I am a fan and admirer of Pete Hegseth and Wade Zirkle, two distinguished combat veterans who have been the driving forces behind Vets for Freedom, an important organization (on whose advisory board I once served) that has done much to buttress home-front support for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am all the more impressed by Hegseth for his willingness to volunteer to go to Afghanistan this year as a reservist, with no obligation to do so. Needless to say, I am also a great admirer of David Petraeus — our most successful general since Matthew Ridgway. But I cannot see the imperative of giving Petraeus a fifth star as suggested by Hegseth and Zirkle in this Wall Street Journal op-ed.
As I understand it, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, and the other great World War II commanders got five stars so they would not be outranked by British field marshals. (As I recall, FDR considered creating an American rank of “field marshal” but decided to call it “general of the army” because “Marshal Marshall” would have sounded silly.) That’s not a concern today, so it’s hard to see any practical reason to elevate Petraeus and easy to see many difficulties that would arise if the U.S. commander in Afghanistan were to outrank the Central Command commander, his nominal boss, and even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Petraeus is already primus inter pares by virtue of his success in Iraq. Formally giving him another star would only make his life more difficult when he has to deal with his four-star counterparts.
However, I do think that when Petraeus is ready for retirement — something that I hope will not happen anytime soon — Congress should consider granting him another star if by that point he has turned around the war in Afghanistan as he did in Iraq. Heck, I’d even be in favor of reviving the old British custom of giving vast estates and pots of money to winning generals, though these days the Washington Speakers Bureau achieves the same result without government subsidy. So I do not absolutely oppose the Hegseth/Zirkle proposal; I just think it is premature.