In the Army's hierarchy, major general ranks below general and lieutenant general but above brigadier general, making the position third from the top. Sometimes referred to as two-star generals, major generals wear an insignia on their shoulders bearing two stars.
The rank was first established by the Army at its inception in 1775 but was abolished in 1802. The rank of major general was restored not long after, ahead of the War of 1812.
Army Major General Explained
The rank of major general is a permanent one, and it is the highest possible rank an officer can achieve during peacetime. Any ranks above major general are considered temporary and linked to a given role, such as commanding a division during wartime.
The Army's major general is the equivalent rank to a rear admiral in the Navy or Coast Guard.
Major generals serve as commanders of divisions, which have between 10,000 and 16,000 soldiers. They perform major tactical operations and conduct sustained battles and engagements. There are 10 divisions in the active Army and eight in the Reserves/National Guard. Two-star generals also serve as high-level officers at major commands and the Pentagon.
How to Become an Army Major General
Fewer than 0.5% of commissioned officers make it to the top three ranks. This is an Army job for experienced officers who have shown bravery and valor and are considered outstanding leaders.
Promotions occur as vacancies open within commissioned officer ranks. Boards composed of senior officers determine which officers are promoted based on achievement, years of service and the 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 major general, and the U.S. Senate must confirm the appointment before it is official. When a major general retires, dies while in the line of duty, or loses the rank for some other reason, the president suggests a replacement from a list of nominees provided in consultation with the secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Retiring as Army Major General
The mandatory retirement age for a major general is 62, but it can be pushed to 64 in some cases. An Army major general must retire from the position five years after being promoted to that rank, or after 35 years of service, whichever comes first.
A major general promoted to a higher temporary rank is allowed to retire at that rank even if they return to major general before retiring.
Removing an Army Major General's Rank
Demotions can result from conduct unbecoming an officer, such as adultery, or infractions such as dereliction of duty. It is rare for general officers to be stripped of their stars; such punishment is usually meted out only to those facing serious charges.
For example, Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster lost his rank after being implicated in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. In 1968, civilians in My Lai, South Vietnam, were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers under Koster's command.