After defending Lisa from school bully Nelson Muntz, Bart becomes Nelson's latest school bullying target. Sick of the harassment and torment, Bart, Grampa Simpson, and Herman (a slightly deranged military antique store dealer with a missing arm) rally the town's children into fighting back against Nelson and his cronies.
The episode begins inside the Simpson's kitchen before school, where Lisa is baking cupcakes to bring to Miss Hoover at school. Homer and Bart think Lisa is trying to butter up her teacher, but she is just being nice. On the school bus, Lisa makes Bart suck up to her in exchange for a cupcake. Once at the schoolyard, Lisa shows off her cupcakes to her friends and one of Nelson's minions steals the cupcakes away and begins to eat them. Bart comes over to Lisa's rescue and attacks the bully. Nelson then comes over to break up the fight; he picks up Bart by the shirt collar with Bart blindly swinging. One of Bart's punches lands and gives Nelson a bloody nose. Everyone gasps after seeing what Bart has unwittingly done. Nelson tells Bart he will get him after school. Inside the classroom, a worried Bart imagines about the showdown with Nelson after school where there is nothing Bart can do to defeat Nelson. Milhouse wakes Bart up in time to go to lunch. In the lunchroom, everyone hails Bart as a hero. A modest and nervous Bart downplays the situation. Nelson walks up to a trembling Bart to remind him about the fight after school. Back in the classroom, Bart daydreams again this time about his own funeral in which his family mourns him, and Nelson pounds him one last time. After school, a nervous Bart darts around the playground hoping to avoid Nelson. Bart turns a corner only to see Nelson standing right in front of him. Nelson promptly pummels Bart, throws him in a trash can, and informs Bart to meet again tomorrow after school for another beating. Nelson and his minions roll Bart away in the trash can.
The garbage can with Bart inside rolls to a stop in front of the Simpson house, and a weary Bart stumbles out and goes inside the house. Once inside, Bart walks past his parents in the living room and heads to the bathroom to cry. Marge sends Homer in to console Bart. Marge eavesdrops on the conversation and when it is revealed that Nelson is picking on Bart, she bursts in and gives Bart advice. She advises him to talk nicely to Nelson and try to settle things like gentlemen. Homer doesn't like this advice and he takes Bart into another room and shows him how to fight Simpson's style (which is fighting dirty). The next day, after school, in the schoolyard, Bart uses Homer's advice and flings mud in Nelson's eye, which only makes Nelson mad. Nelson beats up Bart again, throws him into another trash can and rolls him away. Once again in front the Simpson house, Bart's trash can rolls to a stop. Lisa is sitting out on the sidewalk and suggests that Bart should go and seek Grandpa's advice. Bart goes to the retirement home and visits Grandpa, who is angrily typing a letter to TV advertisers. Grandpa tells Bart to just stand up for himself. Jasper quickly enters Grandpa's room and demands for Grandpa's newspaper. Grandpa says no and stands up for himself. The two have tug-of-war over the newspaper and Jasper wins it. Realizing that Bart standing up for himself might not work, Grandpa says he knows someone else who can help. Grandpa and Bart go over to Herman's Military Antiques to ask Herman for advice. Herman tells them that Bart needs to start a small army and they begin to devise a plan.
At school, a note is passed around class. The note tells the kids that anyone fed up with Nelson should meet at Bart's treehouse after school. Inside the treehouse a group of kids along with Herman and Grandpa wait for Bart to arrive. Bart stumbles in after being beaten up again and rallies the recruits and encourages them to join in his battle plan against Nelson. A montage of army marches, drills, obstacle courses, and training with Bart as the drill sergeant commences. Back inside the treehouse, days later, the battle plan is being finalized by Bart, Lisa, Herman and Grandpa. Milhouse steps in and informs Bart of Nelson's whereabouts, and the battle plan begins. Outside on the streets Bart confronts Nelson and out of nowhere Bart's army appears with water balloons much to Nelson's surprise. Water bombing takes place and Nelson is captured. Bart wheels a tied up Nelson in a wagon back to the Simpson house. Bart tells Nelson that he hoped he has learned his lesson and reaches to untie him, but Nelson says as soon as he is free he is going to pound Bart. Inside the Simpson house Herman draws up a peace treaty between Bart and Nelson which they both sign. Marge steps in and hands out cupcakes to everyone for a happy ending.
As a conclusion of the episode, Bart sits on a table in a library and tells the viewers about the seriousness of war.
This episode was running too long to use the normal opening sequence. Therefore, it didn’t feature a chalkboard gag or a couch gag. Instead they just cut to an image of the Simpson house. David Silverman was the director and was kind of stressed, because he was doing storyboards for this episode while also directing "Bart the Genius". Originally, he had planned to use the song “War” by Edwin Starr in the episode. The plans were dropped when they decided that the song did not really fit the story. The episode had problems with the censors, who did not want the characters to say "family jewels" on prime time television. The producers ignored the notes and "family jewels" remained in the episode.
Two new characters were introduced in this episode. The first one is Nelson Muntz, who remains a frequently used recurring character. The second is Herman, who has been used less. The design of Herman except for only having one arm was inspired by the look of the writer John Swartzwelder. The voice was partly inspired by George H. W. Bush and performed by Harry Shearer. The original idea with Herman was that every time he would be shown he would have a different story to why he only has one arm.
Matt Groening notes on the commentary track that he finds it strange how controversial this episode seemed at the time of its release. Today, they would go a lot further and to him this episode now seems harmless. The authors of the book I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood, said: "Some good lines and setpieces aside - we love Bart's fantasy of death at Nelson's hands - this episode nevertheless feels a bit unsure of itself, particularly towards the end." In a DVD review of the first season David B. Grelck gave the episode a rating of 3/5 and adds, "Another episode that helped to propel Bart's popularity into the stratosphere..."
"Bart the General" and Seinfeld's "The Tape" were used in a Dartmouth College experiment to study brain activity in relation to humorous moments in television shows. The results were published in a 2004 issue of the academic journalNeurolmage. The researchers noted, "During moments of humor detection, significant [brain] activation was noted in the left posterior middle temporal gyrus ... and left inferior frontal gyrus."