In my last essay, I wrote about what makes a flag officer successful. Looking back to 1776, we can determine the GOFO MVP year by year. As some GOFOs hold the title for multiple years, I think it is worthwhile to have a GOFO Championship Belt.
Comparing figures from different eras is a difficult task. For example, comparisons of LeBron James to Michael Jordan or Larry Bird do not hold up. Advancements in sports science and medicine over the decades have created athletes that would crush the competition of decades past. The worst team in the NFL this season would easily defeat any Steelers team of the 1970s, or even the 1985 Bears (think about the 250 pound linemen of the 70s compared to 330 pound linemen of today). In a similar manner, trying to determine the greatest general or admiral in U.S. history is a daunting task. Each faced unique circumstances of war to include different enemies, different levels of domestic support, and varying levels of preparedness of the nation.
Sports writers such as Bill Simmons and Bill Barnwell recently developed a championship belt for the reigning champions in areas such as “America’s Greatest Athlete,” and “America’s Best Comedian.” In line with this thought, we can go through America’s history of generals and admirals to name the best one for each year. This construct would begin in 1776, with the formation of the United States, and run into 2016.
A couple simple ground rules.
1. The holder of the belt must be either a general or admiral from any of the services, to include the coast guard. If an officer does not have stars on his or her uniform, they are not eligible, with the exception of the rank of Commodore in the 1800s (the rank of admiral was not created until 1866). Sorry Colonel John Warden.
2. Second, the selected officer must be an American officer. Lafayette, Rochambeau, and others who served the United States in a role outside of the U.S. military are not eligible; this includes generals who served the Confederacy.
3. A general’s or admiral’s actions after they have the belt have no impact on the year they hold the title. For example, Stan McCrystal’s firing has no impact on his time as the SOF commander in Iraq.
The criteria to earn the title belt for best general/admiral each year is entirely subjective, but includes the following:
A. Winning on the battlefield.
B. Contributions to U.S. grand strategy
C. Development of strategic thought.
D. Historic accomplishments
4. Finally, this list is meant for fun, entertainment, and to generate discussion. I welcome agreements and disagreements.
So here we go...
1776 - George Washington (USA): Long Island, White Plains, and of course the crossing of the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton, where Washington began the tradition of killing our enemies on Christmas, at night. Washington also help professionalize the military and deftly used espionage and military deception to his advantage.
1777 - Horatio Gates (USA): One of the three leading generals in the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point in the American Revolution. Honorable mention to Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan
1778-1779 - George Washington (USA): Back to GW who led the Americans at the Battle of Monmouth.
1780 - Nathaniel Greene (USA): Having been appointed commander of the South, where he was able to avoid direct engagements and harass British troops until the Americans were ready for decisive battle.
1781 - George Washington (USA): GW becomes a three-time champion earing full credit for the Battle of Yorktown. Honorable mention to Nathaniel Greene for his actions at Guilford Courthouse and Eutow Springs.
1782-1793: The title is vacant during the early years of the Republic. As the United States tried to cope with how to view a standing Army, and how to employ military force. Further, nothing would highlight the failures of the Articles of Confederation as the military debacle of Shay's Rebellion.
1794 – George Washington: Washington is the only sitting President to earn the title. He does so in 1794 for his actions in suppressing the Whisky Rebellion.
1794: Honorable Mention:– Anthony Wayne (USA) This revolutionary War hero led American Forces to victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This victory sealed the fate of the British in the Northwest Territory.
1801-1805 - Commodore Edward Preble (USN): The commander of U.S. Naval forces throughout the conflict with the Barbary States.
1805-1810: Vacant: Although the U.S. Army was engaged in opening the frontier with the likes of Zebulon Pike and the Lewis and Clarke expedition, no General or Admiral stands out during this timeframe.
1811: William Henry Harrison (USA): In 1811, a future President earns the title for his leadership in Battle of Tippecanoe. He would also earn a the nickname “Tippecanoe”
1812: Vacant: Initial phases of the War of 1812 didn’t go so well.
1813: Oliver Hazard Perry (USN): brilliant success in the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 placed the Northwest Territory firmly under American control.
1814-1815 - Andrew Jackson (USA): A future president earns the title for taking Pensacola and his subsequent role in the battle of New Orleans, despite the battle occurring after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
1816-1843, Winfield Scott (USA): Scott is promoted to Brigadier General in 1814. Throughout his reign, Scott would lead American Troops in the Mexican American War where he landed at Veracruz. During peacetime, Scott would have a vital role in the nullification crisis of 1832/1833, serving as President Jackson’s emissary to South Carolina.
1844-1845 - Zach Taylor (USA): Taylor interrupts Scott’s run with his actions throughout the Mexican American War.
1846 – Commodore John D. Sloat (USN): For his conduct during the Mexican American War as the commander of naval forces in the Pacific. It was Sloat who seized Monterey
1847-1852 – Winfield Scott (USA): General Scott begins his second run in 1847 by leading the first major amphibious landing in U.S. history in preparation for the Siege of Veracruz. He would then move his forces into Mexico City and establish himself as a national hero.
1852-1854 – Matthew C. Perry (USN): Commodore Perry makes the list with his expedition and opening of trade with Japan.
1854 – 1860- Winfield Scott (USA): Scott culminates his championship run with the development of the Anaconda Plan, which was far ahead of its time in thinking about military campaigns.
1861 – Vacant…Bad year for the Union….and Confederates are not eligible
1862 -1863 - U.S. Grant (USA): Grant’s breakout began with Fort Donaldson and Shiloh and culminated with the Battle of Vicksburg.
1864 - William T. Sherman (USA): Sherman edges out Grant with the conceptualization of total war in his famous March to the Sea.
1865: Back to Grant (USA): Although his success as a president is often questioned, his prowess as great campaigner led to the defeat of the south in the Peninsula Campaign.
1866-1876 – Phillip Sheridan (USA): Efficient in his role throughout the reconstruction era. Further, Sheridan would act as an early conservationist and was instrumental in preserving and saving Yellowstone National Park for future generations to enjoy.
1877 -1883-: William Tecumseh Sherman (USA): During these years, General Sherman established the Army’s Command and General Staff School (now CGSC).
1885-1890 –Alfred Thayer Mahan (USN): It was in this time that Mahan published his seminal work The Influence of Seapower upon History 1160-1783. His book and subsequent lectures would influence navies across the globe.
1891-1895: John Schofield (USA): no general or admiral distinguished themselves during this time, but General Schofield served as Commanding General of the U.S. Army due to his date of rank following the death of General Sheridan.
1896-1897: Vacant: Little happening as the U.S. began preparing for war with Spain.
1898 - Admiral Dewey (USN) – The admiral earns the title due to his leadership and victory at the Battle of Manila Bay.
1899 - Arthur MacArthur (USA) – The father of 5-Star General Douglas MacArthur led the 2nd Division of Eighth Corps during the Philippine–American War at the Battle of Manila (1899), the Malolos campaign and the Northern Offensive.
1900-1902 – Leonard Wood (USA): Leonard Wood, whose namesake carries on as home of the Military Police, Chemical, and Engineer schools holds the title for three years while serving as Military Governor of Cuba.
1910 – 1912 – Leonard Wood (USA) As the only medical officer to serve as the Army Chief of Staff, Leonard Wood implemented he forerunner of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, and the Preparedness Movement, a campaign for universal military training and wartime conscription.
1913-1918 – John J. “Blackjack” Pershing (USA): Beginning with the Battle of Bud Bagsak during the Moro Rebellion phase of the Philippine–American War, continuing into the expedition to Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, Pershing would then serve as Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in the First World War. It was Pershing who ensured American soldiers were not thrust into battle to quickly, nor assimilated into the European armies. The parallel command structure was paramount to allied success. Following the war, Pershing assumed his role as Army Chief of Staff.
1919-1920 – Smedley Butler (USMC): The two-time Medal of Honor recipient transformed Quantico VA from a temporary training base to a full time / permanent Marine post.
1921-1924 – Fox Conner (USA): The man who made Eisenhower. Over these three years, Conner imparted the wisdom upon the future Supreme Allied Commander and President of the United States.
1924-1925 - Billy Mitchell (USA/USAF): Viewed as the father of the Air Force, was court-martialed for accusing the leadership of the Army and Navy of, “treasonable administration of the national defense.” Mitchell’s title begins and ends with his demotion to Colonel following the Court Marshal.
1926-1927 – Mason Patrick (USA/USAF): Cleaned up the mess of Billy Mitchell’s court martial, and subsequently became the first Chief of the Army Air Corps.
1928-1933 – William A. Moffett (USN) Rear Admiral Moffett served as the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics chief. Moffett was the first high-ranking naval officers to appreciate the importance of the airplane and the effect it would have on the fleet.
1933 – 1935: Vacant: During this time of the interwar period, no flag officer distinguished themselves to earn the title.
1936-1937 – Leon Kromer (USA): As Chief of Cavalry, general Kromer advocated for mechanization of the Cavalry. Unfortunately, his replacement, general Herr, did not share that sentiment.
1938 – Hugh H. Drum (USA): During this time, the American military was smaller than most European nations, to include Germany, Spain, and even Portugal. General Drum, (yes, of Fort Drum fame) was the commander of First Army during this time, and developed the staff in preparation for the Louisiana Maneuvers in the following years.
1939-1941 - George C. Marshall (USA): Not only did Marshall prepare the United States Army for the upcoming war with limited resources, he carefully selected those who would assume the highest levels of military command throughout the war.
1940 Honorable Mention: Benjamin O. Davis (USA) The first African American to achieve Flag Officer Rank
1942 - Chester Nimitz (USN): Taking command 10 days after Pearl Harbor, Nimitz’s ability to wage the largest naval campaign in history is unquestioned. 1942 was the year of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
1943 – Ernest Harmon (USA): One of the shining stars of the North Africa Campaign as the commander of 2nd Armored Division. Also a graduate of Norwich University
1944-1945 - Dwight Eisenhower (USA): It was in the last two years of the Second World War that Eisenhower truly shined. Eisenhower was able to hold together a fragile coalition and manage the personalities of high profile figures such as Patton and Montgomery.
1946-1947 – Omar Bradly (USA): Serving as the first post war Army Chief of Staff, he would later be selected to serve as the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949.
1948-1949 – Curtis LeMay (USAF): The Berlin Airlift was nothing short of a miracle, and one of the early successes against communist aggression.
1950: O.P. Smith (USA): extraordinary leadership (both in planning and in execution, with an extra star handling screwed up superior officers) at Chosin.
1951-1953 - Matthew Ridgeway (USA): Leader of 8th Army in Korea, and appointed UN Commander after the relief of MacArthur. Lessor known, Ridgeway also took over as the military governor of Japan. During his tenure, Ridgway oversaw the restoration of Japan’s independence and sovereignty
1954-1964: Admiral Hyman Rickover (USN) and Bernard Adolph Schriever (USAF) Rickover is the father of the Nuclear Navy. The launch of USS Nautilus in 1954 gives the USN an advantage in nuclear propulsion, especially in submarines, that it has not relinquished. At the same time Rickover was leading the way in nuclear propulsion, Schriever, in direct contrast to Curtis LeMay while leading Air Research Development Command was responsible for creating the intercontinental ballistic missile.
1965-1966 – Victor H. Krulack (USMC): During this time Krulack was the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. Krulack developed the “Spreading Ikblot Theory” of small unit actions in direct contrast to Westmorland’s victory through overwhelming firepower concept. Victor Krulack is also the father of General Charles C. Krulak, the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps.
1967 –J.C. Wylie (USN): This obscure admiral earns the title for publishing Military Strategy, A Theory of Power Control.
1968-1969 – Frederick C. Weyand (USA): A dissenter on the policies and strategy of General Westmoreland, General Weyand even took on John Paul Vann as an advisor despite higher up misgivings.
1970 – Elizabeth Hoisington and Anna Mae Hays (USA): The first two women promoted to achieve the rank of flag officer in the United States.
1971 – 1972 – Lucius Clay (USAF): General Clay served as the commander of 7th Air Force and U.S. Air Forces Pacific during these tumultuous years of Vietnam.
1973 – Alexander Haig (USA): Still retaining his active duty commission, General Haig served as President Nixon’s Chief of Staff during the Watergate scandal, and is often credited with keeping the White House running while Nixon was pre-occupied with lying to the American public.
1974 - Creighton W. Abrams (USA): As Army Chief of Staff, Abrams began to rebuild the U.S. Army. In 1974 Abrams began the transition to the all-volunteer Army, also known as Project VOLAR.
1975-1977 – William DePuy (USA): As the first commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, DePuy was an innovator who led the development of AirLand Battle Concept and Doctrine
1978-1981 – Don Starry (USA): Continued the efforts of William DePuy for the development of AirLand Battle as Commander of TRADOC
1982-1983 - Huba Wass de Czege (USA): The obscure 1-Star earns the title for the development and implementation of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)
1984-1988 – C. Everett Koop MD. The Surgeon General of the United States is still a general, and in fact wears an admiral’s uniform. Koop earns the title for his relentless anti-smoking campaign, and for acknowledging the AIDS epidemic.
1989-1990 - Colin Powell (USA): Held the position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff through the invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm. Even though he oversaw military activities in 28 different crises, he rarely advocated military intervention as the first solution.
1991 - Norman Schwarzkopf (USA): As an steely-eyed barrel chested freedom fighter, he was the commander of Joint Forces in the 100-hour Operation Desert Storm. As the CENTCOM Commander, Stormin Norman dual hatted himself as the Land Component Commander for Operation Desert Storm.
1992 - Colin Powell (USA): Takes the title back from Stormin’ Norman at the conclusion of the Desert Strom. Powell would oversee the transition in the military from 12 years of a Republican as Commander in Chief to the Clinton administration.
1993 - George Joulwan (USA) As the Supreme Allied Commander, General Joulwan oversaw initial U.S. and NATO actions in Bosnia.
1994 – Hugh Shelton (USA): Then a mere Lieutenant General, the future Chairman earns the title as Commander of 18th Airborne Corps, and its planning and execution of Operation Uphold Democracy
1995 - John Shalikashvili (USA): The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who aggressively pushed the Clinton Administration for an air campaign to defend Bosnia from Serbian onslaught.
1996 – Leighton Smith (USN): Admiral Smith was the commander of the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) in 1995 and 1996. In this capacity, Admiral Smith was the focus of criticism for not expanding the role of IFOR to include the detention of Serb War Criminals. But in taking a minimalist approach, Admiral Smith may have avoided bogging down U.S. forces into a long quagmire.
1997 – 1998 – Anthony Zinni (USMC): USCENTCOM was quickly becoming the only show in town as operations in the Balkans seemed to slow down. These years Zinni earns the title for the first time for his leadership during contingencies such as Operation Desert Fox.
1999 - Wes Clark (USA): Clark earns the nod for his leadership throughout the Balkan Wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Keeping NATO unity while balancing military necessities with the wishes of civilian leadership in the United States and Allied Nations.
2000 – Anthony Zinni (USMC): When the leader of a coup of a nation that possesses nuclear weapons (Pakistan) calls the CENTCOM commander before the President, that gets you the title.
2001-2002 – Tommy Franks (USA): The Commander of USCENTCOM during the initial stages of the War in Afghanistan.
2003 – 2004 - David McKiernan (USA): The Coalition Forces Land Component Commander for the invasion of Iraq. Although the war would turn into a disaster, under McKiernan’s leadership, land forces raced from Kuwait to Baghdad in three weeks.
2005 – Russel Honore’ (USA): The Ragin Cajun earns the title in 2005 for his role as the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. Honore’ even coined the phrase “stuck on stupid” which is now a staple of media commentary.
2006 – Stan McCrystal (USA): The year JSOC killsAbu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
2007- David Petraeus (USA): General Petraeus earns the title with the implementation of the surge in Iraq, combined with his leadership and implementation of the COIN doctrine he developed while commanding at the Army’s Combined Arms Center.
2008 – Ann Dunwoody (USA) General Dunwoody earns her place on the list when she became the first female 4-Star general. As a 4-Star she would be responsible for the logistics of an Army fighting two wars with nearly half the force deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
2009 - Raymond T. Odierno (USA): As the Commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq (MNFI), the future Army Chief of Staff was responsible for maintaining the gains of General Petraeus’ Surge.
2010 – Thad Allen (USCG): The only Coast Guard admiral on the list. Allen was the face of the U.S. government response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf while acting as the National Incident Commander.
2011-2013- James Mattis (USMC): Arguably the best-read general on the list, proved to Iraqis that there was no better friend and no worse enemy that a U.S. Marine. His time as the USCENTCOM commander is legendary.
2013 – Martin Dempsey (USA): A Chairman who spoke truth to power. Dempsey is the best singer to hold the title of best general.
2014 – 2015 H.R. McMaster (USA): Provided a clear vision of the Army with the publication of the Army Operating Concept. McMaster is a visionary who even made the Time Magazine list of 100 most influential people.
Disclaimer: The author worked at the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) during this time, the same time LTG McMaster served as the ARCIC director.
2016 – Lori Robinson (USAF): First female Combatant Commander. Further, General Robbins is a non-pilot GO to operate at every level, including deputy CFACC at AFCENT in '13-14, and then Commander of Air Forces Pacific prior to command at USNORTHCOM.
2017 - H.R. McMaster (USA): After losing the title for a year, McMaster retakes the helm for leading the effort and producing the 2017 National Security Strategy. As an active duty 3-star general, McMaster was in a tough position as the National Security Adviser, yet was able to coordinate one of the better National Security trategies of the past two decades.
2018 - Vince Brooks (USA): 2018 was a tumultuous year on the Korean Peninsula. Tensions rose, then subsided between the United States and North Korea. Talks between heads of state occurred for the first time. South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics. Finally, there was an uptick in the repatriation of remains of fallen U.S. Soliders from the Korean War. The one constant throughout the year was the leadership of General Brooks, the Commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), Combined Forces Command (CFC), and United Nations Command (UNC). Wearing these three hats is never simple, and General Brooks absolutely crushed it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government