Generals in the Marine Corps, also referred to as four-star generals, wear four five-pointed silver stars on their uniform to indicate their rank and are addressed as “general” in speech or in written correspondence.
The Corps has two parallel chains of command: service and operational. The operational chain runs from the president through the secretary of defense and then to the Marine Corps commanders. The service chain originates with the president and proceeds to the secretary of defense, then to the secretary of the Navy, followed by the commandant of the Marine Corps — the Corps’ highest-ranking officer.
As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commandant is just below the secretary of the Navy, and his or her nomination by the president requires Senate confirmation. Gen. Peter Pace made history in 2005 when he was appointed to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the first Marine to hold that title. He was also the first Marine to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, his previous position.
Other distinguished Marine Corps generals include Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, who served as commanding general of the First Marine Division in 1942 and 1943 and received the Medal of Honor for that service. In 1944, he was appointed the 18th commandant of the Marine Corps.
Gen. Louis Wilson also received a Medal of Honor as a captain in World War II. Despite three recent woundsWounded, Wilson led his unit in a 10-hour battle that included hand-to-hand combat against Japanese troops. He, too, was appointed commandant of the Marine Corps and served in that capacity from 1975 to 1979.
U.S. law specifically limits the total number of flag officers on active duty at any given time, with different quotas for each branch of service. The total number of active-duty flag officers is capped at 80 for the Marine Corps, with three slots allocated to four-star generals, about a dozen for three-star generals, two dozen for two-star generals and around 40 for one-star generals.
The Corps’ promotion system is based on service record strength, but it’s also vacancy-driven and for flag officers is a highly political process. Each year, promotion planners anticipate the need for officers in each grade. This selections board then recommends officers to the president, who will choose from this list whenever a vacancy occurs in the appropriate rank due to another officer’s promotion or retirement. The president makes this decision with input from the secretary of defense and others, and the Senate must then confirm the president’s pick.
Officers recommended for promotion will have their service records thoroughly analyzed and be vetted both professionally and for strength of character before they are deemed qualified by the selections board. Leadership abilities are crucial, as the role of a Marine Corps general is not unlike that of a corporate CEO, overseeing huge budgets and a massive number of personnel. The job requires negotiating and administrative skills and other executive competencies.
By virtue of their O-10 pay grade, generals with 20 years invested earn $13,659 per month, while those with more than 38 years in service are paid $16,795 per month.