On April 11, 1951 President Harry Truman had had enough, and fired General of the Army (5 star general) Douglas MacArthur. Firing the senior American general during a war, especially one that had been awarded the Medal of Honor (in World War II) and that was a national hero is not to be taken lightly; however, Truman had no choice and “Dugout Doug” was out. Sometimes during the emergencies of war even senior officers are found to be lacking in brains, skills, or character necessary to win the war. When officers of exalted rank get fired, it is unusual enough to be big news and often controversial. Here are 10 notable high ranking officers relieved of command during wartime. So many more could have been included: you tell us who else should have been on this list.
10. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, 2005.
Relieved of command and reduced in rank to colonel, the only female general on our list was in charge of the prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq during the war in Iraq. Karpinski was fired when information and photos leaked to the press showing mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by US jailers. Karpinski bitterly refutes the charges against her for poor leadership having allowed the infractions, and has blamed then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for allowing civilian contractors trained at Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan to work in the prison. Is she a political scapegoat? Read her book and decide for yourself.
9. Brigadier General Lew Wallace, 1862.
A Union division commander under Gen. U.S. Grant at the battle of Shiloh, Wallace was the scapegoat for the failure of the Union forces to win a decisive victory. Relieved of his command, Wallace later served well in other roles, including as Governor of New Mexico Territory. Wallace was bitter his entire life about being blamed unfairly for the Shiloh debacle and he later wrote the famous novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a story of a man wrongly accused that achieves redemption, which presumably is how he saw himself. (Note: Ben-Hur was made into a motion picture 4 times, most notably the 1959 version with Charlton Heston, as well as plays and a television miniseries.)
8. General William Hull, 1812.
In charge of American forces in the Northwest during the War of 1812, Hull bungled an invasion of Canada and then surrendered Fort Detroit to an inferior force. For his ineptitude, Hull was court-martialed and sentenced to be shot, but was spared only by a reprieve from President Madison.
7. General George Patton, 1943.
Patton was taken out of combat in 1943 after 2 incidents where he had slapped junior enlisted men surfaced and became public. General Eisenhower had General Patton apologize to both men, the others present during the incidents, and then his entire command, but when word of the incidents became public in the US the outcry was severe. Although members of congress wanted Patton thrown out of the Army altogether, Patton was kept in non-combat roles for a year following the incidents. Apparently having done his penance, Patton was once more allowed to command troops in combat after the Normandy D-Day invasion. The German High Command considered Patton to be the best of the Allied generals.
6. Field Marshall Claude Auchinleck, 1942.
In charge of the British North African and Middle East war effort early in World War II, Auchinleck was relieved of command and replaced by Generals Alexander and Montgomery. Auchinleck had actually been a replacement himself when General Wavell was relieved. Auchinleck was accused by the Britiish General Staff of losing battles due to “nothing less than bad generalship.” Sadly, Auchinleck was also fired by his wife, who left him in 1944 for Air Chief Marshall Pierse.
5. Field Marshall John French, 1916.
Despite his name, French was in charge of the British forces in Europe during World War I and had survived an attempt to fire him in 1914 only because French General Foch interceded on his behalf. Obviously, the war did not go well (for either side) while French commanded the British army, and as happens so often French did not hesitate to blame other people for his lack of success, including his allied forces and politicians back home. Finally, French was given the opportunity to resign his field command instead of getting publicly relieved and was reassigned to non-combat duties in the homeland.
4. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, 1944.
One of if not the most respected of the German generals during World War II, The “Desert Fox” was in charge of defending the Western Front from the allied invasion of France. Fed up with meddling by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy, Rommel became enmeshed in the plot (“Valkyrie”) to assassinate Hitler in 1944. When the plot failed, anyone remotely connected to it was rounded up and executed. Rommel’s status as a national hero would have devastated public morale if he had been publicly shown to have been a conspirator, so he was allowed to commit suicide without a trial or public humiliation.
3. Lieutenant General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel, 1941.
The officers in charge of American Army and Navy forces in Hawaii at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, both were relieved within days of the attack and were later found derelict in their preparations for war, despite ample warnings. Many times over the years relatives and admirers of these two officers have tried to clear their names and have claimed that they were sacrificed for public relations reasons, but most military analysts agree that both men should have taken more proactive measures for the defense of Hawaii. Conspiracy theories abound that Washington deliberately withheld information from this pair to ensure a catastrophe when the Japanese attacked in order to force the American public into a war frenzy.
2. Major General George McClellan, 1862.
Bearing the lofty title, General-in-Chief, McClellan was in charge of the Union forces for the first part of the Civil War. His indecision and slow reactions, combined with a seemingly reluctance to prosecute the war drove President Lincoln to distraction. Humiliated by his firing, McClellan sought the office of President in the 1864 election but of course, Lincoln was reelected. McClellan did achieve some political success, as he was elected governor of New Jersey in 1876.
1. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, 1951.
Pompous and egotistical, MacArthur earned the nickname “Dugout Doug” from his troops during the loss of the Philippines in 1942 when he chose to “hide” in a bunker and not visit the front lines. Still, for political and public morale purposes he was awarded the Medal of Honor even though he could easily have been fired for blundering the defense of the Philippines. As the senior allied commander during the Korean War, MacArthur had spectacular success and advocated seizing all of North Korea and even entering China, as well as wanting to use nuclear weapons. Insubordinate to the president and alarming our allies, as well as ignoring intelligence that indicated massive Chinese intervention was imminent, MacArthur had to fired and he was. Rather than “just fading away” as he said old soldiers do, MacArthur publicly continued his diatribes and considered a run for president, which of course went nowhere.
For more information, please see…
Karpinski, Janis. One Woman’s Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story. Miramax, 2006.
Ricks, Thomas E. The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. Penguin Books, 2013.
Wallace, Lew. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Wordsworth Classics) (Wordsworth Collection). Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1995.