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I get the distinct impression that many dictators bear the military rank of colonel - for example, Muammar Gadaffi held the rank of colonel while ruling Libya (and is indeed more commonly known in the West as 'Colonel Gadaffi' than by his actual first name), and Georgios Papadopoulos was a colonel while heading the Greek military junta.

My question is: why colonels? Colonel is not the highest army rank - above them are various grades of generals, and (depending on the country and the era) quite possibly higher ranks still, usually including the word 'Marshall' somewhere.

Even if a dictator sees no need to appoint themselves to ludicrous new ranks like 'Most Supreme Marshal' or 'Eternal General of the People' or something like that, I don't understand why Gadaffi, Papadopoulos and others did not at least take on the highest available grade of general - when not doing so presumably resulted in them, as head of state, giving orders to military officers of higher rank than themselves.

EDIT: to clarify, I am aware that many dictators with a formal military rank are actually generals or marshals of some sort, and that the colonels I described are in the minority. My question wasn't why this practice is universal (because it's not), but why it exists at all.

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    Interesting. I wonder if there any generals in the Gadaffi-era Libyan army? – divibisan Dec 17 '20 at 23:51
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    I'm not sure your generalization (sorry) is true. General Galtieri, General Peron, Field Marshal Idi Amin, General Musharraf... – DJClayworth Dec 18 '20 at 0:24
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    Gadaffi did it because he had no need to increase his rank—he mentions it somewhere in an interview or something. In any case, this should be treated case by case. – gktscrk Dec 18 '20 at 5:48
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    Idi Amin awarded himself the Victoria Cross, I believe. His official self-awarded title was "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular". None of the letters after his name were official British ones. – Michael Harvey Dec 18 '20 at 10:27
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    @Studoku that applies to many countries. I don't think it counts in this context, as the commander in chief can and often is a civilian, at least in democracies that apply the same principle as the US. The question is about a person who is already in the military when seizing power. – Grand Torini Dec 18 '20 at 15:50
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  1. It is not necessary. The army generals are OK taking orders from "Colonel X", because he is the head of state, whether or not he is a higher rank. (If they weren't, the Colonel wouldn't be head of state). Generals are used to taking orders from civilians outside the military chain of command. A dictator's power doesn't depend on his rank.

  2. Arbitrary promotions show contempt for the military. Making yourself head of state is one thing. The Army is probably OK with that, or it wouldn't have happened. But giving yourself a military rank higher than the people who have earned it on merit? That's going to annoy the army. Dictators who annoy the army don't usually survive long.

  3. Ranks are permanent, government is temporary. A head of government is no longer in command when he stops being head of government. Generals get to keep commanding even after the reason for their promotion is done. The military probably prefers that the new dictator doesn't give himself a title that will live forever.

It's also not clear that "Colonel" is the norm. Only two examples of dictators using the title "Colonel" have been presented.

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    Colonel Nasser would like to have a word with you – Marcus Junius Brutus Dec 18 '20 at 14:00
  • Colonels as dictators were quite common during the Cold War. – RonJohn Dec 18 '20 at 15:08
  • Good answer! However "Colonel" doesn't need to be the norm; the core of the question (that you answer perfectly) is why dictators with a past in the military would not get a fancy title for themselves once they get to rule a country. Some that do (Generalísimo Franco) they do so either informally or within a more or less established practice of their army, but few if any seem to skip through the ranks "undeservedly" or outside of established conventions. – Grand Torini Dec 18 '20 at 15:43
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    I think Franco had earned the title of General/Generalissimo before he became dictator. – DJClayworth Dec 18 '20 at 16:34
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    Another example is Vladimir Putin, who is still a colonel. Though Russia is not a dictatorship per se. – JonathanReez Dec 18 '20 at 16:59
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In both the French and British militaries, colonel is the highest rank short of general. Colonels generally command regiments; generals are in charge of larger groups like divisions, corps, or entire armies. This has two implications:

  • Colonels usually have more direct exposure to the men under their command, since they tend to be more directly involved in the administration of campaigns
  • Generals are often closely connected to governing regime, interacting directly with rulers while commanding from the back lines; there is far less politics in the appointment of a colonel than in the appointment of a general

With that in mind, dictatorial states are often formed through revolution: through some successful rebellion against an established regime. Those at the rank of colonel are in an optimal position to be leaders in such revolutions:

  • They have relative political anonymity, being outside the inner circle of governance, and thus can operate with a greater degree of freedom and secrecy
  • They have an entire regiment of trained soldiers who (after a few years of trials in combat) may have a good deal of personal loyalty directly to the colonel
  • They have direct command over a reasonable stockpile of arms and munitions that can be applied to the revolution itself.

Generals are in a more precarious position. A general who is exposed as a revolutionary too early will be executed by the regime; one who hangs back too late will be associated with the defeated regime and executed by the revolutionaries. And once a new regime has established itself, the leader effectively leaves the ranks of the army and takes on a political role. He is likely to stick with the title and rank he held to remind others of his role in the revolution, and has effectively skipped over the higher rank of general in order to become ruler, so there's no real need to promote himself.

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    In the British Army, the rank above colonel is Brigadier, (since 1919 not a general officer rank), and then successively Major-General, Lieutenant-General, and ("full") General. The Field-Marshal rank above General is rarely used. – Michael Harvey Dec 18 '20 at 10:32
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    @MichaelHarvey The Brigadier rank is NATO rank OF-6 and is equivalent to general ranks in all other NATO countries. Although it is technically classified as a field officer rank in the UK, it is unique among NATO states (i.e., everyone outside the UK would regard such an individual as a general officer). – Lawnmower Man Dec 18 '20 at 22:19
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    The Australian, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistan armies, and several others don't classify Brigadiers as general officers, and they are 'outside the UK'. – Michael Harvey Dec 18 '20 at 23:20
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    @MichaelHarvey: An interesting bit of trivia, but it completely misses the point. – Ted Wrigley Dec 19 '20 at 0:22
  • @MichaelHarvey Many countries have no such rank. Eastern bloc countries in general did not. Only after 1990 did Czechia adopt the rank of a brigadier general (which existed before the communist takover) and it is a general rank. – Vladimir F Dec 19 '20 at 15:19
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As I understand it with reference to UK history (Gaddafi was after all trained in by British officers) the distinction is that a Colonel was the head of a regiment which was the fundamental permanent unit a soldier belonged to. The Colonel was responsible for funding, raising and equipping. They were usually a wealthy aristocrat or member of the royal family, though the sale of military commissions would generate revenue.

Brigadiers, General on the other hand were potentially temporary command appointments perhaps for a campaign with multiple regiments deployed together and a Colonelship might continue to be held in parallel. Reforms in the late 19th century centralized funding of the Army and made Colonel into just another step in the the rank hierarchy. (Many regiments also have the sponsorship of a member of the Royal Family as an honorary Colonel.)

Colonel works pretty well as a rank for the leader of the permanent military organization.

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Well if the dictator makes himself general then who does he boss around and if he does boss someone around is he bossing them around as the dictator or the general? If I am a dictator I want high ranking people to boss around to show my authority.

Also if something major goes wrong, I blame it on the general or possibly hang him. There is no scapegoat for war operatives if you are fulfilling the same role.

(yes I know this is more of a comment but this is just dictator 101 and needs to be thought of)

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Pure speculation, but maybe it is because colonel is the highest ranking officer who (occasionally) sees actual combat. A general is tucked safely away in a command center. Therefore colonel has a more martial/macho connotation than general.

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    In WW1, 200 British Generals were killed, wounded or captured. In Wolrd War 2 at least 25 – Duke Bouvier Dec 18 '20 at 20:54

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