From Camouflage to Criminal

"There's a group of guys down here, way out on the hairy edge. They did covert stuff, and then... they went rogue. Went renegade, dropped off the face of the Earth, disappeared into drug land. And with their 'special skills', they cut one hell of a swath through their competition."
Colonel Styles, Basic

Being in the military can teach you some skills, but the skill that people most commonly associate with the military, (i.e. how to hurt or kill people) doesn't exactly translate well to civilian life. However, there is a way around that for more morally... flexible... people; put those skills to work in crime, especially organized crime, and start picking the local street toughs who are your main competition apart.

As a result of this, many fictional criminals who come from a military background tend to be much more effective, dangerous, and capable than everyday thugs. It's also common to show them as being capable of being more ruthless and cold-blooded than more pedestrian criminals.

This trope is particularly common if the character in question is a Shell-Shocked Veteran who has been broken by their experiences, a Sociopathic Soldier who was clearly a bad apple while in the service, and the Returning War Vet who finds You Can't Go Home Again may be likely to fall into this. Because Elites Are More Glamorous, expect a character doing this to be from a section of the military either known for being unusually badass, or flat out special forces/covert ops.

A companion trope to Lawman Gone Bad. Contrast Badges and Dog Tags, when policemen have an ex-military background. Compare and contrast the Privateer, who was essentially paid by his nation to become a pirate against another nation's shipping, the Rogue Agent, and the Boxed Crook. The inversions are Trading Bars for Stripes, where a character facing prison time or in prison is given the choice of serving in the military instead, and Recruiting the Criminal. May sometimes overlap with Former Regime Personnel.

Examples:

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     Anime and Manga 
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex:
    • Well-Intentioned Extremist/Anti-Villain Kuze was once a member of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces, before becoming extremely disillusioned.
    • The episode "JUNGLE CRUISE" has Marco Amoretti, a former American Imperial Navy special warfare operator-turned-Serial Killer after being driven insane by atrocities he was ordered to commit in World War IV as terror tactics. Batou came across some of Amoretti's handiwork in the war and is determined to stop him.
  • In One Piece, Hody Jones was once part of the Fishman Island's Neptune's Royal Army before he became the captain of the New Fishman Pirates. Likewise, one of the Super Rookie pirates X. Drake was once a Rear Admiral in the Marines.
  • Black Lagoon: Hotel Moscow is a Mafiya group composed of ex-Spetnatz. Their military skills and personal loyalty to their old commanding officer Balalaika make them probably the single most feared of the many criminal organizations in Roanapur.
  • Fist of the North Star has an arc dealing with a group of ex-soldiers who have formed their own group of marauders, led by a Colonel with ESP.

    Comic Books 
  • The Punisher
    • Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, in all his various incarnations, is a veteran turned Vigilante Man after his family is killed by criminals, and he goes far, far outside the law to act as Judge, Jury, and Executioner on any criminal he meets. He's also faced off with other veterans of various wars who have turned to crime.
    • The Slavers from the The Punisher MAX arc of the same name are hardened soldiers/war criminals from the Bosnian war.
    • Also from MAX comics; Barracuda the badass hitman and Frank's arch-nemesis, who is a former Green Beret.
  • Deathstroke aka Slade Wilson. He joined the army at a young age, lying about his age and was part of a Super Soldier program. After being set up by one of his commanding officer, he became a notorious mercenary for hire.
  • In Lucky Luke, Joss Jamon's gang turned to crime after the end of The American Civil War.
  • Lobster Random is a former Super Soldier who turned to a life of crime after being discharged from the military after a war ended. He specialises as a Torture Technician and his inability to feel pain leaves him no empathy for his victims.
  • In Hitman, Tommy Monaghan was a sniper in the USMC before returning to Gotham to become a professional hitman.
  • Venom: Lee Price, the symbiote's sixth human host, was a member of the Army Rangers discharged after a mine damaged his hand, and who turned to crime to make ends meet.

    Film 
  • Michael Corleone from The Godfather was a Marine Captain in WWII, and while he has taken pains to avoid becoming entangled in the "family business" in the past, once he does get involved with it he proves shockingly effective and ruthless in ways his other criminal rivals are completely unprepared for.
  • While no attention is drawn to it, Porter from Payback has a USMC tattoo and is a dangerously effective and utterly ruthless criminal who is more than capable of taking down drug dealers, Dirty Cops, Triads, or even The Syndicate if any of them stand in the way of getting back the money his ex-partner stole from him.
  • Basic takes place in Panama before the US base closed up there. The film has a rumor going around on base that a group of high level covert ops guys and elite Army Rangers turned to crime and set themselves up as a criminal empire. And since some members of the group were trained by the much feared and hated Sergeant West, who is infamous for making his trainees want to kill him, and West has just gone missing along with a number of his current trainees, it's speculated that they may be behind it. The ending shows that this rumor is false, but the course of the movie shows that the base's commander, Colonel Styles, and several others, including members of the medical staff, were involved in smuggling drugs back to the US and distributing stimulants to soldiers on the base.
  • The bad guys of the first Lethal Weapon movie are former members of a Vietnam era covert ops unit who have since turned into a major heroin syndicate.
  • Al Pacino's character in Dog Day Afternoon tries to keep the police from storming the bank by saying that he and his cohort were in the Army in Vietnam and have no problem getting violent with the hostages. While at the time it seems like a desperate bluff, later on he is seen showing some of the hostages how he learned to march and handle a gun during training. His relationship with the hostages makes it pretty clear he doesn't intend to hurt them, however.
  • The protagonist of Scarface (1983) is Tony Montana, a former Cuban Army soldier who gradually becomes a fearsome Miami cocaine kingpin, known for his badassery and ruthlessness. Tony's military training could explain his deadly skills with firearms, such as an assault rifle and grenade launcher that he uses to kill dozens of enemy gangsters with in the ending.
  • The bad guys from Die Hard 2 are a rogue military unit, or two who violently oppose a changing US foreign policy and decide to go rogue and save The Generalissimo who was a former US ally in the Cold War and is now been arrested and put on trial. Their ruthlessness and competence is shown more than once, especially in how they slaughter the police SWAT team.
  • Neil McCauley from Heat is a retired Marine who has since turned to specializing in armed robberies, leading an extremely skilled crew who draw special attention from the police.
  • In RocknRolla, The Dragon of Russian gangster Yuri is former Spetznaz, as are two old war buddies of his who he calls in at one point. Those two show themselves to be much tougher than the petty gangsters they tangle with and almost superhumanly determined.
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Napoleon was in the Army helping track down art stolen by the Nazis, and took to thieving himself. He was eventually caught, but the CIA decided his skill-set was too useful to be locked up and made an agreement with him to work for them.
  • Dead Presidents, follows a group of black soldiers through Vietnam, their alienation upon returning home, and their eventual decision to commit armed robbery.
  • In The League of Gentlemen, the eponymous league is a gang of cashiered British army officers brought together to use their various military specialties (demolitions, communications, etc.) to stage a bank robbery.
  • The Last Outlaw is about a unit of Confederate ex-soldiers led by their bitter colonel who turn outlaw after the end of The American Civil War.
  • In Iron Man 3, the Mandarin's elite mooks are all war veterans who suffered career-ending injuries on the battlefield. They were recruited with the promise of having their injuries undone with Extremis.
  • The villains of Keoma are former Confederate soldiers who have taken over a small frontier town.
  • The bad guys in xXx are all ex-Russian military who started a grand theft auto network in Europe to make a profit. Subverted though in that this is simply so they can finance their real objective, which is anarchic terrorism.
  • Cain Miro of Roger Corman's Gunslinger: An ex-Confederate soldier turned gun-for-hire. He takes the job as hired muscle for the film's Big Bad both for the money and a chance for revenge on the town's mayor (Cain's former commanding officer, who Cain considers a traitor and a coward).

    Literature 
  • Hammer's Slammers: In The Sharp End former Slammer Angel Tijuca returns to his homeworld after his enlistment term is over and ends up working for one of the drug cartels fighting over it. He spends his time trying (and failing) to train their thugs and just getting stoned most of the time.
  • Several Star Wars Legends books (including The Thrawn Trilogy and The Han Solo Trilogy) established that Han Solo had once undergone officer training in the Imperial Navy, but left the service not long after and turned to being a pilot for hire and smuggler. The Thrawn Trilogy is pretty vague about the details of how/when/why Han left the navy, The Han Solo Trilogy shows the events in full detail: he was dishonorably discharged for attacking a superior officer to protect the Wookiee slaves he was abusing.
  • Prince of the City. The 'paratroopers' are particularly tough Mafiosi with military experience in WW2.
  • Jack Reacher frequently features veterans engaging in criminal behavior. Reacher doesn't take kindly to this, and the novel usually ends with him beating the unholy hell out of them.
  • One of the major villains of the John Rain series is Jim Hilger, ex-Special Forces and former CIA agent who causes the title character no end of headaches. Could also technically apply to Rain himself, as he served in Vietnam before pursuing his career as a freelance assassin.

     Live-Action TV 
  • Burn Notice features these quite often:
    • Main character Michael went from being a tough street kid to Army Special Forces to CIA legend to someone who works outside the law to manipulate and destroy criminal organizations on a weekly basis while seldom, if ever, being in real danger from the criminals he takes down. His team member Sam Axe is a Navy SEAL who was forced into retirement (circumstances explored in the spinoff Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe).
    • Michael's Evil Mentor Larry was once involved in covert ops, and now he's a Faux Affably Evil (and completely psycho) assassin for hire whose solution to every problem is "just start killing people and it'll sort itself out."
    • Recurring character Brennan was once Military Intelligence, now he's an Arms Dealer.
    • Gilroy went from being involved in black ops for the British government to a Rogue Agent who will do any job, for anyone, anywhere in the world if the pay is right and it amuses him enough. These jobs range from assassination to terrorism for hire to selling nuclear secrets on the black market.
    • Occasionally the Villain of the Week will be some flavor of ex-military, and they generally present a much greater danger and more difficult challenge to Team Westen than the crooks and con men they usually deal with.
  • Both Jimmy Darmody and Richard Harrow from Boardwalk Empire were WWI soldiers who were hardened by their experiences and alienated from their past friends, family, and society in general. While decent enough in many ways, they fall into bootlegging and being hardcore gangsters with few, if any moral qualms, and often prove themselves much more competent and deadly than most of the thugs they encounter.
  • A theory among some fans of The Wire is that The Dragon for the Stanfield gang, Chris Partlow, has some sort of military experience based on the way he trains new recruits to the gang. This is commented on In-Universe as well, when Cheese sees the rigid discipline and militant attitude of the Stanfield gang and quips "Y'all some Semper Fi motherfuckas, ain't you? Where Cheese go to enlist?"
  • Jeremiah Bello from Graceland was a soldier in his home in Nigeria, and after being on the wrong side of a coup, came to Los Angeles and set himself up as a drug kingpin. Mike infiltrates his organization by pretending to be a Marine turning to criminal ventures on the side, and Bello hires him to give his gangsters proper training in guns and marksmanship. Later on Mike gets fellow FBI Agent "Johnny" Tuturro to go undercover in a similar role, aided by Johnny's past as a sailor in the Navy and Navy SEAL trainee.
  • The Blacksmith from Daredevil Season 2 is actually Colonel Ray Shoonover, Frank Castle's former officer. He and some of his most loyal men became drug dealers after the war and he is partially responsible for the massacre of the Castle family.
  • In The Punisher series, Billy Russo was a former squadmate of Frank Castle who later formed a private security group and was a part of the conspiracy that led to the death of Frank's family.
  • Peaky Blinders is about the rise to power of the eponymous gang in Birmingham after WWI. The gang boss is Tommy Shelby, a former sergeant-major and the majority of the gang members are disaffected veterans. Their military organisation makes them extremely dangerous.
  • One episode of Blue Bloods features a Sympathetic Criminal variant when a group of USMC Iraq War vets robs a bank to pay for medical procedures for the leader's husband, a squadmate, when the VA won't. They run headlong into fellow Iraq vet Danny Reagan, who became an NYPD detective instead (following family tradition).
  • Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Washburne from Firefly were a sergeant and a corporal in the Independent Faction army during the Unification War, and are now captain and first mate of a Space Pirate/smuggling crew. Mal likes to insist that "the war's long done; we're all just folk now," but he's still bitter that the Independents lost and will sometimes do things he normally wouldn't (like sheltering River and Simon), just so he can flip the bird to the purple-bellies.
  • Leverage: In one episode Eliot, Parker and Hardison foil an attempted assassination by a sniper. Eliot realizes the shooter used to be in the Navy SEALs based on a specific type of watch he was wearing. Eliot also used to be in Spec Ops before he went beyond the bounds of lawful.
  • Played several different ways on Rome.
    • Zigzagged in the case of Vorenus, who almost does this by accident in the first season. When Vorenus needs to get a Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job, he thinks he's taking a job to be a bodyguard for Erastes Fulmen, a man he mistakenly assumes to be a respected local merchant, but is actually a mobster who wants Vorenus to be an enforcer for him. Vorenus doesn't realize the truth until Fulmen starts trying to beat money out of a "business partner" of his, and Vorenus almost immediately walks out on the job. In the second season, however, Vorenus does become part of the Roman underworld for real, and he lives up to the ruthless stereotype in the description and then some, as the entire Roman underworld come to both fear and loathe him.
    • Titus Pullo falls into being a thug/killer for hire in the first season, and becomes Vorenus' right hand man in the second when Vorenus becomes a prominent underworld figure. They also have at least one (and maybe more) fellow legionaries in the mob they lead.
  • The X-Files
    • Season 2 episode "Sleepless" focuses on a disgruntled Vietnam vet who was has no need to sleep and the ability to alter other people's perception and plans to use his abilities to murder everyone involved in the experiment that gave him his powers
    • Season 3 episode "The Walk" focuses on a disgruntled Gulf War vet who can astral project annd plans to use his ability to murder his superior officer's family
    • Season 4 episode "Unrequited" focuses on a disgruntled Vietnam vet who can effectively turn invisible by exploiting people's ocular blind-spots and intends to use it to assassinate a major military official. (Noticing a pattern here?)
  • One episode of Person of Interest revolves around a gang of veterans getting revenge on the government that abandoned them by robbing banks with military precision and stolen military tech, which regularly recruits new vets to replace the ones who acquired enough loot to retire in luxury. Turns out the "retired" members were actually murdered in secret by the ringleader so he could take their cut.
  • On Justified:
    • Bo Crowder and Arlo Givens served in Vietnam together where they met Drew Thompson, a military pilot. After the war Bo and Arlo returned to Harlan County and made a living stealing mining equipment while Drew flew drug shipments for the Detroit Mob. When Drew run afoul of Theo Tonin, he stole 2 million worth of drugs from the mob and faked his own death. He was forced to seek help from Bo and Arlo who used the drugs to turn themselves into the crime kingpins of Harlan County. In contrast Drew became an honest policeman.
    • Bo Crowder's son, Boyd, served in the Iraq war and when he returned home he became a notorious criminal. He later recruited Colton Rhodes, a war buddy of his and a former military policeman to be his second in command. While Boyd came out of the war mostly OK, Colton turned out to be a mess and suffered from PTSD and heroin abuse which made him a highly unstable criminal.
    • In season 6, Avery Markham brings in Tigerhawk Securities as his main muscle in his bid to control the soon-to-be-legal marijuana trade in Harlan County. The security company is composed of three veterans who served together in the Iraq War . They still maintain the old chain of command and sometimes even address each other by their old ranks.
  • In The Night Manager, Big Bad Richard Roper employs a mercenary force that seems to be mostly or entirely composed of former soldiers who like the military life and who are unburdened by excessive morality. His big mistake is thinking that his new employee, Jonathan Pine, is a high-end version of the same type, when in fact, Pine has a very different agenda.

    Multiple Media 
  • In many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes' Evil Counterpart Moriarty has a dragon named Sebastian Moran who is an ex-Army officer and Cold Sniper. This actually comes from the original stories, although there, Moran only appears (in just one story) after Moriarty is dead.

    Music 
  • The Steve Earle song "Copperhead Road" is the story of John Lee Pettimore, who follows in his grandfather's (a moonshiner) and father's (a bootlegger) footsteps after serving two tours in 'Nam by starting up a illegal drugs plantation on the titular road.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The classic game Champions featured a number of supervillains who had military backgrounds.
    • Lazer (Emil Nelson) was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam, where he learned about corruption and villainy. When he returned he used his illegal contacts and GI benefits to become an illegal Arms Dealer.
    • Death Commando (Henry Wadsworth) was a highly aggressive soldier in Vietnam, which earned him fast promotions and good pay. After the war ended he became a super criminal and joined The Destroyers. He supplies the group with tactical planning and other military skills.
    • Bullet (Randolph Bullet) fought in the Vietnam War for years. After he got out he created an organization of superpowered mercenaries and hires them out to whoever pays the most, which often leads them into criminal acts.

    Video Games 
  • In L.A. Noire, the central conflict is around a shipment of military supplies (including weapons and medical grade opiates) stolen by embittered soldiers. Specifically by members of the protagonist's former unit in Okinawa during World War II (partially because they resented him becoming a decorated cop after they fragged him when he ordered them to torch a cave that turned out to be full of civilians).
  • In Mafia III, Player Character Lincoln Clay is a Vietnam veteran who joins the black mob in New Orleans upon mustering out.
    • Vito Scaletta from the previous game, Mafia II, was also ex-military. He served in World War 2, and almost immediately upon arriving home his friend, Joe, convinces him to resort to a life of crime. When he meets Lincoln in III, he asks him about his experiences in Vietnam. Then again, Vito was always a criminal, as the reason he was in WWII was to avoid going to jail after a cop caught him breaking into a store.
  • Victor Vance from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is a heroic example. Early on in the game, he's set up for a number of infractions by his CO and discharged. This being a Grand Theft Auto game, he turns to crime afterwards and ends up running a major drug operation with his brother.
  • Rolento from Final Fight is a former member of a fictional Special Forces unit who is in charge of the weapons plant that supplies the Mad Gear gang. (Although strangely for a gang that has its own weapons factory, they generally attack you with knives and lead pipes instead of guns.) After crossing over to the Street Fighter universe, in some of his endings he starts his own criminal organization, looking to recruit other militant characters, and in others he has a Big Boss-esque dream of creating an ideal nation for soldiers.
  • The Shadow Platoon from Urban Reign is made up of former military men who have been discharged for various reasons.
  • Mass Effect:
    • Every turian criminal ever, given their species is a Proud Soldier Race with universal conscription and a meritocratic military dictatorship.
    • Mass Effect 2 squadmate Jacob Taylor was formerly an Alliance Marine assigned to an elite black ops unit called the Corsairs. He later joined the human-supremacist terrorist organization and N.G.O. Superpower Cerberus. Zaeed Massani is mentioned to be an ex-Alliance soldier before he became a mercenary.
  • Star Trek Online: The Cardassian-supremacist True Way terrorist organization draws much of its membership from unemployed former Cardassian Guard personnel (following the Cardassian Union's treaty-imposed military reductions). In missions that were deleted in Season 11, the group devolves to little more than a Generic Ethnic Crime Gang after its leader Gul Madred is captured.
  • Jacket and the Fans, from Hotline Miami, are all ex-military turned violent homicidal maniacs.
  • Watch_Dogs: Delford "Iraq" Wade is an Iraq war veteran who made the move to organized crime back home, using the same advanced military training he picked up in "the desert" to train up his gangbanger buddies into a legitimate fighting force. While to the public, he and his crew just look like another wannabe street gang, behind the scenes he's hacking government files and laundering military-grade arms.
  • Soldier: 76 of Overwatch, aka Jack Morrison. Once a commander of the titular organization, he believes the events leading up to its disbandment to have been a conspiracy and became a vigilante to try and uncover it.
    • Really, most of the Overwatch cast is this, with special mentions to Gabriel Reyes, aka Reaper, Morrison's right hand man who Came Back Wrong; and McCree, who was actually a criminal before joining Overwatch, was reformed, and then forced back into hiding.
  • Implied Trope in XCOM: Enemy Unknown with Shaojie "Chilong" Zhang. Tell me why the former Chinese Triad member is a better shot than elite soldiers, has several more levels than the new recruits and is a specialist in heavy weapons again?
  • The male Lone Survivor can do this in Fallout 4's Nuka World DLC, going from pre-war United States Army to post-apocalyptic raider gang leader.
  • The first Mercenaries game has the second in command of the Russian Mob being introduced as a former KGB agent, and implied to at one point to having been Spetznas.

    Web Comics 
  • Viktor from Lackadaisy was a WWI veteran who is now muscle for a bootlegging gang.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Very common after the Thirty Years' War - for several years after its end bands of deserters and discharged veterans roamed Central Europe, essentially continuing in the wartime Rape, Pillage, and Burn practice, especially in severely depopulated areas, without effective control of local governments.
  • Los Zetas, one of the most feared and ruthless Mexican drug cartels, was founded by deserters from Mexico's Special Forces.
  • A number of gangs in the US used to require members to enlist in the Army, go through at least basic training before leaving so they'd learn how to shoot straight.
  • Several members of the early Yakuza were Ronin. It's unclear whether the organizations were founded by Ronin who started running protection rackets or by semi-legit vending and gambling guilds who hired ronin as muscle, but regardless they frequently claim to be heirs to the samurai.
    • Post-WW2, several members of the former Imperial Japanese military ended up becoming members of the Yakuza. The most famous example would likely be Yoshio Kodama, whose wartime government-funded drug smuggling operations gave him the funding and connections to become one of the most powerful and influential post-war Yakuza.
  • After the end of The American Civil War, quite a few ex-soldiers (especially from the Confederate side) turned outlaw, the most famous such group being the James-Younger Gang led by Frank and Jesse James. Many others went into a campaign of terrorism and guerrilla warfare by forming groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League and striking against anything perceived as Northern, Republican, and especially attacking freed slaves.
  • During the colonial era, many privateers (naval mercenaries) went on to become outlaw pirates.
  • The disbanding of the Iraqi Army after the 2003 invasion of Iraq saw a lot of former Iraqi soldiers turn to either crime or the insurgency, a factor which made the subsequent occupation that much more difficult.
  • The infamous 1986 Miami FBI shootout was between FBI agents and two Army and Marine Corps veterans who had gone on to become serial bank robbers.
  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many now-unemployed members of the former Red Army found new work in the Russian mafia. And they often took their army toys with them.
  • Ice-T joined the U.S. Army after high school, and after serving for four years, returned to his old neighborhood and eventually joined his school friends in crime. His military experience gave him the tools to plan and perform bloodless jewelry store robberies and the like.
  • Herman Lamm was a former Prussian soldier who immigrated to the United States. He is regarded as the 'father of modern bank robbery' because he used military planning and precision in the execution of his robberies. The 'Lamm Technique' was copied by John Dillinger and other criminals up to the present day.
  • In the aftermath of World War I, several veterans in both Germany and America went on to form armed militias and gangs:
    • During Prohibition, there were numerous bootleggers who cut their teeth in the trenches of Europe.
    • In the Weimar Republic, several German veterans formed the Freikorps and Sturmabteilung militias to rob and terrorize leftists, Jews, and other groups that they blamed for Germany's defeat. These gangs would later join the Nazis and participated in the failed Beer Hall Putsch coup.
    • Adolf Hitler himself served as a dispatch runner in WWI and was jailed for his role in the aforementioned Beer Hall Putsch coup before becoming leader of the Nazi Party and Chancellor of Germany.


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