Typically, this rank is not achieved before 20 years in the service. An Army general is responsible for major areas of command, including operations that fall within a geographic area. The commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, for instance, is a four-star general. The positions of chief of staff and vice chief of staff within the U.S. Army also are held by four-star generals.
To understand the scope of the duties generals perform, consider the job of Gen. Charles C. Campbell, named in 2007 to head the U.S. Army Forces Command. The command is responsible for the combat readiness of active Army and Army Reserve units, as well as the training and supervision of the Army National Guard during peacetime. It also defends the continental United States by land and helps counter the flow of illegal drugs.
Another four-star officer, Gen. Bryan D. Brown, has led the U.S. Special Forces Operations Command since 2003. He is responsible for providing commanders and U.S. ambassadors with psychological operations and civil affairs forces, Rangers or Special Forces as needed.
There are only 11 generals on active duty in the U.S. Army. Fewer than one-half percent of commissioned officers make it to the top three ranks of Army general. In all, there can be only 302 general officers (generals, lieutenant generals, major generals and brigadier generals) in the U.S. Army.
Promotions occur as vacancies open up within commissioned-officer ranks. Boards composed of senior officers determine which officers are promoted based on achievement, years of service and number of open positions. The Secretary of Defense convenes the selection boards every year to make decisions for ranks higher than O-2 (first lieutenant).
The president nominates officers for the rank of general, and the U.S. Senate must confirm the appointment. When a general retires or loses the rank for some other reason, the president suggests a replacement from a list of nominees. The mandatory retirement age is 62, though it can be pushed to 64 in some cases.
The U.S. Army has demoted four-star generals only in rare cases. For instance, Gen. Kevin P. Byrnes, who supervised the recruitment and academic programs at 33 Army schools, was relieved of his command in 2005 amid allegations of an extramarital affair. Army officials could not remember another demotion in the 20 years before that.