Generals Live Like Kings

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is bemused that the generals who worked for him lived more lavish lifestyles than he did.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is bemused that the generals who worked for him lived more lavish lifestyles than he did.

WaPo (“Petraeus scandal puts four-star general lifestyle under scrutiny“):

Then-defense secretary Robert M. Gates stopped bagging his leaves when he moved into a small Washington military enclave in 2007. His next-door neighbor was Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, who had a chef, a personal valet and — not lost on Gates — troops to tend his property.

Gates may have been the civilian leader of the world’s largest military, but his position did not come with household staff. So, he often joked, he disposed of his leaves by blowing them onto the chairman’s lawn.

“I was often jealous because he had four enlisted people helping him all the time,” Gates said in response to a question after a speech Thursday. He wryly complained to his wife that “Mullen’s got guys over there who are fixing meals for him, and I’m shoving something into the microwave. And I’m his boss.”


The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.

The elite regional commanders who preside over large swaths of the planet don’t have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, some of which are configured with beds.


Although American generals have long enjoyed many perks — in World War II and in Vietnam, some dined on china set atop linen tablecloths — the amenities afforded to today’s military leaders are more lavish than anyone else in government enjoys, save for the president.


Some retired generals have defended the benefits accorded to their active-duty brethren, noting that many of them work 18-hour days, six to seven days a week. They manage budgets that dwarf those of large multinational companies and are responsible for the lives of thousands of young men and women under their command.

Compared with today’s plutocrats, their pay is modest. In 2013, the base salary for a four-star general with at least 38 years of service will be almost $235,000, although federal personnel regulations limit their take-home pay to $179,700. Unlike top civilians in government, top generals also receive free housing and subsidies for food and uniforms. And when they retire, those who have served at least 40 years get an annual pension that is slightly more than active-duty base pay — this year it is $236,650.

Several generals noted that perks, such as planes, cars and staff aides, are constrained by hundreds of pages of rules designed to ensure that they are used only for government business.

But the frantic search for cuts to reduce the growth of government debt could soon put some of the four-star benefits at risk. When he was at the Pentagon, Gates wanted to trim some of the perks but ran into resistance. It was, he said, the “third rail” of the Defense Department.

“You don’t need a cadre of people at your beck and call in an age of austerity, unless you are a field commander in Iraq or Afghanistan,” a former top aide to Gates said on the condition of anonymity.

You probably don’t need string quartets and gourmet chefs if you’re a field commander.

This story is almost a month old but I just stumbled on it. The Petraeus scandal and the abuse of these perks by Kip Ward, former head honcho at Africa Command, will likely make it easier to cut some of the excesses.

It’s true that general work long hours and that entertaining dignitaries is often part of the job. But, even though they don’t make what they’ll later earn on the outside, they make enough money to pay somebody to mow their lawn and send their uniforms out to the dry cleaners.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Vast Variety says:

    When I was in the Air Force I was put on squadron detail for a month as punishment. My duties included taking the comander’s car to the car wash.

  2. john personna says:

    Years ago a friend of the family was in the services, Air Force I think, and got a concurrent degree in Resort Management paid for. Apparently the Force needed resort managers.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    I saw that a couple of weeks ago and bookmarked it to do a post I never did. The other problem is we have way too many Generals, more than we had during WWII or the cold war.

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    This is news to you JJ? I thought you’d been in the military. Chateau generals have been a fixture since WW 1 and if anything it’s getting worse. Even on duty American generals tend to stay in fortified bases where they plan missions and give briefings via videoconferences. Petreaus (for whom I have some regard despite recent events) has a chestful of medals and I don’t think he’s ever been in combat. So when they’re back home at mansions on the Potomac what do you expect. And if you think this is going to result in curbing excesses then you are truly delusional JJ……and I’m being humorous.

  5. scott says:

    I remember having Aerodrome duty (basically meeting DVs at Base Ops) one weekend when the PACOM commander flew in for a gas and go in his 737. His flight attendants were all female enlisted members, not in uniform but in flight attendant uniforms. I thought that was over the top.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    @john personna:

    The military has lots of resorts I can assure you and some of them are sitting on prime real estate. I think they’ve given it back to the German govt now but the PX ran a magnificent hotel and golf course at Berchtesgaden just below Hitler’s holiday home which is probably why it sticks in the mind.

  7. Moosebreath says:

    And yet any attempt to reduce the Pentagon budget is met with cries that we are trying to weaken our national defense.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I was there for a week long class in 1969. It was in the winter so not any golf but it was pretty posh.

  9. milprof says:

    The argument from generals that “but we don’t have it as good as CEOs” is not going to cut a lot of ice with civilian federal executives — people who also manage large organizations and large budgets, who also often are responsible for people’s lives (law enforcement, diplomatic corps, etc), but who don’t have anything like those perks. Pay for all but the very top, like cabinet secretaries, is capped at $179,000, they don’t get housing or food or valets, outside of a very tiny set they don’t get drivers, not only do they not have business jets, they don’t even get to fly business class.

    As an example, a couple of years ago I was at a conference with a very senior US ambassador, one who served as the #2 person in a combatant command and thus was a 3-star equivalent. Neverthless, he flew in from overseas in coach just like the GS-13 analysts who were also attending, had no aide, no security detail, nothing, just a plain old federal employee who went out to grab a cheap sandwich right along with us peons.

    I certainly find the disparity to be troubling and excessive, but consider what signal it sends to foreign governments and foreign publics when America’s top generals arrive like royalty but our top diplomats are riding a bus.

  10. John Peabody says:

    It has been my pleasure to play music at the quarters of several general officers. 4-stars could have musicians from the band tasked to play at official functions. 2-stars did not have the same leeway; I was paid a small stipend from the chief of staff when I played for their unofficial functions.

    (a retired Army bandsman)

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    I second Ron Beasley’s comment above on having too many general officers but I think the problem goes beyond that. Who guards the guards? It seems that no one is paying attention to the million of dollars while trying to give close scrutiny to the billions. Maybe the millions would be a good place to start

  12. JKB says:

    Long ago, i spoke with a guy who had ended up on an admiral’s staff as enlisted. He made the comment that they gave them all the perks because they wanted the admirals thinking about the Navy 24/7.

    But we should look at the differences between a flag officer and a flag officer in one of the CinC positions. First off, all flag officers are kidnap targets. CinCs and service chiefs also travel with a full command staff, security, etc. They aren’t off the clock while traveling.

    As for quarters, those are sunk costs already in place on bases. Plus, they are official reception facilities as well.

    Are some perks left over from the past when enlisted did service jobs and not contractors? Do we really need military bands? Especially as a full time billet?

    On the other hand, flag staff is a career step billet for junior officers. The flag lieutenant gets a front row seat to how a flag officer works.

    Oh and you can add that flag officers get front of the line privileges, assigned parking and personal greeter/reps when they go to military hospitals. But then some of that is afforded commanding officers, especially if their treatment is likely to interfere with their duties or cause sailing disruptions.

  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Early 60’s. It was very posh. Just my sort of place in fact…….LOL….I played it a few times. The scenery was fantastic so I can see why Hitler liked it. I don’t know what he played off though.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:


    He made the comment that they gave them all the perks because they wanted the admirals thinking about the Navy 24/7.

    Yeah right…..very convincing….LOL

  15. Brummagem Joe says:


    But we should look at the differences between a flag officer and a flag officer in one of the CinC positions.

    Yep there’s been a rash of kidnappings of one stars and above…….in fact there have been so many the Taliban/Al Queda are running out of hotel space………LOL

  16. Just Me says:

    When my husband was an enlisted member of the Navy he often worked 12 to 15 hour days. And of course he had the joy of going to sea.

    Nobody sent somebody to my house to cook my meals or do my lawn.

    I don’t have much empathy when the Generals cry “we need this.”

    And yet any attempt to reduce the Pentagon budget is met with cries that we are trying to weaken our national defense.

    I think there is plenty that can be cut or streamlined in the military that wouldn’t compromise national defense. A general having a couple of enlisted guys doing his lawn has nothing to do with national defense.

  17. Whitfield says:

    When I was younger, a guy that lived down the street was actually an ex Nazi general (if that is what they were called, I can’t remember even though I watched “Hogan’s Heroes” weekly). He lived in an ordinary home, had a nice job, and was a nice neighbor, but very quiet.