Created By: JenBurdoo on November 2, 2012

Eternal Private

Never gets promoted - or constantly gets demoted.

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In any military series, there's always that one guy. No matter how long he's been in the service, he's never progressed above a certain point that he should have, by dint of seniority if nothing else. This may be because he likes it where he is, because he doesn't want authority, because of the Peter Principle, or because he's a discipline problem. May bounce up and down the ranks, with constant Insignia Rip Off Rituals. May be caused by Status Quo Is God.

  • Occurs in any Wooden Ships and Iron Men series - the lieutenant without the luck to command a prize, or the midshipman who never passed his officer's exam; usually thirty years older than the other characters. Mr. Simpson in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is an example.
  • Wee Wullie in the McAuslan stories, who has been in the army 33 years and never risen above private due to his proclivity for drunken violence. McAuslan incredibly gets promoted to lance-corporal briefly. Lt. MacNeill recalls being a lance-corporal four times - and being demoted back to private on three of them, for losing, on separate occasions, a tea-urn, a member of his squad, and a guard-room.
  • Averted by Klinger of MASH, who is promoted to Sergeant despite his various attempts to get out on a Section 8.
  • Played with by a Bill Mauldin cartoon with the caption "Of course I got seniority! I got busted a week before you did!"
  • Billy Beddingfield in Guns Of The South, who Harry Turtledove characterized as a hothead on the basis of his regular promotions and demotions in real life.
Community Feedback Replies: 24
  • November 2, 2012
    Contrast Rank Up.

  • November 2, 2012
    • Played For Laughs in Red Vs Blue. After Sarge learns that Griff becomes a sergent, Griff gets demoted to a "Minor Junior Private Dexter Negative First Class".
  • November 2, 2012
    Sounds a lot like Almighty Janitor.
  • November 2, 2012
    The Almighty Janitor is good at his job and often smarter than his superiors; the Eternal Private usually isn't -- and also is a specifically military trope.
  • November 2, 2012
    Rimmer in Red Dwarf has been a lowly second technician in the Space Corps for years, and several episodes focus on his frustrated ambitions to become an officer.
  • November 2, 2012
    A note on the Wooden Ships And Iron Men example: I remember reading in a National Geographic article on Trafalgar that this could easily be a Justified Trope in the Royal Navy since they promoted entirely on merit (and thus had a more competent officer corps than the Spanish and French, at least in theory).

    Contrast Overranked Soldier.


    • X Wing Series: Wedge Antilles spent at least five years as a commander when his skills warranted a promotion to general that he repeatedly turned down, seeing as how it would mean he couldn't fly in combat anymore. He finally accepts early in Isard's Revenge after Admiral Ackbar points out to him that his subordinates in Rogue Squadron have started imitating his refusal to be promoted.

    Live Action TV
    • Star Trek:
      • Captain Jean-Luc Picard probably should have made admiral by now. The preferred fan explanation is that he took Kirk's advice after Star Trek Generations and refused promotion so he could continue to command the Enterprise. This is also canonically the case with Riker, who refused promotion to captain until Star Trek Nemesis, so he could continue working with Picard.
      • Harry Kim on Star Trek Voyager inexplicably ended the series' seven-year run at the same rank he started: ensign. If nothing else, in a real life navy he would've gotten an automatic promotion to lieutenant junior grade after eighteen months' service.
    • A non-military near-aversion. CSI NY's Danny Messer took and passed the sergeant's exam in season 8, resulting in him leaving the team for a few episodes. After one of his rookie cops tried to blame him for her own screwup, he asked for a demotion back to detective so he could rejoin the main cast.
  • November 3, 2012
    Private from The Penguins Of Madagascar. He got promoted once and only once... to first-class private. They still called him Private, first-class is implied.
  • November 3, 2012
    • Buck Danny, though whether he refuses promotions or is always passed over is unknown (one character jokes that Buck'll finally get his general's stars after one mission) has been an Air Force colonel for years (any higher and he wouldn't be allowed to fly). The Comic Book Time in the series is one of the most outrageous ever, as the main trio have been the same age ever since joining up in WWII.
    • Discworld:
      • Sergeant Jackrum in Monstrous Regiment. Has been the Sergeant Rock for years, so is considerably annoyed that higher-ups want to remove him from his post. He follows the "retirement" procedure, and has a corporal recruit him right back and promote him to sergeant.
      • Sergeant Colon of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch is described as "a sergeant-shaped peg having found a sergeant-shaped hole very early in its career". The one time he is promoted (because Vimes and Carrot are out of town), he's in way over his head and becomes The Neidermeyer. Everything goes back to normal once Carrot returns.
    • One of Ciaphas Cain's regular discipline problems in his first assignment is disheartened to learn that he's been promoted following a particularly heroic action. Cain reassures him, telling him that knowing him, he won't keep his stripes for long.
  • November 3, 2012
    Western Animation
    • Private Snafu, from a Looney Tunes spinoff, is forever a private (save for one mercifully-temporary promotion) because of his rank stupidity--it's only because of the Rule Of Funny that he wasn't 4F to begin with.
  • November 3, 2012
  • November 3, 2012
    ^4F means unfit for military service, usually because of physical restrictions.
  • November 3, 2012
    Beetle Bailey might be an example, having stayed in basic training forever; although it's unclear if that's simply because Beetle and the rest of Camp Swampy exist in an eternal "now".
  • November 3, 2012
    ^I always figured Beetle Bailey took place at a regular stateside base, not basic training, but it's probably an example nonetheless since nobody ever gets promoted.
  • November 4, 2012
    • An episode of Star Trek The Next Generation entitled "Tapestry" shows us what would have happened if Picard had never got into his fight with the Nausicaans when he was fresh out of the Academy - his entire career would have been nothing more than a list of routine postings and he would have been stuck at the Junior Lieutenant Rank.
    • In the Star Trek Enterprise finale, Hoshi and Travis are still shown to be ensigns, even though it's been about 10 years since Enterprise launched.

    A reason was given as to why Harry in Star Trek Voyager was never promoted in season 7 - because there isn't much room for progression on Voyager.
  • November 4, 2012
    They could've still promoted him (along with any other ensigns Voyager had aboard) and left him with the same duties as before. Sorry, I blame it squarely on Status Quo Is God.
  • November 4, 2012
    ^^triassicranger, a slight clarification: Picard would never have amounted to anything if he'd been the sort of person to avoid the fight, not that the incident altered his destiny.
  • November 4, 2012
  • November 4, 2012
    • Finn Delaney in the Time Wars series is frequently promoted due to meritorious conduct in the field, only to be busted down again soon afterward due to poor discipline when off-duty.
  • November 5, 2012
    About the Sergeant Colon example from Discworld, I suppose Corporal Nobbs would also fit.
  • November 5, 2012
    • Todd "Maniac" Marshall from Wing Commander is perpetually stuck as a Major despite being an Ace Pilot with an impressive string of kills and having been in Confed for decades. Why? Because he lives up to his callsign, and is also an insufferably egotistical jerkass, so he either is never considered for promotion or manages to get himself busted in rank soon afterwards.
  • November 5, 2012
    So this trope is about people who never get promoted because they lack the competence or temperament for a higher level promotions. However, do we also include people who do not get promoted because of external factors that block the promotion despite the person being qualified (eg ST:Voyager)? There is a Limited Advancement Opportunities trope already (though it probably needs a TRS)
  • November 5, 2012
    Just the first line, I think; lacking competence or temperament. As you say, the others probably fit under Limited Advancement Opportunities.
  • December 27, 2012
    Discussed in an episode of Gomer Pyle USMC, where Gomer purposely flunks the exam to move up to Corporal from Private. Private is described as 'the backbone of the Service' and he "like[s] being the backbone." He is finally convinced to go for the promotion for real.
  • December 28, 2012
    Don't know how I missed it...