"For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventurey
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century
But still in matters vegetable, animal and mineral
I am the very model of a modern major-general"
The opposite of a Genius Ditz
, a character who seems competent at everything... except his actual job. A sort of adult Book Dumb
, the main question on everybody's minds, in- or out-of-universe, is "How on earth did this guy get hired
, especially given there are other jobs he'd be far more competent at!?" (Though sometimes his Blue Blood
may give you a reason to suspect nepotism.)
Different from Fake Ultimate Hero
in that the latter at least puts on a ruse of being competent that could actually fool someone. When this character's actual job seems to be nonexistent, they're one of The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything
Like the Pointy-Haired Boss
, may be a result of The Peter Principle
; he's been promoted from a position he mastered to one he has not.
Compare Bunny-Ears Lawyer
, which is a character who is ditzy and unskilled except
for being brilliant in their actual job. Contrast I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder
If they also have Blue Blood
, they are very likely to be an Upper-Class Wit
(If you were looking for the song and works which parody it, see Major General Song
Anime and Manga
- The extremely minor Daredevil villain the Jester is a would-be actor who, in a bid to advance his career, enrolled (and earned high marks) in every course of study that he thought might make him more employable. Well... every course except acting lessons.
- Hindsight Lad (later simply "Hindsight") of the New Warriors wanted to be a superhero and coerced the team into letting him join. Having no powers or fighting skills he turned out to be terrible at it, but when the team realized he was an excellent strategist and analyst, he became a useful asset anyway, just not in the field. (Well, until he turned on them later, but that's another story.)
- Max Fischer from Rushmore is enthusiastically involved in almost every extracurricular activity there is, but he's flunking his actual classes.
- Max Smart in the 2008 movie Get Smart is cast in a role something like this; many characters remark that he's probably the finest intelligence analyst in CONTROL. However, he desperately wants to be a field agent — and when he's finally promoted, he's not entirely incompetent, but he is notably over-eager, naive, bumbling and prone to making a fool of himself.
- Maj. Charles Amos Dundee in the 1965 western Major Dundee. Dundee was allegedly promoted to his current rank for voting against his friend Benjamin Tyreen, who later becomes his Confederate nemesis (insert Foe Yay here). At the start of the film Dundee has been punished for a tactical error at Gettysburg by being forced to run a prison camp, which he deeply resents because his ego won't allow him to see his mistake. When he learns of an Apache massacre he spearheads an unsanctioned mission to hunt them down and rescue any hostages they may have, just so he can get out of the fort and see some action like the "professional soldier" he describes himself as being. Although he does display cleverness and ingenuity in places, he also makes a lot of questionable decisions along the way which ultimately come back to bite him in the ass, giving his confederate friend turned rival Tyreen plenty of chances to point out that Dundee is not the great heroic leader of men he likes to think he is.
- In the Brother Cadfael books, Brother Oswin is hopelessly clumsy, refuses to admit that putting cold things into hot places or vice versa shatters them, and is Cadfael's assistant for several books. Cadfael generally has him do all the easy stuff that doesn't put him near fragile things or herbal remedies - especially the ones that could be used as poison. He does get better over time and in the end is quite competent - it just took him a lot longer to learn than Cadfael's other assistants.
- Captain Trips from the Wild Cards books. He's a genius biochemist— was one of the best in the world, before his drug-and-superhero problems. He manages to be a competent detective when working with Tachyon on the Swarm case. In regular life, he tries to be a businessman, but couldn't sell tuna to dolphins.
- Terry Pratchett's Discworld series:
- Lt. Blouse in Monstrous Regiment has an element of this, since his genius with military tactics and technology doesn't make him the Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass you might expect. War in "the real world" isn't a neat game of strategy, making him relatively incompetent as a leader aside for a few exceptions. He is smart enough to let his ultra-competent sergeant run the things he isn't good at. Usually.
- Something of a subversion, since as a clerk and intelligence officer (his original job) he is very highly skilled. He was only given a battlefield assignment when the army literally ran out of other officers.
- In Interesting Times, the Agatean Empire's bureaucracy is full of these. Like Imperial China, people are promoted in the bureaucracy through exams. At one point, Rincewind interrupts the exam for the position of assistant nightsoil remover, which involves writing a poem about a flower.note
- To be precise, the goal of writing poetry was also to test candidate's linguistic proficiency, an extremely important skill for anyone whose job more or less boils down to interpreting and writing various texts. Unfortunately, the job in question was about shoveling animal manure, not handling paperwork. Similarly, Lord Hong came to the conclusion that the examination for weapons maker should have more to do with proving the applicant knows how to work with iron rather than write poems about it.
- The Austrian general Weyrother is portrayed this way in War and Peace. A good two or so pages is dedicated to how all the other generals at the war council prior to the Battle of Austerlitz despise him. He has a knack for drawing up troop dispositions and knowing terrain, just nothing to do with strategy or winning battles.
- Redjack Teal from Brian Jacques' The Angel's Command is basically Maj. Gen. Stanley...AT SEA!
- Wesley of Buffy and Angel started out as one of these before character development turned him into a Badass Normal. Though the guy had all the historical, demonic and magical knowledge one could ever want, he began his tenure in the shows as a spineless coward with no personal skills—hardly someone the average person would consider qualified to be a mentor figure in the battle between good and evil. Only after he was fired from the Watcher job did he develop the skills that would have made him good at it.
- Jack from 30 Rock was put into this situation by higher-ups who moved him from the appliance division to TV production. Liz, too, is a comedy writer by background, ability and official job title, but she spends most of her time doing HR work these days.
- Michael Scott of The Office (US) is a TERRIBLE manager, his actual job, but an almost savant-like salesman, which used to be his job and his success with which got him the manager gig in the first place.
- Star Trek: Voyager: Captain Janeway is suspected of being one of these by some viewers as she's portrayed as being rather good at science and engineering matters but inconsistent character portrayal left her rather lacking when it came to being an actual Captain. As an extension of this logic, she got Kicked Upstairs by the time of Star Trek: Nemesis, shown as a Vice Admiral on Earth.
- The Governor of The Slammer may be an excellent entertainer, but he is really rather inept at running a prison. Lampshaded in one episode where a journalist points out that there have been several escapes in the time she has been talking to him.
- Col. Henry Blake from M*A*S*H is a top-notch surgeon, but is clearly out of his depth as commanding officer of a M*A*S*H unit.
- Kadoya Tsukasa is good at pretty much everything he tries (except, for a while, being nice), but despite being a photographer, his pictures inevitably end up terrible.
- The Trope Namer is Major General Stanley from The Pirates of Penzance, who introduces himself with a long-winded song listing all of the things he knows, eventually summing up with a long verse about his complete and utter lack of military knowledge (he can barely tell the difference between a rifle and a javelin). He eventually concludes that:
For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventurey,
has only been brought down the beginning of the century.
But still in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major General.
- He also subverts Awesomeness by Analysis, since one of his areas of knowledge is "the fights historical", yet he doesn't seem to have learned any strategy from them. Maybe he only memorized the dates or something.
- Though Major General Stanley's the Trope Namer, the concept appears in an earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore, in the person of
Admiral First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, KCB.
Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule?
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!
- Note that Major General Stanley even mentions that operetta in his song:
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense
- In HONK!, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling", the goose Greylag, modeled after a WWII fighter pilot, fits this trope ideally, causing his wife Dot to lament that "his cabin lights are rather dim."
- The Judge from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is senile and easily swayed. He once accepted a thug with a cardboard badge as a genuine lawyer. The characters frequently comment on it, but no one says anything to his face.
- This one has much to do with the Japanese history of court corruption. Put simply, judges are viewed in Japan the same way lawyers are viewed in the West.
- On the other hand, the Judge is also famed for almost always handing down the right verdict, though this may have more to do with Phoenix's skill as a defense lawyer than anything about the Judge himself.
- Luke Atmey from the third game also qualifies, as his extensive vocabulary and incomprehensible metaphors make him look... somewhat competent as a detective, but he's actually not very good at it. At all. Subverted when it turns out that the reason he doesn't appear to be very good at detective work is because he is actually the criminal.
- It's worth noting that everyone was willing to accept Furio Tigre with a cardboard badge as the main character. Even though he has bright red skin.
- Then again, when the player sees him impersonating Phoenix in that case's opening, he...uses Phoenix's exact sprite.
- However, it helps that this guy also, well, threatens to have people killed.
- Happens in Furmentation with Gulley.
- From Dubious Company's bio page:
- One side in Erfworld is ruled by Stanley the Tool, a Jerk Jock who is completely incompetent at leadership. Before he was promoted into his current position though, though, he was a very effective soldier - and the few times you do see him fighting, he's devastatingly effective. (Unfortunately for everyone involved, leaders are too valuable to risk in combat; defeating one can end the side completely.)
- Director Tagg of Worm appears to be this in part because he is a General Ripper in a job that requires more diplomatic skills.
- Colonel Hathi, from Disney's The Jungle Book. In the Kipling novel, however, he's probably the single coolest character in the series, next to Mowgli.
- The Dilbert Principle proposes that the only reason why executive management positions exist is to provide slots where incompetents can be removed from day-to-day contact with the company's product and/or customers.
- This trope is a recurring and prominent feature of the armed forces of Great Britain, as noted by Gilbert and Sullivan; British historian Max Hastings once remarked that the empire "seemed to have a bottomless supply of unwarlike warrior chieftains." While by no means the norm, these characters feature prominently in some of Britain's greatest military disasters. Some lowlights:
- General Thomas Gage, commander to the British Forces in North America at the beginning of the American Revolution. His career is a repetition of the same events: Get Assigned - Screw Up Royally - Get Promoted - Get New Assignment. Forget King George - 90% of the American Declaration of Independence consists of complaints about Gage's actions and policies. It has been argued that if it weren't for Gage, the U.S. wouldn't have even wanted to become independent. He was in command of the vanguard ("walking point") during Braddock's Defeat (just about the worst ambush in Colonial British military history).
- Related to the above is George Sackville, 1st Viscount Sackville. He was court martialed and driven out of the British army after he prevented a decisive victory at the Battle of Minden out of pure pique. He was ruled "...unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever" in 1760. On November 10, 1775, Sackville (now with the title Lord Germain) was appointed Secretary of State for the Americas, making him the guy in charge of suppressing the American Revolution. Many of the problems with British strategy can be attributed to him.
- Another British incompetent was William Elphinstone, as depicted by George MacDonald Fraser in Flashman: "Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganised enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with a touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again."
- The Charge of the Light Brigade is probably the Ur Example of this as the incident was subsequently used to discredit and end the practice of purchasing commissions, however the facts themselves are rather more complicated. It was led by Lord Cardigan, described by one historian as "an overbearing, hot-tempered fool of the most dangerous kind in that he believed that he possessed real ability." His immediate superior was Lord Lucan, also none too bright and much too hot-tempered. However, tied up in the performance was Captain Louis Edward Nolan, a "merit" officer, who may have intentionally miscommunicated the order to advance (the supposedly "garbled" order would have been quite comprehensible to a man standing where it was drafted). Lucan ordered Cardigan charge his men through a gauntlet of fire to capture a battery of guns at the far end of the valley. After capturing the guns the light brigade was driven off due to the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, retreating through the same gauntlet of fire a second time. The result was over two hundred British cavalryman killed or captured in a charge that accomplished nothing of real military value. At the time Cardigan was lionised as a hero, while Lucan and Raglan the supreme commander variously blamed each other and Nolan.
- Louis Mountbatten failed spectacularly in the Dieppe raid and had several other crazy plans but thanks to his close connection to the royal family he just kept getting promoted.
- George Colley, commander of British forces in the First Boer War, was known as a brilliant man who (among other things) contributed regularly to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. This didn't stop him from getting his forces routed, and himself killed at Majuba Hill.
- Subverted by Sir Garnett Wolseley, the alleged inspiration for General Stanley. Wolseley had a distinguished military career and was a leading advocate for army reform. According to The Other Wiki, he even took the spoof in good humour and was known to sing the song for the amusement of his friends.
- Bernard Law Montgomery was an excellent Army officer at every level up to divisional commander, and performed creditably in leading his troops on the retreat out of France in 1940. As an Army commander in chief, his performance, viewed objectively, was lacklustre. Sent to North Africa as a desperation measure, he was fortunate to be commander of a battle-experienced Army reinforced with the best troops and the pick of American military aid. This enabled him to defeat a tired, over-stretched and numerically inferior German/Italian army. Montgomery was a General whose strategic and tactical concepts were still those of 1916 and not the 1940's. Compared to the flamboyant Patton, he plodded rather than ran, and it is suspected that his meteoric rise was due to his being C-in-C British forces South-East England: i.e, the nearest ranking General to Winston Churchill and the one most prominent in his thoughts. (Britain's very best fighting general of WW 2, William Slim, was eight thousand miles away co-ordinating British armies fighting the Japanese, and lacked the same immediate access to Churchill that Montgomery took advantage of.)
- This is still a topic of considerable argument. Monty's understanding of modern battlefield tactics and combined-arms operations was second to none, and as a trainer and commander of men he was superb. He performed well in WW 2 right up until being given command of the British forces post-Operation Overlord. From that point on, consensus holds that his attachment to his men made him too cautious in attack, and thus a) failed to make use of the advantage when presented to him, and b) didn't commit his forces aggressively enough, ironically causing higher casualties. His failures regarding Operation Market Garden are mainly a result of inadequate intelligence and poor combined-arms doctrines both between infantry and armour and between British and American forces. While none of the above takes him out of Modern Major General territory, there is a lot of disagreement over what exactly he was and wasn't good at.
- Winston Churchill himself often dipped into Modern Major Generaldom, given his persistent meddling in military affairs during both World Wars. His record is mixed; about a third of his ideas were actually good (Sink the Bismarck, don't invade France until you're ready), another third were iffy (Gallipoli might have worked with a little luck. Might.), and the final third tended to be utterly disastrous (his Royal Marines adventure, the Goeben, Greece, etc.).
- Across the Channel, the French could be plagued with this too. By the War of the Spanish Succession, Louis XIV had begun mistaking personal loyalty for military talent and appointed dullards like Villeroi and Tallard as generals and marshals, whereupon they proceeded to get their asses kicked by real commanders like Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy. Subverted with Villars, who was a genuinely skilled general and was instrumental in salvaging the situation for France.
- Before the modern period, the way to become an officer in most Armed Forces was to pay for the privilege, or (for some of the top leadership positions) to be appointed there by politicians, who often selected their friends (c.f. William "Pinafore" Smith, discussed above under theatre). Hence, you got a lot of people commanding the armed forces... whose only real qualification was that they could pay.
- Examples of the result of this system in the American armed forces include:
- George McClellan had a good reputation for training and organizing his troops and he got along with them well, but he would eventually be dismissed by Abraham Lincoln both for their poor relationship and for McClellan's lack of aggressiveness as a battlefield commander, partially influenced by overestimating Confederate numbers. This is still contested from a historical standpoint. Lee, when asked who his toughest opponent was, actually named McClellan. It doesn't help that McClellan was replaced as general right before his massive planned invasion of the south, subsequently ruined by a failed General Ripper.
- McClellan's subordinate (and, later, successor) Ambrose Burnside considered himself one. Like Mc Clellan he was a skilled at training soldiers but mediocre at best at leading them. He was also a skilled gunsmith, designing the Burnside carbine which was one of the first breech-loading firearms adopted by the US military.
- Another American example would be Benjamin Butler, a influential lawyer-turned-Civil War general. While a brilliant lawyer and debater (for one, he coined the term "contraband" for slaves escaping to Union lines), he was an incompetent commander; however, his political influence protected him from a sacking until Lincoln's second term. In an improbable run of bad luck, the Union would continually transfer Butler to quiet sectors, only for that area to become suddenly important; whenever Butler was the highest ranking officer on the scene (he usually was), disaster soon followed.
- The problem of paying for commissions was specific to the British army, and political appointments were really more something that applied to republics and parliamentary systems, e. g. the United States in the 19th century. In autocratic monarchies although officers tended to be recruited mostly from the nobility, there actually was quite a bit of competition among them and it generally was possible to maintain a certain level of competence (let's not forget: Napoleon was a product of the officers' schooling of Louis XVI's army). But there were different types of problems, namely that some people would be pushed forward by personal connections to the monarch or those close to him (Villeroi had been raised together with Louis XIV as a boy, others were helped by the influence of a king's mistress like the Marquise de Pompadour) and that the very top positions would usually go to monarchs or their relatives.
- Of course, there's other ways to get to be highly incompetent in your field:
- Santos Degollado is a Mexican example; he was adept at gathering and motivating men to fight for the Liberal cause, but failed to ever lead them to victory. He was nicknamed "prince of defeats" and in some versions "Apostle of defeats". Incredibly likeable because of his motivation to the cause and his enthusiasm but he should have delegate the actuald military tactics to someone else.
- Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin are textbook examples of this trope. Hitler was a brilliant demagogue, motivating his people to go to war against the rest of Europe...but turned out to be a rather inept military commander. Stalin was a maestro at keeping his subordinates in line and building up a nearly impenetrable network of power within the Bolsheviks, but his blunders led to the USSR getting its ass kicked by Finland when it invaded that country, and very nearly getting destroyed by Nazi Germany before he smartened up and let his generals direct the war.
- Benito Mussolini proved just as incompetent as Hitler and Stalin. If anything, he actually proved to be more of a hindrance than a help to the Axis, as Germany repeatedly had to come to Italy's rescue whenever Mussolini fouled things up.
- Idi Amin was a total douchebag and complete moron, as he was shown in the media. With all those badges, he probably fooled himself into thinking he was a real military commander. But he lost completely in his war with Tanzania, as his armies did very little fighting at all. Which didn't prevent him from living comfortably for a good, long time, nearly 25 years after being ousted from power, with multiple wives at his side (simultaneously) and so much time on his hands that he actually bothered to finally learn to read and study politics. An interview very late in his life shows him to be anything but the apparent buffoon of old. However, theories abound that the man was never anything of the sort, instead showing the great powers of the world a facade of backwards idiocy to avoid ever-popular Cold War meddling in his affairs.
- Mao Zedong was pretty much the reverse of Hitler and Stalin. While a skilled commander and charismatic leader capable of leading what was essentially a peasant guerrilla movement to take over China, as a statesman, his economic and social policies were a complete failure.
- Case in point: The Great Leap Forward. Mao hoped to turn China into a first-world country through a campaign in which backyard furnaces were set up in villages to produce steel, untrained peasants were assigned to work industrial machinery, farmland was deep-ploughed ( following and already discredited idea that deeper layers of soil were more fertile) to increase crop yields, and sparrows were mass-culled so they would not steal grain. None of this was planned with any knowledge of metallurgy, ecology, or agriculture. The backyard furnaces produced junk-quality iron, industrial machinery failed due to incompetent operators, fields were left untended due to all the farmers being moved to the cities, crops failed to grow properly, and whatever grain that could be harvested was devoured by the swarms of locusts the culling of sparrows (their main predator) had created. Combined with mismanagement and reporting of exaggerated production figures by officials, the ensuing famine resulted in about 50 million dead. For those keeping score at home that is more non-military deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined (non-military discounts WWII casualties, but not the Holocaust or Stalin's purges); in fact, it is more non-military deaths than most dictatorships and modern-day ethnic cleansings combined, and it wasn't even on purpose.
- It's debatable how much credit Mao actually deserves for Communism's success in taking over China. The Chinese Communist Party was founded by Soviet spies and from day one it would not have been able to stay in existence without Soviet aid. Mao Zedong was on the brink of utter defeat when the Sino-Japanese war started and arguably the only reason he survived is because the Nationalists were distracted. After the war ended he again began receiving arms and funding from the Soviets occupying Manchuria which is what really turned the tide. Like Stalin, Mao was good at playing politics to take command of political parties and that's pretty much it.
- Pretty much every officer in the Canadian Militia in the late 19th century who was actually from Canada was one of these as the militia commander positions were patronage appointments by the federal government. This led to most of Canada's successes in World War One happening under the command of British officers up until the appointment of Sir Arthur Currie as commander of the Canadian Corps mid-1917.
- Muammar Gaddafi started wars with Egypt, Tanzania and Chad during his time as Libya's dictator. He lost every single one. Of special note is the war with Chad, known as the "Toyota War". It got this name because Chadian soldiers used Toyota pickup trucks as troop transports...and they still managed to trash Gaddadi's forces.
- Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, was partly responsible for deepening American involvement in The Vietnam War. He was a technocratic midcentury corporate executive freshly recruited from the private sector by the administration. He did have some military experience; he served in the Army Air Force during WWII, as part of a group overseeing planning, logistics, and analysis for the bombing campaign against Japan. However, his concentration on numbers, statistics, and formulae rather than 'soft data' like reports from troops in the field made him less than effective at directing the war effort: He knew that we were dropping thousands of tons of bombs on the VC, and couldn't really understand how they were still fighting.
- James Buchanan distinguished himself as a US senator, an ambassador and Secretary of State, all jobs that require a high level of tact, caution, negotiating skills and consensus-building ability. This proved to be lousy preparation for being president of a nation on the brink of civil war over a question of morality.
- Tommy Wiseau was amazingly poor as a writer, director, and actor in The Room but appears to have managed to raise an impressive amount of money to fund the film, which would make him an excellent producer.
- Same goes for Uwe Boll, who, regardless of everything and Alone In The Dark 2005, managed to fund his films and employ well-known actors.