A General is a high ranking military officer in several militaries.
In the United States, general officers are the highest set of officers in the US Army, the US Marine Corps, and the US Air Force. There are four grades in use today, each sometimes referred to by the number of stars in that rank's insignia. In descending order, they are:
- General (four star)
- Lieutenant General (three star)
- Major General (two star)
- Brigadier General (one star)
There are two ranks higher than General, though none are in use today. General John J. Pershing was appointed General of the Armies after World War 1, but continued wearing four stars. No official insignia for General of the Armies exists. General of the Army was created during World War 2 as a five star rank (although it was explicitly below General of the Armies in precedence). The five-star ranks were used during the war and for a short time afterward. Current policy reserves five star ranks for use in wartime.
Origins of names
The title orginates from the adjective used in describing the office or position of the overal leader during a campaign in many European armies as the Captain General; in a similar way that we may refer to the Surgeon General of the United States today. Eventually the rank was shortened to just General.
A lieutenant was the title of leader under a captain and able to act in place of the captain (from the words "lieu" meaning in place of and "tenant" meaning position) hence the rank of Lieutenant General preceded Captain General.
The senior commander in charge of the infantry on a field of battle took the title of "Serjeant Major" (using the older English spelling with a j). When this title became used for smaller units such as regiments, the title was renamed Sejeant-Major General. During the eighteenth century the two ranks were shortened respectively to Major and Major General. The rank of Sergeant Major as a senior non-commissioned officer (enlisted ranks) was introduced later.
A Brigadier General was orginally the senior officer in charge of a Brigade.
Field Marshal is used as and equivalent of a five star General in many armies, including the British Army where the rank is currently inactive.
The rank of Colonel General was used in the German Army as a rank equivalent to a four star general, though this translation from the German General Oberst is somewhat misguided; coming from the German rank of Oberst being equivalent to a Colonel (Oberst simply means "top-most"). The later adoption of the rank of Colonel General other armies such as Russia and North Korea is as a result of this imperfect translation.
In some militaries the rank of Brigadier is used in place of Brigadier General. This includes the British Army who had already informally used this title for its Brigadier Generals up until 1922 when they replaced the rank briefly with Colonel Commandant (a rank previously exclusive to the Royal Marines). In 1929 the rank of Brigadier replaced this in both the Army and Royal Marines.
Some air forces, including the British Royal Air Force use various grades of Air Marshal in place of Generals of two stars or higher, The equivalent of a one star General is an Air Commodore.