Battlefield promotions - temporary?

In the book I’m reading (Once an Eagle which is excellent btw), several characters, American soldiers in WWI, receive battlefield promotions. However, as the book proceeds to the end of the war, the characters are demoted apparently as a matter of routine. One goes down from major to lieutenant (he had started the war as a sargeant) and one goes from general to lieutenant colonel (having started the war as a major).

Judging by the praise it’s received from various high profile military people, I assume that the book is accurate and that such end-of-hostilitites demotions were, in fact, routine. My questions are:

  1. Is this still the case? Are battlefield promotions temporary?
  2. Are some such promotions permanent (assuming the person survives the war)?
  3. What determines the rank to which a person is demoted?

I’ll also make a comment that if the book is accurate, and demotions occurred as a matter of course, it must have been quite a shock for an erstwhile major to have to endure being a “mere” lieutentant.


I’m not sure about WWI but I suspect it was the same as WWII and Civil War and so on. During a war there is a need for many more officers of all ranks than the peacetime military is authorized to have. So during a war all promotions are temporary. Regular military officers are aware of this and don’t consider it a “demotion” in the sense you mean.

This process means that regular army officers, for example, have two ranks. Their permanent rank and their temporary wartime rank and the two are in separate and distinct organizations. The permanent rank for Army officers is in the U.S. Army (Captain Soandso, USA). The same individual might also be a LT. Col. in the Army of the United States and would be referred to as Lt. Col. Soandso (AUS).

This has been a long time practice. In the Civil War the temporary ranks were called “brevet” ranks. For example, George A. Custer was a brevet Major General commanding a cavalry division. At Little Big Horn he was Lt. Col. Custer commanding a cavalry regiment.

I had no idea! Very informative.

A follow-up question: Who can effect a battlefield promotion? Any officer of higher rank than the ‘promotee’?

I have no idea as to present practice. In fact I have never run into anyone who has been promoted on the field.

It is important to realize that taking someone down a few peg in peacetime is not a punishment of an adverse action. It is a way of keeping these guys in an Army that suddenly needs a lot fewer officers.

IIRC the war doesn’t even have to end for the battlefield promotion to end. If an officer was transferred from wartime duty in the field to non-combat stateside duty I believe the wartime rank would be rescinded and he would revert to “regular” rank.

As other people have said, this wasn’t really considered a “demotion” - it was more a necessity of full-fledged war. In the Army Air Corps of WWII there were 29-year old full-colonel wing commanders! :eek: If you were a pilot in a bomber group that sustained heavy casualties you could find yourself moving up the ranks VERY quickly.

As to who can bestow the battlefield promotion…I can’t help you on that one.

I don’t think has happened recently, except on very rare occassions. Remember, the battlefield promotions were a way to compensate for heavy casualties in a short period of time. I would say that the last time the US military faced this situation was in Vietnam, but others may disagree.

During the Civil War, such jumped ranks were noted by the sur-title “brevet.” So a colonel who had the command of enough men to be a major general would be identified (in official reports and in history books) as “Brevet Major General Jones.” (You need to go back into the records to find his standing rank; a “Brevet Brigadier General” or a “Brevet Major General” could each “really” be colonels. The word brevet indicates that the curent rank is temporary with identifying the original rank. This was where “General” Custer got his popular title: from his brevet major generalcy during the war. He was only Lt. Colonel Custer at Little Big Horn.)

During WWII, the Army was dually organized as the U. S. Army and as the Army of the United States. When my uncle was promoted to lieutenant from master sergeant during the Bulge, his lieutenancy was in the Army of the United States. At the end of the war, he was offered the option of transferring to the U.S. Army and then being deactivated. He did so, but it backfired when they called him up to go to Korea just after his first child was born. Had he left his rank in the Army of the United States, he would not have been subject to reactivation.

I am not sure that any similar situation exists, now. Even during Vietnam, we never had the desperate need for senior officers that we experienced during the Civil War or WWII.

I’m not sure of the exact procedure. That is, I don’t know how how up the chain of command promotion for each rank has to go. I’m pretty sure that for even a temporary promotion to General, Admiral etc. Congress has to do it. I suppose for promotion to maybe Major or above Army commanders, like Courtney Hodges or George Patton in WWII had to approve. For lower ranks maybe it didn’t have to go up so high. And, of course all promotions had to be ratified by the War or Navy Department because the officer holds a commission from the president.

And when I said that all promotions in wartime are temporary that isn’t exactly so. Capt. (USA) who is now Lt. Col. Soandso (AUS) can get his USA promotion to Major in the usual time depending of course upon how many Majors the Army thinks will be needed after the war ends.

Well, thanks to tomndebb for clearing up the Vietnam timeframe! I suspected that there was no such system in place but wasn’t sure.

Assuming temporary promotions entail pay raises, doesn’t this give officers a financial incentive to prolong the war?

(a) Not really at the rates they paid up to WW2.

(b) The mass bulk of the brevets were of NCOs (sergeants) to line-grade officer (LTs, CPTs), of line-grade officers to field-grade (colonels), and of field-grade to the lower ranks of general/flag officer (BG’s, MGs, commodores). These jobs keep you at the front, with the distinct possibility of getting yourself killed.

© Because of that, IMO a senior brevet officer found to have needlessly prolonged the war for personal profit should feel lucky to get shot by an official firing squad before his fellow officers get to him.

My friend received a battlefield promotion in Vietnam and it was permanent, not temporary. However, he was wounded and discharged as 70 percent disabled so this may be partly why they let it be permanent. (Also it was not to a very high rank…)

Boy, good question. I’ll have to do some research.

What I can tell you right now is that for any officer appointment to be permanent, from 2nd Lt to five-star general, a nomination must be made by the President and approved by the Senate. This is a Constitutional requirement, and lower-ranking officers – from 2nd lieutenant to colonel (or ensign to captain in the Navy) are more or less automatically approved by the Senate.

In times of war, the President is given extraordinary powers over military personnel, and broadly speaking, he can waive just about any damn law on the books relating to personnel management. I imagine this can be delegated, but let me do a bit of checking and see if I can find something more specific.

As has been pointed out the Viet Nam war was mostly fought with regular and reserve officers. No huge and temporary military structure was erected as in WWs I and II or the Civil War so there was not the need for numerous temporary promotions. That was true even though the ratio of officers killed as a proportion of their numbers was quite high as I pointed out in another thread about enlisted been expendable and officers saved because of the investment in their training.

I couldn’t find a direct Constitutional requirement that congress approve all promotions. The congress does have constitutional power over the appointment of officers in the militia, but only is given the general power to establish rules for the regulation of the armed forces.

I’ll be interested in the results of your checking because I have the impression that promotions need go only as far as DOD for all except Generals and Admirals who must be approved by Congress. I have the feeling that such approval is pretty much automatic in both cases. The chain of command is highly unlikely to recommend for promotion any officer who is unlikely to be approved.

Article II, Section 2: [The President] shall nominate, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, judges of the supreme court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which may be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

So, basically, unless Congress enacts a law saying that the President can appoint military officers, the Constitution requires the Senate to confirm them. No confirmations are required for enlisted or non-commissioned officers.

See above. In fact, most high-ranking generals and admirals must stand for confirmation for positions of significant authority. For example, if the President fired General Myers and wants General Abizaid to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Abizaid would have to be nominated, confirmed by the Senate (not the whole Congress), and appointed to be CJCS, even though he is already a four-star officer.

Not necessarily. It is pretty rare for military nominations to be rejected, but they can be controversial. One example. You’ll note that MG Clark’s nomination was not acted upon in 2002, so he did not get his promotion; but he was renominated and confirmed in 2003.

In case you are curious, you can see the lists of nominations for all military officers in the Congressional Record. Go to this page, and type in a search for “S12764” (sorry, it’s a temporary page, can’t link directly to it.) Click on “print friendly display” and you’ll see pages and pages of names nominated for positions in the foreign service, for general and flag officer positions, and for even junior officer positions. You can also go to that search page, search for “s692”, click on the link “Confirmations,” and see where the Senate confirmed a number of general, flag, and “routine” nominations (i.e., for 0-1s through 0-6s).

Ooh, and I just found this , which lists all military nominations confirmed by the Senate. The ones that say “nominations beginning with Aaron Aaronson and ending with Zebulon Zzygy” are lower-ranking officers.

I’m still looking for something on battlefield promotions/commissions, but barring that, do those links answer your questions?

Yup. Good post. However this seems to deal with *nominations[/] to “positions of importance” and not with simple promotions.

I notice that the constitution does allow the congress to alter this provision for “such inferior officers” to vest the power in the President, the courts of law, or the heads of departments. Apparently congress has never gotten around to doing that in the case of military officers. Although I was a civilian “inferior (by spells very much inferior) officer” of the US for years I don’t think congress had to act on my promotions even in an omnibus bill dealing with everything from amoeba to zygote.

No, it’s for promotions for commissioned officers. Check out the links.

Congress – more specifically, the Senate-- doesn’t want to delegate that authority. It’s viewed as being an important check on the power of the Executive Branch and the military.

And a civilian would only stand for nomination if he was being promoted to assistant secretary, administrator of certain agencies, etc.

I emailed someone very knowledgable about military personnel law, so I’ll get an answer (with cites!) on the battlefield promotion thing soon.

Several of W.E.B. Griffin military-themed novel series involve quite a few temporary promotions (the ones I’m thinking of are set during WWII). In The Corps, for example, quite a few (well, basically all of the main characters) Marine officers are given temporary promotions. The nomenclature Griffin uses is:

Captain John Q. Public, USMC -> Major John Q. Public, USMCR

The “R” I believe is stated to mean “Reserve”, and Captain Public is said to have accepted a “reserve commission” as a major. His “permanent rank” remains captain.

This sounds a lot like the USA/AUS distinction that David Simmons mentioned (which I had not been aware of, actually), and the mechanics in the novels appear to be about the same.

Does it sound like Griffin got it right for that time period & branch of service?

I was wondering . . . based on the quote above, what if a freak situation arose in which a bona fide civilian (who would never have qualified for the military otherwise by age, gender, etc.) was deemed to be necessary to the war effort. Could the President issue orders enabling a squad of Marines to take custody of said civilian, pack him/her off to basic training and compel them to perform this necessary job?

my FIL was demoted after WWII. He stayed in and was retired at the higher pension.

In some ways, it seems rude. But the people involved, those who were in the war, don’t honor the veterans any less for thier reduction. Fortunes of war, and all.