women in active military service. The total now is about 1.5 million.

What do you think?