"Stick close to your desk and never go to sea.A character in the military, police, or other action-oriented field who has been promoted to the rank of inaction or whose career path is oriented towards bureaucratic support of the boots on the ground. The character may only rarely be seen by the camera, since his or her job is Boring, but Practical: to make operations in the field run smooth, rather than engage in flashy heroics. The Desk Jockey may be derided by other characters or viewers as an Obstructive Bureaucrat who is too far removed from the action to understand and accommodate the needs of the people he or she is supporting. They may catch a lot of flak for pinching pennies on necessary but expensive equipment while forcing the ground-pounders to kowtow to impractical and unrealistic institutional regulations. Commonly found piloting desks in the cubicle farms behind the scenes of Action Series, since a serial of any significant length can afford to introduce these characters if a Lower-Deck Episode is necessary for budgetary concerns. If they get A Day in the Limelight, expect them to be made victim of the same kind of danger and violence that the rest of the cast face and either become the Badass Unintentional, the Action Survivor, or the Damsel in Distress, depending on the needs of the plot (and not necessarily their backstory; even if they're a Retired Badass, they may be handed a Distress Ball anyway). Differs from Kicked Upstairs in that the character may actually have been a competent Action Hero in his/her youth but couldn't avoid getting promoted on considerable merit. Some heroes will do anything it takes to persuade their superiors not to promote them, as examples will show. Related tropes are Dude, Where's My Respect?, Victory Is Boring, Let's Get Dangerous! (the Desk Jockey is a classic candidate for this trope), Four-Star Badass (for direct aversion), and Authority Equals Asskicking or the more specific Badass Bureaucrat (for direct inversion). Has nothing to do with Driving a Desk. In Real Life military parlance, a Desk Jockey might be known also as an REMF "rear-echelon motherfucker", a "pogue" (etymology uncertain, though the usual story is that it comes from the Irish for "kiss my ass," but now backronymed to Person Other than Grunt), or a "fobbit" (someone who never leaves their Forward Operating Base). Among officers, it is common for officers to rotate between combat deployments and staff tours where they must become desk jockeys for a few years. In fact, the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act requires any officer who wants to make General or Admiral to serve on at least one desk bound joint services staff assignment.
And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!"
And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!"
— Sir Joseph, H.M.S. Pinafore
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
- Lyrical Nanoha:
- Hayate and Reinforce are mostly confined to desk jobs in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS. It's safer that way, since they both qualify for the Person of Mass Destruction trope.
- They seem to have returned to the battlefield in Magical Record Lyrical Nanoha Force but Hayate's first CMOA in that series went awry and she got stabbed in the process.
- This is how Light Yagami spends most of his time across the arc of Death Note. He spends almost a year dealing with L, and six months dealing with Mello and Near, and in between he sits at a desk pretending to be L and misleading the Kira taskforce for five years. Even when the rest of them go off to blow shit up, Light's still at his desk. Victory Is Boring. Not counting his undercover investigation with Takada, the first time we see him get out is the final confrontation with Near. It doesn't go well.
- Alex Cazerne in Legend of Galactic Heroes is a logistics officer whose talents in organisation and management made him one of the core members of the Yang Fleet, and thus one of the main characters, even though he was never seen serving directly at the front lines.
- The Kages in Naruto are generally this, although they do get a piece of the action every now and again.
- Koenma in YuYu Hakusho is seen this way.
- Salaakk of the Green Lantern Corps handles the day-to-day operations while the Guardians of the Universe focuses on the big stuff. However, he has shown he can fight when the situation demands it.
- Prowl from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise and The Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye. As Springer puts it, he's high command. He's always been high command, even before there was an Optimus Prime or a Megatron or even a war. Prowl is a very negative portrayal of this trope, utterly unwilling to lift a finger to save captured troops, even famous and high-ranking ones like Kup or Fortress Maximus, but completely willing to throw men at a Super Soldier to save classified data files (which might contain dirt on Prowl himself). He's one of the most unpopular Autobots alive, having managed to drive away or piss off anyone who'd ever give him a chance, even Optimus himself, not to mention the occasional life-partner. So far, the only beings who like him are the Constructicons.
- In older Batman comics, Commissioner Gordon's role usually amounted to this. Since Batman: Year One, though, it's been customary to give him a bigger slice of the fight-scenes.
- In Terry and the Pirates, Terry gets a speech from his commanding officer just after he gets his flight status which includes him stressing him treating the US Army's bureaucracy with respect.
- Eugenesis has Prowl, who actually likes being a desk jockey. It's all he ever wanted out of life, to crunch numbers and be a Hypercompetent Sidekick whoever was in charge. He regards being forced into a leadership position as being Kicked Upstairs, and slowly cracks up from the pressure. Eventually the situation gets bad enough that he's Driven to Suicide.
Films — Animation
- Mr. Incredible of The Incredibles is forced into mundane work after excessive lawsuits obliges the government to set up a legal protection program for supers. He spends his free time listening to police scanners and indulging in small acts of illicit heroism until someone finally offers him a chance to go legit. His family was relocated several times because he got caught and in the story he's an insurance claims adjuster (in which he also tries being heroic, [not] telling an old lady how to avoid excessive bureaucracy).
Films — Live-Action
- Die Hard:
- In the original movie, John McClane and Sergeant Al Powell have a conversation that jokingly derides desk jockey cops, up until Powell reveals why he's now a desk jockey instead of patrolling the streets: because he made the horrible mistake of shooting a kid with a fake gun. He still proves he can get the job done when Karl comes back from the dead for one last shot at McClane.
- The second movie then shows that he's still in the desk job. Of course, it's better paying and safer than a beat cop job.
- Specialist Grimes in Black Hawk Down asks to participate in a mission. He complains that the only reason he's a desk jockey is because he knows how to type and that he was a veteran of Desert Storm and Panama, but in those operations, all he ever did was make coffee. When he does finally see action, of course, it is when the entire operation goes pear-shaped. He proves quite capable, though he he manages to both be a member of a Badass Army and an Action Survivor. It's the rare Action Survivor that starts the action carrying a grenade launcher. It's notable that he is an Army Ranger, though.
- Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October is a heroic desk jockey that becomes a Badass Unintentional.
- In Flight of the Intruder, the Duty Officers and the Intel Officer.
- Averted with Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan — he was planning on staying safely behind lines doing translation and cartography...
Cpl Upham: I haven't held a weapon since basic training, sir.
Capt. Miller: Did you fire the weapon in training?
Upham: Yes, sir.
Miller: Then get your gear.
- Robert Tracy in Phffft! spent WWII behind a desk because he was of much better use with contracts, since he's a lawyer. He happened to save the army $750, 000!
- Allen in The Other Guys chose the most stable and dull job he could think of in the police force, 'forensic accounting', to try to avoid the 'craziness' of his old days as a pimp. It doesn't work.
- Both Jack Spade and One Eyed Sam in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. Both of them have army jackets with lots of pins on them, so John Slade assumes they have combat experience. Turns out they don't; the pins are for stuff like typing, surfing, and winning a darts tournament. Slade's pretty upset about it.
Slade: Sam, hold it, man, you told me you served in 'Nam!
Sam: I did! Saigon.
Slade: Then how'd you lose your eye?
Sam: Fuckin' around in the office. We were shootin' paperclips, and one of the damn fools hit me in the eye!
- When Captain Vimes of Night Watch is promoted to Commander, he proceeds to spend much time and effort resisting this trope. Sgt. Colon on the other hand is usually seen at his desk. Especially when it's raining, cold or dangerous outside, which is almost always the case in Ankh-Morpork.
- In Forward the Foundation, one of the Emperor's gardeners gets promoted against his will to head gardener; he feels the promotion will take him away from his beloved gardening and make a desk jockey out of him (he's right). He assassinates the Emperor over it.
- In the X-Wing Series, Wedge Antilles resists being promoted to General because he wants to stay a pilot rather than get stuck behind a desk. He finally relents when he finds out that his underlings have started refusing their promotions for the same reasons, and he doesn't want to impede their careers (or bring about the total collapse of the New Republic's rank system). Also, he has a job coming on that requires him to pull rank. Thus, he needs rank to pull! Sure enough, said promotion eventually results in him being pulled out of the cockpit. They give him a Super Star Destroyer to command instead.
- This trope is pointed out in David Drake's RCN series. As the captain of a frigate Daniel Leary has seen more combat than most fleet admirals.
- Double Subversion in Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers: One motto of the Mobile Infantry is "everybody drops, everybody fights" — everybody has combat duty, and any support job that can be done by civilians is. In practice, this means that the officers are forced to juggle multiple desk jobs in-between drops. It is mentioned that some desk jobs are filled by people who want to serve, but are physically limited in their capabilities. For example, when Johnny goes to sign up for military service, the officer running the desk is missing an arm, a leg, and an eye. Having him in this position serves the double purpose of giving him somewhere to serve, and reminding potential recruits the dangers they're signing up for. He lost them when he got hit by a car while on leave. He takes his fully functional prosthetics off to scare away potential recruits.
- Honor Harrington:
- Honor Harrington is currently commanding Home Fleet, which stays home and doesn't go anywhere. If it wasnt for the ensuing Mesan surprise attack, that would take her out of the real action, which is why Henke and the Saganami group have been brought into the limelight; to take over from Honor as the "out there wuppin ass" group from Manticore.
- As of the more recent books, the closest thing Honor has to an opposite number in the Republic of Haven, Thomas Theisman, has risen to the positions of Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of War, which firmly places him in the political battlefield rather than the literal battlefield. He makes an exception when he leads a fleet of Havenite warships to the Manticore system to help the Manticorans defend against a Mesan-instigated Solarian attack.
- Starting with Rainbow Six, John Clark bemoans his status as a desk jockey, despite acknowledging that he can't physically keep up with the special force troopers under his command (He's over fifty and literally old enough to be the father of said troopers, one of whom is his son-in-law).
- Artemis Fowl:
- Holly Short was initially going to turn down her promotion to Major because she didn't want to be taken out of the field. Just before she is about to officially turn down the position to Commander Root, he preemptively tells her about when he was on the verge of being promoted to Major and tried to turn it down, to which his Commander responded "this promotion isn't for you, it's for the People". Having convinced her to accept the job, he consoles her with the fact that Majors can occasionally assign minor missions to themselves.
- Root himself, of course. He does occasionally go out on missions of particular importance (such as locating a field officer captured by humans) or unofficial ones (Root was unwilling to command any of his officers to take part in a mission as repayment for Artemis), and insists on personally examining prospective recruits.
- Flight of the Intruder, The Intel officer, obviously, as his job doesn't involve flying, and it is pointed out that at least a few of the Duty Officers are aviators who were removed from flying status for one reason or another, temporarily or permanently as the case may be.
- In Area 7, Colonel Hagerty (call sign "Hotrod", but better known as "Ramrod") is an obstructionist bureaucrat, and also the commanding officer during the book. Luckily, the President was around to make him shut up and listen to the people who actually know what they're doing in a battle.
- Rivers of London:
- Fresh-out-of-training PC Peter Grant is dismayed to find that he is being given a desk job in the police force, however an encounter with a ghost (and ghost-hunting DCI Nightingale) gets him transferred to the police's supernatural crimes department.
- Played with in that his colleague WPC Lesley May, also fresh out of training, is posted to the glamorous homicide department, and ends up doing their data entry.
- Ivan Vorpatril is a desk pilot in Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. He points out, after tackling a goon, "But it's a Barrayaran desk."
- The Tortall Universe has "desk knights" who hold administrative positions and have more or less retired from combat duties. The two shown in the series are extremely important- Sir Gareth the Younger of Naxen, the Prime Minister, and Sir Myles of Olau, the Realm's spymaster. Still, two young squires are shown to dread having a desk knight as their knight-master, because that would mean doing paperwork for four years instead of getting combat experience.
- Wet Desert: Tracking Down a Terrorist on the Colorado River: The Commissioner Roland is completely out of depth at the Hoover Dam crisis, being more used to politics and money than at crisis management.
- Official Privilege: In this book by former navy destroyer skipper PT Deutermann, a desk jockey Navy Commander who is awaiting a ship's captain billet to open up, is tasked with assisting an NCIS investigation into an apparent accidental death on a mothballed ship. His NCIS partner is also a desk jockey, who doesn't have any field investigation experience. The book reveals the existence of an Executive Assistant cabal - an informal network of senior officer desk jockeys, who act as "fixers" for navy admirals.
- Star Trek:
- Starfleet admirals are almost never seen in action. When James Kirk gets promoted to admiral, he hates being confined to a desk and does his level best to get either demoted back into action or kicked out. In general, if a situation arises requiring a fleet of ships working together, an Admiral seems more likely to appoint one of the Captains to be in the on-scene commander.
- Picard explicitly states that he will always refuse to be an Admiral, even though he's far more qualified than most Admirals, because he wants to avoid this.
- Vice Admiral William Ross from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is just about the only exception to this trope, but only because he's in command of a Federation fleet during a full-blown war. Admiral Hanson is another exception, but that didn't turn out too well. At one point Ross is stuck behind a desk planning missions instead of leading them. During the Dominion's occupation of DS9, he also makes Sisko his adjutant, putting Dax in command of the Defiant while Sisko sits at a desk at Starbase 375. Sisko is clearly not happy to be taken off his ship, but the desk job gives him the opportunity to plan the mission to retake DS9.
- In the TOS episode "The Deadly Years", Commodore Stocker is one of these. In fact, it's specifically mentioned he's never held a field command in his life. This causes trouble when he takes the conn and accidentally crosses the Romulan Neutral Zone.
- Crewman Mortimer Harren on Star Trek: Voyager is an example of this on the other end of the rank scale — he only joined Starfleet because he needed a year's experience in practical cosmological study to attend a specific scientific institute. Once he got stranded in the Delta Quadrant, he does everything he can to be given the least amount of work possible and refuses any sort of away mission.
- Stargate SG-1:
- SGC Generals spend much of their screen time at paper-laden desks. Colonel O'Neill achieves promotion to brigadier general so his actor Richard Dean Anderson could spend less time on camera and more with his family.
- On the other hand, in Teal'c's flashbacks as First Prime to Apophis, he averts this. The pattern seems to be that First Primes (like Teal'c) lead from the front, and desk work posts are filled by minor Goa'uld.
- British cop show The Bill used to delight in these. In one notable example, Chief Inspector Derek Conway's whole purpose in the series was to never leave the police station (he seldom even got involved in actual cases), but he was still seen in the series because it wanted to accurately represent the rank structure of a genuine police station, and Chief Inspectors are part of that. 14 years after his introduction to the series, a new production team came along and decided he fulfilled no dramatic function in television terms (his role was too desk bound, apparently). So they put him in a parked car and blew it up. They never did replace him...
- DCI/Superintendent Jack Meadows still qualifies as this. Most of the ground work is done by his Detective Inspector, who then heads back to the office and reports it to him.
- Father Mulcahy has a famous episode where a patient refuses to talk with him because he has no field experience since he was the camp chaplain. Mulcahy asks Col. Potter if he could spend some time on the front to fix that, but Potter refuses saying that no commander nowadays will tolerate having a soldier in the field who is forbidden by regulations to fight. Regardless, Mulcahy sneaks away anyway on an errand with Radar to the front and has a memorable experience having to perform an emergency tracheotomy under enemy fire with Hawkeye guiding him on the radio. As a result, the patient is impressed that the Padre had now just enough battle experience for any front line soldier to respect him.
- Another episode has Colonel Potter becoming afraid of being shipped back home to be a desk jockey.
- An episode of Family Matters uses the exact words. Richie and his class are visiting Carl's precinct on a field trip. Richie has talked up his cop uncle to his friends, who are less than impressed with Carl's function as an administrator (Carl had been promoted to Lieutenant by now). Carl later proves them wrong by talking down a petty thief who had grabbed a cop's gun and held him hostage. Besides getting the children and their teacher to safety, he doesn't even flinch.
- Band of Brothers notes this a few times:
- Pvt. Vest is seen delivering mail throughout the series. In episode 8 he requests the opportunity to join a dangerous patrol, which gives him the chance to learn truly that War Is Hell.
- Capt. Winters is eventually promoted to the point where he has a desk in episode 5. Several times he is tempted to get back into the action. At one point, Winters must be given a direct order NOT to join the action by Colonel Sink.
- Capt. Nixon, despite his three combat jumps, reveals in episode 9 that he had never fired his weapon in combat. For much of the series he is the intelligence officer.
- Second Lieutenant Jones joins Easy Company near the end of the war and desperately wants to get some combat experience. He eventually gets to participate in a night raid just before Easy Company is pulled from the line. And is subsequently promoted to First Lieutenant and given a desk position in Batallion.
- Captain Sobel also qualifies. Although he was in charge of Easy Company and trained them for two years, he never saw combat. When Easy Company went to combat, he was given a training role, then became a supply officer.
- Actually, Sobel was awarded a Combat Infantryman's Badge (given to soldiers who face enemy fire) and was wounded by an enemy machine gun in Normandy.
- Stark from Eureka is the administrator of Global Dynamics. When Henry tells him his brilliance is being wasted as a desk jockey, Stark points out that he's much more valuable where he is, being the person that makes their cutting edge research happen with as little interference as possible. Notably, when Stark is no longer in control of GD, there is a lot more interference from outside sources such as the Pentagon.
- Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth is the personal secretary of General Melchett and also works as a logistics officer. He and Blackadder hate each others' guts, because Darling (in getting a desk job and thus escaping the trenches) has succeeded at what Blackadder is constantly trying to do. Until the final episode, where Melchett 'promotes' him to join Blackadder's unit for an attack.
- Rear Admiral A.J. Chegwidden on JAG is a Navy SEAL who became a lawyer and got promoted up as high as a military lawyer can get. However, that doesn't stop him from, once in a while, show what a true badass he really is.
- McHale's Navy:
- Wallace Binghamton is a Navy Captain who spends most of his time at his desk trying to figure out how to bust McHale and his merry band of profiteers.
- In one episode, McHale was made a temporary Desk Jockey so Binghamton could show the Admiral on a surprise inspection exactly what McHale's crew was doing (holding a party on the main base.)
- In Madam Secretary's pilot episode, George's suspicions about the death of preceding Secretary of State Vincent Marsh are initially dismissed as paranoia brought on by him having trouble adjusting to being stuck behind a desk after spending most of his career in fieldwork. He's completely correct, and is Killed to Uphold the Masquerade.
- In the Grand Finale of The Shield, this is the core of the probation Vic is required to carry out. Much to his disgust ("I don't do desks!").
- In an episode of the time travel series 7Days, the protagonist Frank's ex-wife is engaged to a decorated Naval Intelligence Officer named Mike Cleary. Frank tells his ex that her new beau Cleary is in covert ops just like Frank himself was, and therefore, she won't get to see much of him. She retorts that Cleary isn't a Blood Knight like Frank - turns out Cleary intentionally asked to be a desk jockey so that he could spend more time with Frank's ex-wife and son.
- "When I was a lad" from Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore is all about this. How do you get to be the ruler of the Queen's navy? Kick ass at pushing paper and doing not much else! He wasn't even jockey of a navy desk - he was a lawyer who became a machine politician. The desk he rode was as a legal clerk back before he passed the bar.
- In Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, one character complains about having to stare at a computer screen by a checkpoint, saying that it would never happen to Samus. It should be mentioned that said character is rather dead when the player encounters her.
- Mass Effect:
- Ex-Spectre candidate Captain David Anderson is confined to a desk job at the beginning of the game, though you can make him the Human representative in the galaxy in the end. Which he laments in the second game.
- Shepard him- or herself subverts this trope pretty well: although executive officers on ships are usually relegated to, well, executive duties (i.e. paperwork), Shepard's background as a special ops soldier means that when shit needs to hit a fan, Shepard's the one for the job. This can sometimes be true in Real Life as well: effective special ops soldiers aren't denied promotions for excelling, so that the high-ranking officers in a special ops group are the ones to watch out for.
- Nyreen Kandros in the third game is an interesting (and tragic) example. She was a soldier in the regular turian military, but was a biotic whose powers developed relatively late in life. In the turian armed forces, biotics are segregated into special black-ops groups called "cabals", ostensibly due to centuries-old bad blood between biotic and non-biotic soldiers. However, since her biotic powers aren't strong enough to actually use in the field at the level the cabal demands, she winds up in a supporting role. Her disillusionment with the whole affair, combined with the lack of camaraderie in the cabal itself, eventually drives her to desert and light out to the Terminus Systems.
- Intel analyst Maya Brooks shows up in the third game's Citadel DLC, claiming to have uncovered a plot to kill Shepard. After getting shot during the initial firefight, she acts flustered and stammers a lot. She complains that she works a desk job, and isn't used to combat. When Shepard tells her to make a template of all the forms Brooks will need to fill out, reporting her injuries to the Alliance, she says that Shepard gets shot a little too much. It is all an act - Brooks is actually a disgruntled ex-Cerberus operative, who is the wire puller behind the attempt to kill Shepard.
- Most of the color commentators in the Backyard Sports series, with the exception of Vinnie the Gooch and Jack Fouler, were once players but are now confined to watching. Chuck Downfield is basically retired (as he has a charlie horse), but the others, with the exception of Earl Grey, are unlockable players.
- Fallout: New Vegas: There are a few desk jockeys in the New California Republic Army: Major Knight is likely the first you will encounter, as he oversees the inexistent traffic through the Mojave outpost, the first NCR base you are likely to visit. If you're a male courier with the Confirmed Bachelor perk he might become your favourite NPC, as with a bit of flirting he gives you free repairs.
- Ford Cruller from ''Psychonauts, despite being a Psychomaster (a very high-ranking position), is relegated to being the campus' Mission Control, janitor, ranger, cook, store owner, and jack-of-all-trades. This is because a duel with a powerful psi-criminal shattered his mind, causing him to switch through different bumbling personalities. He can mantain his true Psychonaut persona only when he's exposed to Psitanium - and it's only temporary, with the exception of the gigantic piece of Psytanium contained in his sanctuary.
- In Disney's Buzz Lightyear of Star Command series, Commander Nebula constantly expresses his frustration that his rank forces him to do more paperwork than shooting. Worst yet he has flying desk that forces him back on it to do his work.
- In Justice League Unlimited, General Eiling feels he has been reduced to this after Project Cadmus has been shut down.