What is a Major General?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A Major General is a commissioned officer who ranks above a Brigadier General, and below a Lieutenant General. Numerous militaries around the world have a Major General rank among their general officers, with the naval equivalent being a Rear Admiral. The NATO ranking for Major Generals is OF-7. In regions where the rank of Brigadier General does not exist, the Major General is the lowest ranking general officer.

Many militaries have made an active effort to promote diversity and to encourage women and ethnic or racial minorities to consider military service.
Many militaries have made an active effort to promote diversity and to encourage women and ethnic or racial minorities to consider military service.

This military rank has its roots in the position of Sergeant Major General, which began to be phased out around the 17th century. Like other general officers, Major Generals must work their way up into this position, demonstrating exemplary performance and routinely meeting military standards during career reviews. As a general rule, only career officers reach the rank of Major General, because it requires years of service and commitment to military ideals. Because commissioned officers represent their nation and the President, they are expected to conform to very high standards of conduct whether they are in uniform or not.

Branches of the U.S. military have made efforts to promote racial and gender diversity.
Branches of the U.S. military have made efforts to promote racial and gender diversity.

Major Generals generally bear two stars on their uniform insignia, although various designs and insignia are used around the world. In the United States, Major Generals are at pay grade O8, and they are commissioned by the President and confirmed by the Senate, like other commissioned officers. Major Generals can work in a variety of settings, providing their expertise on the battlefield and in consultations about military policy and the future direction of the military.

In written communications, this rank may be abbreviated as Maj. Gen. for convenience. A Major General is usually addressed in person as “Major General Lastname,” unless someone is invited to do otherwise, and lower ranks are expected to salute Major Generals when they encounter them. While civilians are not required to render military salutes, they are expected to treat commissioned officers with respect and courtesy, and to give them priority in social introductions and seating arrangements, just as they would to people of high social rank.

Historically, the general ranks of armies around the world are filled by men, and these men are usually members of the dominant racial group in the nation they serve. In the United States, for example, a female or non-white Major General is a very unusual sight. Many militaries have made an active effort to promote diversity and to encourage women and ethnic or racial minorities to consider military service, but it is difficult to shake entrenched traditions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Probably the most famous major General that I can think of is Major General Winfield Scott who was famous during the Mexican American War and even once ran for President.

A very large man, Major General Scott was six feet and five inches and was the tallest Presidential candidate in history and was thought to be an almost unstoppable candidate with one exception.

Scott was entirely opposed to slavery and felt that it undermined the American institution of freedom and democracy. Because of his beliefs he was unable to gather Whig Party support during his campaign and his beliefs made him unpopular in the South. Ultimately Franklin Pierce was elected and proved to be possibly the worst President in the history of the United States. One has to wonder had people been more open to Major General Scott and he had become President if he may have been able to ease tensions due to his war record and maybe have been able to prevent or hold off the Civil War. I believe he would have done a much better job than the two Presidents before Lincoln did.


@jcraig - You are absolutely correct. There is a certain strict cap on the number of three stared generals in the United States and there can only be four star generals during times of war. Because of the strict cap they set, I believe it is less than twenty, the highest anyone virtually ever goes is two stars and this is a major accomplishment.

Becoming a general is a major achievement to begin with considering that in order to get promoted to being a general one has to have the Senate vote yes and confirm the promotion. Same thing goes for each and every promotion in the number of stars and it is always a big deal to have the United States Congress stop to decide whether or not to promote someone in their line of work.


@TreeMan - That is a very fantastic story to hear. I have been around some Air Force people and thought that the pilots I encountered were very arrogant and thought that it was something to do with being in the military. However, I guess it would make sense that someone so high up in command would have to lead by example and make sure that when he or she was out in public that they represented their branch of the military well and gave them a good name.

I have also heard that it is a very big deal for a General to obtain a second star and become promoted to Major General. I have heard that this is usually as high up as anyone goes as far as Generals are concerned and it is extremely difficult to go any higher.


I was once on an airplane ride to Washington DC and I was sitting next to a Major General. He told me he was on his way to a meeting at the Pentagon to discuss something about his troops. I looked up his name later and it looked like he was the highest ranking Army officer in the state of Indiana and was second in command of the Indiana National Guard, with the first in command being of course the Governor of the state.

I thought it was very interesting that I had a chance meeting with someone ranked so high up in the military and he seemed to be a very amicable person and manners minded person. I could not help but notice that he pulled out an envelope that had big bold red letters that said "classified" on it and read it while we were in mid flight. Apparently whatever he was going to the Pentagon for concerned what was in that letter and I knew that he was a very special individual.


@irontoenail - The thing is, that Major General was probably not just being nice to the waitress, or just generally being a good guy. It was bad propaganda for the man to be lording it over civilians just because he had some kind of rank.

And, it was a showing of poor dicipline, which is bad for everyone involved.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it was the army Major General's job to discipline him, but I imagine his job might be to dicipline that man's immediate supervisor, which would have the same result, if not worse.


So, this is the highest level you can permanently obtain during peacetime. It never occurred to me that you might have temporary levels of rank in the military, but I suppose that makes sense. That way, you don't get stuck with someone who might be good in a war, but not so much during peace.

I think it is really good to be encouraging people of different gender and ethnic origin to enter the ranks of officers. Not just in terms of making sure there are equal opportunities because that's the right thing to do, but also because the more different perspectives you have on a situation, the better.

If all the people in the upper levels of the military have the same education and the same background, they'll all have relatively similar ways of looking at things. Bringing in people with different backgrounds is always beneficial.


I remember hearing a story about a man from a military base who was a regular at a cafe near the base. I can't remember what rank he was, but it wasn't much above the entry level.

However, he would go there and make ridiculous demands, showing off for his girlfriend, and acting as though being a military officer entitled him to special treatment.

One day he was acting like this and was especially mean to the waitress and she went inside in tears. Another customer asked her what the matter was and she explained.

He got up and went outside to have a little talk with the jerk. Turns out, he was a Major General at the same base. And, while he probably did deserve special treatment, he had just acted like any other customer.

Except, of course, he had the power to make sure the jerk never bothered the waitress again.

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