On a cold December evening in 1783 at Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan, Gen. George Washington bade farewell to his staff and resigned his command of the Continental Army. One hundred ninety three years later, on America’s Bicentennial, Congress posthumously promoted Washington to five-star “General of the Armies of the United States.”
Washington led the Continental Army against the British for eight years, the longest tenure for a combatant (wartime) commander in our history to be awarded a fifth star. But David Petraeus, who begins his eighth year as a combatant commander (presently as theatre commander in Afghanistan), will soon eclipse Washington’s tenure. In appropriate recognition of his long and extraordinary wartime service, the new Congress should authorize a fifth star for Gen. Petraeus, thereby promoting him to “General of the Army”—just below Washington’s rank of “General of the Armies” (plural).
After George Washington, the only other five-star “General of the Armies of the United States” was John Pershing, who was promoted to the rank after commanding U.S. forces in World War I. The nine remaining five star generals in our history were branch-specific commanders during World War II: Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, Omar Bradley and Henry Arnold were each “General of the Army.” Navy Adms. Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, Ernest King and William Leahy served as five-star “Fleet Admirals.” Each of these officers received the honor during wartime, with the exception of Halsey, who was awarded the fifth star three months after World War II ended, and Bradley, who was awarded his fifth star in 1950.
Like these great leaders, Gen. Petraeus’s breath of experience and outstanding results deserve to be recognized and honored. His wartime tenure began as the Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division, responsible for over 10,000 combat troops during the initial invasion of Iraq. He led the 101st in an airborne assault into northern Iraq and then quieted the city of Mosul.
Gen. Petraeus then oversaw the creation and training of the new Iraqi Army, a Herculean task that was accomplished amid a rapidly deteriorating security situation. By the time he was through, he had stood up, equipped and trained over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers. They would be crucial in winning the peace in the years to follow.
In 2005, Gen. Petraeus led the Army’s command responsible for education and doctrine at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. There he wrote the Army’s manual on counterinsurgency operations. His COIN manual was the blueprint for the upcoming troop “surge,” which saved Iraq from the brink of calamity.
Gen. Petraeus left Fort Leavenworth in 2007 to take his new playbook to Iraq, where he became commander of coalition forces. He engineered one of the most stunning turnarounds in the history of modern warfare. Within 18 months, the general and his troops defeated al Qaeda in Anbar, ended a civil war in Baghdad, sealed porous borders with Iran and Syria, and created a sense of normalcy in Iraq.
After succeeding in the face of near-unanimous doubt, Gen. Petraeus was promoted to commander of Central Command in 2008, where he would oversee a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan. His tour at Centcom was cut short, however, when President Barack Obama asked him to replace the dismissed Gen. Stanley McCrystal in Afghanistan. It was a step down on the career ladder for Gen. Petraeus — but he was the president’s last hope to turn around Afghanistan. Demonstrating classic statesmanship, Gen. Petraeus relinquished his more prestigious post at Centcom.
The U.S. war against terrorism is now the longest war in U.S. history, and Gen. Petraeus has clearly distinguished himself as a leader worthy of joining the ranks of Gens. MacArthur, Marshall and Nimitz. A promotion would properly honor his service — and it would also honor the troops he leads and has led. Today’s soldiers have fought as valiantly as any in American history, and they deserve recognition of their leaders. Congressional approval of a fifth star would demonstrate the nation’s commitment to their mission.
David Petraeus is also a Soldier-statesmen who works with foreign diplomats and generals in hotspots across the globe. The prestige that would come with a fifth star would also likely help the U.S. in its negotiations with neighboring states — and show the enemies of freedom that we are fully committed to the war against terrorism.
It has been more than half a century since a U.S. general was awarded a fifth star. David Petraeus’s generalship has spanned 11 years, three presidents and seven Congresses. It is time to promote him to “General of the Army” and award him a fifth star. Our military deserves it, and he has certainly earned it.
(This op-ed originally appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.)
— Pete Hegseth and Wade Zirkle, Veterans for Freedom