Outranking Your Job
When Colonel Badass should really be Lieutenant Badass.
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(permanent link) added: 2012-01-23 22:26:50 sponsor: GuyIncog (last reply: 2013-02-03 01:14:50)

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"Never have so few been commanded by so many."
-- Major General Maxwell Taylor, finding himself on D-Day commanding a group of many high ranking officers, but only three enlisted men.

A subtrope of Artistic License - Military (or Artistic License - Law, for police settings) in which officers are shown performing tasks well below their pay grade. A high ranking officer may be shown commanding a much smaller unit than their Real Life counterparts, personally leading small unit patrols, or even acting in the role of an enlisted man. In extreme cases, everyone in a unit will be an officer, regardless of their actual duties. This trope may also be seen in works involving law enforcement, which may depict lieutenants, captains, or even Da Chief personally conducting investigations and making arrests.

There are a number of reasons this trope may be invoked. It may be done to establish a high ranking officer as a Colonel Badass who isn't afraid to lead from the front. In works that feature Do Anything Soldiers (or if the main characters simply do everything) if one or more of their battlefield roles would be performed by an officer in Real Life, the characters will frequently be officers even if this is completely inappropriate for their other roles. If a character is of appropriate rank initially but is later promoted into this trope, the creator may be trying to avoid Limited Advancement Opportunities while otherwise maintaining the status quo. It's also likely in works featuring a Suspiciously Small Army.

Compare and contrast the Overranked Soldier, who may be in a position befitting his or her rank, but is unqualified (or simply too young) to realistically hold either. Contrast You Are in Command Now, in which battlefield conditions force a lower ranking officer to take command of a larger unit than normal. If the officer in question is being assigned menial tasks by his superiors, see Dude, Where's My Respect?. When royalty are on the front lines, see Royals Who Actually Do Something.

See Common Military Units for an idea of the sizes of units real life officers typically command, though this trope may also sometimes be Truth in Television - see below.


Examples:

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[[folder: Anime and Manga]]
  • In Gall Force: Earth Chapter, Sandy (whose rank is not mentioned, and may in fact be a civilian) commands a unit consisting of a dozen or so named characters and at least several unnamed ones, three light tanks, and an armored personnel carrier. Nominally that would make her a lieutenant. However, her subordinates include Lamidia (A major in the Mars Defense Force) and Captain Varji of the MDF Navy, the latter of whom commands a single 2-man tank. Justified in that the resistance forces are fighting a desperate battle, and one could make the arguement Lamidia and Varji are POWs recruited via an Enemy Mine situation.
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[[folder: Comic Books]]
  • Both in the comics and the film, Captain America typically either works alone or commands the Howling Commandos, a squad sized unit. May be justified in that they are a Special Forces-type unit.
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[[folder: Film]]
  • Saving Private Ryan - Captain Miller, who would normally command a company of maybe a hundred men, is given command of an eight-man squad, typically the role of a sergeant or lieutenant at most. Of course, given the mission circumstances, a higher-ranked CO may have been chosen to allow him to draw additional assistance if needed.
  • The Dirty Dozen features Major Reisman leading twelve convicts and a sergeant on the film's climactic raid.
  • Heat features Robbery Homicide Lieutenant Hanna acting as lead investigator for every crime in the film, from the climactic bank robbery to the murder of a prostitute. Hanna does have subordinates under his command, but their duties are limited to assisting in the larger cases by running down leads, not handling cases of their own.
  • Stargate has Colonel O'Neil leading a specialized team of a Lieutenant Colonel, a number of Lieutenants, and a civilian scientist. Justified both because this is an elite unit and because many of the team members have highly advanced qualifications.
  • Lethal Weapon 4 has Murtaugh and Riggs both promoted to Captain when their involvement in a shootout causes the department to lose its insurance coverage. While this is supposedly done to get them out of the field, neither is assigned any additional responsibilities, and both remain Cowboy Cops throughout the film. The only sign they've been promoted is Riggs occasionally waving his badge and saying, "This is your Captain speaking..."
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[[folder: Literature]]
  • Frank L. Baum seemed to like playing this trope for laughs. It may be that in Oz, this is the normal state of formal militaries.
    • In The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, Queen Ann's army has a number of officers but only one enlisted man, Private Files. After Files resigns to avoid being commanded to perform an illegal order, Ann enlists Tik-Tok to replace him.
    • In Ozma of Oz, Ozma forms an army composed of 8 generals, 6 colonels, 7 majors, 5 captains, and one private named Omby Amby. Amby is later promoted to the rank of "Captain General".
  • Averted in Artemis Fowl: Commander Root is technically too high up to participate in field actions, but quickly reactivates himself when the situation calls for it (he has quite a bit of influence with the commanding officer).
  • Buck Danny: The other characters note that Buck should be a general by now (the series has such a bad case of Comic Book Time that pilots who joined for World War 2 are still the same age and flying to this day), though he remains a colonel so he can still fly missions.
  • Gaunt's Ghosts has Colonel-Commissar Gaunt leading large-scale operations from the front, given the rank of colonel to facilitate the paperwork.
  • The X-Wing Series eventually sees Wedge Antilles promoted to General, while many of his subordinates are also promoted... resulting in a unit in which half the pilots outrank the commanders of other squadrons. Somewhat justified in that Rogue Squadron is an elite unit.
  • Commented upon in Cryptonomicon -- Sgt. Shaftoe at one point muses that Detachment 2702 has a case of "rank inflation" (because the people with sufficiently high clearances to know what Detachment 2702 is doing tend to be senior officers).
  • Lt. Eve Dallas from the In Death books is a borderline case. While she does run a homicide squad, she spends much more time investigating murders herself than supervising her squad. Note that she is shown as being perpetually behind on her paperwork because of this, and that she knows that one more promotion means she won't be able to do the street-level investigations she loves.
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[[folder: Television]]
  • In Doctor Who Classic UNIT often consists of The Brigadier, one Sergeant, and one Corporal.
  • Battlestar Galactica: How many times did Commander Adama, send his CAG and most of the bridge crew to do ground based operations, Often escorted by Marines but where were their officers?
    • May be justified in that many officers were likely killed in the nuclear holocaust that led up to the series.
  • The Closer: The major case squad consists of five or six lieutenants and one sergeant, with a deputy chief in charge. Ordinarily a police unit will be headed by a lieutenant or captain, with the rest of the squad being no higher ranked than sergeant.
  • Sharpe the TV series suffered from this, owing to the small budget the show had, most episodes retained the named officers from the books, but didn't have the money for a full battalion. So often 5 or 6 officers would be leading only 30 or so men.
  • Soldier Soldier : The 1st Battalion Kings Fusiliers often consisted of the Lieutenant Colonel, A Major, A Lieutenant, The regimental Sergeant-Major, The Company Sergeant-Major, A Sergeant and er... Privates Garvey and Tucker.
  • As a squadron of Do Anything Soldiers, the Marine aviators in Space: Above and Beyond not only fly space fighters, but also perform ground missions as infantry. Though infantry units are made up predominantly of enlisted men, no member of the squadron is below the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
    • In "Who Monitors the Birds," Major Colquitt recruits Hawkes (a lieutenant) to accompany him behind enemy lines on a sniping mission. Real Life snipers are almost exclusively enlisted personnel.
  • Lt. Columbo should have been running a squad rather than out investigating murders on his own.
  • The title character on The Commish frequently conducted investigations and made arrests personally, despite being the police commissioner.
  • Generally averted in Law & Order and its spinoffs, which accurately depict police Captains and Lieutenants as supervisors, who almost never personally conduct investigations or make arrests.
  • The Starship Enterprise in all its incarnations seems to be crewed entirely by officers. The "cannon fodder" on a landing party are Ensigns, an officer rank. The only non-officer we've ever seen is Miles O'Brien, who's a noncom.
    • The reason for this is that Gene Roddenberry was modeling Starfleet on the Air Force, the only branch where the enlisted men stay safe back at base and the officers go out to get shot at.
  • Captain Brass of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation spends far more time kicking in doors and questioning suspects than he does supervising. The same can be said for his counterparts on CSI: Miami and CSI: NY.
  • Tango and Cash: Both officers are Lieutenants. Both are also seen to be Cowboy Cops who only work alone.
  • In a Mirror Universe episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine someone in the Terran Rebellion bemoans the rebellion's many captains and apparently very few footsoldiers.
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[[folder: Tabletop Games]]
  • Warhammer 40K:
    • The minimal requirements to play a game are two units of troops and the HQ. Meaning you have Imperial Guard generals directing operations from the field rather than in a fortified bunker miles away.
      • Taken even further in Dawn of War, where the command squad is the Guard's only melee unit until they finally upgrade to the final tier. Meaning the general and his retinue take on everything the other factions throw at them.
    • Tau Ethereals are considered nearly godlike by the lower castes, with the Tau being physically incapable of disobeying their orders,conferring bonuses but huge drawbacks if they die, and yet are often seen deployed into battle. Which is why it's especially hilarious in Dawn of War to see them charging headlong into melee.
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[[folder: Video Games]]
  • The various Wolfenstein games have Captain BJ Blazkowicz as the player character. He commands no one. Justified, in that BJ works for an OSS Expy.
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[[folder: Truth In Television]]
  • As noted in the page quote above, General Maxwell Taylor found himself in this position on D-Day. Immediately after landing, he found himself in command of a single private; as he gathered more men, a disproportionate number of them were high ranking officers.
  • During World War II, a number of intelligence agencies, such as the OSS, SOE, and MI-6, gave their agents officer rank, with the hope that if captured, they would be treated as prisoners of war, rather than as spies.
  • Many elite units will accept only experienced soldiers into their ranks. As these units tend to be small, this usually means every member will be a higher rank than their counterpart in a conventional unit.
  • In most militaries, doctors, chaplains, and others with similarly specialized training will be officers, but will have fewer command responsibilities than other officers - in fact, international law may prevent them from commanding a combat unit.
  • During the Russian Civil War, the White Guards started with only the officers loyal to their cause. Their first battles were fought by officer-only units, with lieutenants attacking as common riflemen and colonels commanding platoons and companies.
  • Due to cutbacks in the Royal Air Force, officers now command smaller units than their World War II counterparts. Wing Commanders, for example, now typically command squadrons, while Squadron Leaders are actually flight leaders.
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