Only about one percent of any given officer year group in the Army will make it to the level of general officer. Most of those who do will serve their time and retire without much notice by the general public. Even amongst those in the Army, most general officers are only known by those within their sphere of influence. Not until history steps in do general officers become famous for having perfected their craft. Even then only a small number of those generals seize the opportunity, distinguishing themselves above their peers.
Recently my uncle sent me an article by Michael Peck from back in June titled, “The 5 Greatest U.S. Generals in History.” Overall, the list isn’t bad: George Washington, Winfield Scott, Ulysses S. Grant, George Marshall, and Matthew Ridgway. It could, however, be a lot better.
All five Peck selected have their own merits. Washington is a no-brainer. He’s the father of the country and should be on any list of great American strategic leaders. Scott invaded Mexico in 1847 in an amphibious operation that would not be bested for almost a hundred years. Grant rose above his personal issues to succeed in defeating the Confederacy and do his part to keep the country from being permanently ripped in two. George Marshall managed the growth of the Army into the world-class organization that it still is today. And Ridgway held the line in Korea after MacArthur’s firing.
But are those five truly the greatest ever? I don’t believe so. My uncle and I went back and forth for days picking apart that list. The problem with any top five (or any other number) list is they are subjective and, as any sports fan can tell you, affected by era bias. The subjectivity problem is pretty straightforward. The list is filtered by the author according to his views on what makes someone great. Era bias, on the other hand, comes from the question of whether person X would be as effective if he or she was in time period Y? Would Babe Ruth be the same player if he had to hit against Nolan Ryan? Would Ulysses S. Grant be the same general if he served during the Korean War? As much as we try, no one can answer these questions.
So while at first glance Mr. Peck’s list seems okay, upon closer examination the flaws become clear. In Washington’s case Peck points out the flaw himself, acknowledging that Washington was not a good tactician, only needing to avoid losing while militia and guerrillas did the dirty work. Scott fought against a less-than-top-tier Mexican army. Grant was good but with the North’s clear manpower, industrial, and infrastructure advantages, did it matter in the end who was in command? Marshall never commanded troops in battle. And Ridgway, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, was only able to manage a draw in Korea.
Below is my counter to Peck’s list. Call it the USA Today Coaches’ Poll to Peck’s AP Poll. Still recognizing the inherent subjectivity of any list, I believe a strong case can be made that any of the below could be rated more highly than the generals Peck chose. They are listed in no particular order; if they were receiving Officer Evaluation Reports, each evaluation would simply say that the rated officer is one of the top five in the Army’s history.
John J. “Black Jack” Pershing
Pershing is the first great modern American general. Born near the beginning of the Civil War, Pershing grew up in Missouri surrounded by veterans of that devastating war. Pershing’s first taste of combat was during the Spanish-American War, during which he was awarded the Silver Star as the commander of the 10th Cavalry. He then saw action during the Philippine insurrection from 1899 to 1903. His reputation as a commander during these operations and as a military attaché in Tokyo led to his nomination to the rank of brigadier general—skipping three ranks in the process. Not long after his promotion he saw action again while leading a small force, which included a young Lt. George S. Patton, in an attempt to capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Unfortunately, over the course of the nearly two-year mission he was unsuccessful in his task.
But the country had a more pressing issue for Gen. Pershing. In 1917 the war in Europe finally pulled the United States into its clutches. Pershing was given the monumental task of growing and training an Army 130,000 strong into a competent fighting force of over two million. Additionally, he oversaw the creation of the modern staff construct—the G1 staff section, the G2, G3, and so on that is familiar to today’s soldiers was not formalized until Pershing took command of the American Expeditionary Force. He ended up formalizing the staff construct for the entire Army when he became the Army chief of staff in 1921. Under Pershing’s command American Forces were successful in many operations, including the Meuse-Argonne offensive that ultimately led to the final destruction of the German will to fight. Gen. Pershing and his leadership transformed the Army from a force only able to conduct small raids and counterinsurgencies into one that was able to project American power anywhere in the world and win against any of the modern armies of the time.
George S. Patton
Arguably the most famous general after George Washington, George S. Patton is the personification of what many Americans think a general should be (or more specifically George C. Scott’s portrayal in the iconic 1970 film about him is what Americans think a general should be). Born on what would later become Veterans Day in 1885, Patton first made a name for himself by leading patrols as a part of Gen. Pershing’s punitive raids into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. His heroics during those operations caught Pershing’s eye, leading to his selection as Pershing’s aide. Later, during World War I, Patton was called on again by Pershing, this time as the first officer selected for the AEF’s new tank corps.
It wasn’t until World War II that Patton’s legacy was set. Patton won battles at every turn. From taking over II Corps in North Africa to moving the Seventh Army across Sicily, his victories were well known by friends and foes alike. Germany was so focused on Patton that they dedicated the majority of their defenses in Europe to protecting against a fake army that they believed was being led by him. When Patton did finally make it to Europe after D-Day his victories continued to rack up. Most notable was his relief of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. Col. Oscar Koch, the Third Army G2, had anticipated, the German attack that enabled Patton to be unsurprised by German actions during the Battle of the Bulge. Because of this early warning by his G2, Patton was able to be in position to save the defenders at Bastogne. Patton continued on to Germany. Nothing the German Army threw at Patton could stop his advance. Only orders from Gen. Eisenhower ultimately stopped him from taking Berlin. In the end Patton’s Third Army was credited with capturing over 80,000 square miles and inflicting over a million casualties.
William T. Sherman
William T. Sherman believed the only way to win the Civil War was to completely destroy the South’s will to fight, and he did so with ruthless efficiency through what would later be termed “Total War.” Sherman began the war as the superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy, having resigned his commission after the Mexican-American War in which he did not fight. Once war broke out, however, Sherman resigned from his teaching post and was made a colonel in the US infantry. He saw his first action of the war in the east during the Battle of First Manassas. After the battle he was promoted and sent to the Western Theater where after some setbacks, including being overrun at Shiloh, he met Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant and Sherman went on to Vicksburg, locking down one of the most strategically important locations of the war.
After Vicksburg, Grant was promoted, leaving Sherman in charge of everything in the west. Sherman realized that the only way to defeat the Confederacy was to completely destroy the South’s will to fight. He knew that even if the Army of the Confederacy was defeated the people of the South were not likely to surrender. Sherman’s solution was to move from Atlanta to Savannah in what would come be known as his “March to the Sea.” Sherman’s force lived off the land, laying waste to the countryside on a massive scale as he moved across Georgia. He continued his destructive campaign by moving north into South Carolina. After all was said and done Sherman accepted the surrender of all Confederate troops in Georgia, Florida, and both Carolinas, the largest surrender of the war.
Probably the most controversial pick on the list for his personal transgressions, Gen. David Petraeus is credited with bringing counterinsurgency back into the Army and turning around the Iraq war. Gen. Petraeus built a reputation of being the best at whatever he did. From winning top honors at Ranger School to winning the Gen. George C. Marshall award for top graduate at the Command and General Staff College, Petraeus didn’t know how to be in second place. He also built a reputation for deep thinking by earning both a master’s degree and a doctorate from Princeton and then teaching at West Point.
Gen. Petraeus didn’t see his first operational deployment until he was a lieutenant colonel, when he served as the chief of operations for the UN Mission in Haiti during Operation Uphold Democracy in 1995. After that he served in both Operation Desert Spring in Kuwait and Operation Joint Forger in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a brigadier general.
It wasn’t until the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 that that Gen. Petraeus’s star really began to shine. As the commander of the famed 101st Airborne Division, then Maj. Gen. Petraeus used his understanding of counterinsurgency operations to maintain control of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq—a city that would later become a sparkplug for violence throughout the country, and just over a decade later would be the stronghold of ISIS in Iraq.
Gen. Petraeus recognized that the military was not effectively using the lessons of the past with regard to counterinsurgency. He used his position as the commander of the Army Combined Arms Center to change the Army’s doctrine on the subject. The result was Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, arguably the most read doctrinal publication ever. It was so popular that book stores like Barnes and Noble and Amazon began selling the manual.
Because of his expertise in counterinsurgency operations and successful leadership as a division commander in Mosul, President George W. Bush selected him to lead all forces in Iraq. Overseeing the “Surge” and the building of the Sons of Iraq program on the success of the “Anbar Awakening,” along with solidifying a renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics, Gen. Petraeus is credited with turning the tide of the Iraq War by reducing the number of SIGACTs (“Significant Activities”—essentially any attack, IED strike, or similar combat event) in the country from several hundred a day to a handful a week, allowing the Iraqi government and military the time they needed to stand on their feet.
The only Medal of Honor winner on the list, Gen. Douglas MacArthur also has the distinctions of being the only one on the list to be fired from his position of leadership and the only one to have served in three major conflicts—World Wars I and II and the Korean War. And he and his father are one of only two father and son duos to receive the nation’s highest award. MacArthur served in various positions in the 42nd Division which participated in the battles of St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, and Sedan during WWI.
After the fall of the Philippines in 1942, in the early months of the United States’ participation in World War II, MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippine islands and appointed as the supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. MacArthur maneuvered forces from island to island, pushing the Japanese west until he liberated the Philippines in October 1944. Soon after he was promoted to General of the Army and given command of all forces in the Pacific, and nine months later accepted the surrender of Japan ending the war.
MacArthur was once again called upon in 1950 to lead the United Nations coalition in Korea. Gen. MacArthur arrived in Korea with the UN force in a dire situation, pinned in a small enclave in the southeastern end of the peninsula. Under MacArthur’s leadership, US and coalition forces were able to reverse the tide and push North Korean forces almost to the border with China. This triggered China’s involvement in the war, which, triggered a series of events that ultimately led to his being fired by President Truman for insubordination.
Is this list perfect? Probably not. Are there other more deserving officers who were snubbed? With thousands upon thousands of general officers in American military history, it’s very possible. That’s the beauty of lists like these: they strike up a healthy debate on what makes a successful and great leader in the profession of arms. But at the very least, no one can argue that Pershing, Patton, Sherman, Petraeus, and MacArthur are not qualified to be in the discussion.