— Major General Maxwell Taylor, finding himself on D-Day commanding a group of many high ranking officers, but only three enlisted men.
A subtrope of Artistic License - Military (or Artistic License - Law, for police settings) in which officers are shown performing tasks well below their pay grade. A high ranking officer may be shown commanding a much smaller unit than their Real Life counterparts, personally leading small unit patrols, or even acting in the role of an enlisted man. In extreme cases, everyone in a unit will be an officer, regardless of their actual duties. This trope may also be seen in works involving law enforcement, which may depict lieutenants, captains, or even Da Chief personally conducting investigations and making arrests.
There are a number of reasons this trope may be invoked. It may be done to establish a high ranking officer as a Colonel Badass who isn't afraid to lead from the front. In works that feature Do Anything Soldiers (or if the main characters simply do everything) if one or more of their battlefield roles would be performed by an officer in Real Life, the characters will frequently be officers even if this is completely inappropriate for their other roles. If a character is of appropriate rank initially but is later promoted into this trope, the creator may be trying to avoid Limited Advancement Opportunities while otherwise maintaining the status quo. It's also likely in works featuring a Suspiciously Small Army.
Contrast You Are in Command Now, the direct inverse of this trope, where someone of lower rank is forced to take charge. Compare and contrast the Overranked Soldier, who may be in a position befitting his or her rank, but is unqualified (or simply too young) to realistically hold either. Contrast Armchair Military, when high ranking officers are a little too far behind the lines. Can be related to Dude, Where's My Respect?, if the officer in question keeps being assigned menial tasks by his superiors, despite having been promoted. When royalty are on the front lines, see Royals Who Actually Do Something.
See Common Military Units for an idea of the sizes of units real life officers typically command, though this trope may also sometimes be Truth in Television - see below.
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Anime and Manga
In Gall Force: Earth Chapter, Sandy (whose rank is not mentioned, and may in fact be a civilian) commands a unit consisting of a dozen or so named characters and at least several unnamed ones, three light tanks, and an armored personnel carrier. Nominally that would make her a lieutenant. However, her subordinates include Lamidia (A major in the Mars Defense Force) and Captain Varji of the MDF Navy, the latter of whom commands a single 2-man tank. Justified in that the resistance forces are fighting a desperate battle, and one could make the arguement Lamidia and Varji are POWs recruited via an Enemy Mine situation.
In Mobile Suit Gundam, Lieutenant JG Sleggar Law is inserted into a carrier command as a regular pilot. While this would ordinarily not raise eyebrows, Sleggar's overranked because of the rest of the crew; not only does The Captain of White Base have the same rank, but the ship's executive officer is an Ensign and yet outranks Sleggar in the chain of command. The situation is at least partly justified by the Federation being in the middle of a war and not wanting to break up or rearrange a unit that's already functioning well enough.
Both in the comics and the film, Captain America typically either works alone or commands the Howling Commandos, a squad sized unit.
Saving Private Ryan - Captain Miller, who would normally command a company of maybe a hundred men, is given command of an eight-man squad, typically the role of a sergeant or lieutenant at most. Of course, given the mission circumstances, a higher-ranked CO may have been chosen to allow him to draw additional assistance if needed.
The Dirty Dozen features Major Reisman leading twelve convicts and a sergeant on the film's climactic raid.
Heat features Robbery Homicide Lieutenant Vincent Hanna acting as lead investigator for every crime in the film, from the climactic bank robbery to the murder of a prostitute. Hanna does have subordinates under his command, but their duties are limited to assisting in the larger cases by running down leads, not handling cases of their own. Though we don't know if those detectives - Detectives Bosko, Casals and Schwartz, and Sergeant Drucker - are on any other active cases.
Stargate has Colonel O'Neil leading a specialized team of a Lieutenant Colonel, a number of Lieutenants, and a civilian scientist. Justified both because this is an elite unit and because many of the team members have highly advanced qualifications.
Lethal Weapon 4 has Murtaugh and Riggs both promoted to Captain when their involvement in a shootout causes the department to lose its insurance coverage. While this is supposedly done to get them out of the field, neither is assigned any additional responsibilities, and both remain Cowboy Cops throughout the film. The only sign they've been promoted is Riggs occasionally waving his badge and saying, "This is your Captain speaking..."
Major Gates' assignment at the beginning of Three Kings is to babysit a single reporter.
In The Peacemaker, while Lt. Col. DeVoe is of appropriate rank for a Pentagon staff officer assigned to head a special investigation, most of his screen time is spent running and gunning as though he was a far more junior officer, rather than commanding the search.
Frank L. Baum seemed to like playing this trope for laughs. It may be that in Oz, this is the normal state of formal militaries.
In The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, Queen Ann's army has a number of officers but only one enlisted man, Private Files. After Files resigns to avoid being commanded to perform an illegal order, Ann enlists Tik-Tok to replace him.
In Ozma of Oz, Ozma forms an army composed of 8 generals, 6 colonels, 7 majors, 5 captains, and one private named Omby Amby. Amby is later promoted to the rank of "Captain General".
Averted in Artemis Fowl: Commander Root is technically too high up to participate in field actions, but quickly reactivates himself when the situation calls for it (he has quite a bit of influence with the commanding officer).
Buck Danny: The other characters note that Buck should be a general by now (the series has such a bad case of Comic Book Time that pilots who joined for World War 2 are still the same age and flying to this day), though he remains a colonel so he can still fly missions.
Gaunt's Ghosts has Colonel-Commissar Gaunt leading large-scale operations from the front (a Commissar's job), given the rank of colonel to facilitate the paperwork.
The X-Wing Series eventually sees Wedge Antilles promoted to General, while many of his subordinates are also promoted... resulting in a unit in which half the pilots outrank the commanders of other squadrons. Somewhat justified in that Rogue Squadron is an elite unit.
Averted with Pash Cracken, who voluntarily accepts a demotion to join Rogue Squadron.
Commented upon in Cryptonomicon — Sgt. Shaftoe at one point muses that Detachment 2702 has a case of "rank inflation" (because the people with sufficiently high clearances to know what Detachment 2702 is doing tend to be senior officers).
Lt. Eve Dallas from the In Death books is a borderline case. While she does run a homicide squad, she spends much more time investigating murders herself than supervising her squad. Note that she is shown as being perpetually behind on her paperwork because of this, and that she knows that one more promotion means she won't be able to do the street-level investigations she loves.
Barrayaran Imperial Security Headquarters in the Vorkosigan Saga is a place where all the janitors are captains and colonels fetch the coffee. This is entirely justified by the very high security clearances you need to work in ImpSec HQ, especially with the kind of access to most areas that janitors would have - and the commensurate higher salaries they also merit due to that trust.
Played with in Starship Troopers. The Mobile Infantry themselves go to great lengths to avoid this trope, including one instance in which a general volunteered to be demoted to colonelnote including a reduction in pay! in order to take command of an officer candidate school. Other branches of the military are much more generous with their ranks, however - half of the K-9 Corps are officers (with the other half being semi-sentient dogs), as are psychics and others with special powers.
In Discworld, the Commander-in-Chief of Lancre's armed forces can generally be found on gate duty ... because he's actually the whole of Lancre's armed forces, in addition to most of its civil service and a large amount of its palace staff.
In Doctor Who, during the period when Barry Letts was the showrunner, UNIT often consists of The Brigadier, one Captain, and one Sergeant.
Battlestar Galactica: How many times did Commander Adama, send his CAG and most of the bridge crew to do ground based operations, Often escorted by Marines but where were their officers?
The Closer: The major case squad consists of three lieutenants, two or three detectives, and one sergeant, with a deputy chief in charge. Ordinarily a police unit will be headed by a lieutenant or captain, with the rest of the squad being no higher ranked than sergeant.
Sharpe the TV series suffered from this, owing to the small budget the show had, most episodes retained the named officers from the books, but didn't have the money for a full battalion. So often 5 or 6 officers would be leading only 30 or so men.
Soldier Soldier : The 1st Battalion Kings Fusiliers often consisted of the Lieutenant Colonel, A Major, A Lieutenant, The regimental Sergeant-Major, The Company Sergeant-Major, A Sergeant and er... Privates Garvey and Tucker.
As a squadron of Do Anything Soldiers, the Marine aviators in Space: Above and Beyond not only fly space fighters, but also perform ground missions as infantry. Though infantry units are made up predominantly of enlisted men, no member of the squadron is below the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
In "Who Monitors the Birds," Major Colquitt recruits Hawkes (a lieutenant) to accompany him behind enemy lines on a sniping mission. Real Life snipers are almost exclusively enlisted personnel.
In another episode, the squadron is seen fighting on the ground alongside a conventional infantry platoon. The platoon is commanded by a lieutenant, making it possible that every member of the 58th outranks him.note At best, he is the same rank as the lowest ranked members of the squadron.
Lt. Columbo should have been running a squad rather than out investigating murders on his own.
The title character on The Commish frequently conducted investigations and made arrests personally, despite being the police commissioner.
Like the Commish above, Chief Mannion of The District can't resist getting personally involved in many of the MPD's cases. It is played better than many examples of this trope, however, as he does spend much of his time supervising from headquarters.
Generally averted in Law & Order and its spinoffs, which accurately depict police Captains and Lieutenants as supervisors, who almost never personally conduct investigations or make arrests.
The Starship Enterprise in all its incarnations seems to be crewed entirely by officers. The "cannon fodder" on a landing party are Ensigns, an officer rank. The only major recurring non-officer is Miles O'Brien, who's a noncom. Lower ranking enlisted do exist, but have literally never been shown actually doing anything.
The reason for this is that Gene Roddenberry was modeling Starfleet on the Air Force, the only branch where the enlisted men stay safe back at base and the officers go out to get shot at.
This trope is particularly prominent during away team missions. In the original series, these were frequently led by Kirk himself. While this duty typically fell to the first officer in later series, the teams were still frequently composed of high ranking officers.
In "The Best of Both Worlds", the first team to try to rescue Picard from the Borg is composed of the following: Commander Shelby (acting first officer), Lieutenant Commander Data (second officer), Dr. Crusher (chief medical officer), and Lieutenant Worf (tactical officer). In other words, the two most senior officers below the captain, and two officers one would desperately want to be at their posts - aboard ship - during a crisis.
Also seen in the 2009 film, where the chief engineer is sent on an away mission to destroy the drill, when he probably should've stayed on the already-damaged ship to supervise repairs. And it was all for nothing in the end anyway, as he didn't survive the jump.
Captain Tommy Gregson of Elementary is often seen assisting Detective Marcus Bell — and, by extension, Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson — in the investigating of crime scenes, if not doing the investigations himself. He has also had to chase suspects and often interrogates them too.
The characters of Criminal Minds are often seen conducting their own investigations, gathering evidence, interrogating suspects, chasing them down and making arrests, jobs that are normally done by the lower-level police officers who call in the BAU's help. It isn't realistic- the real life BAU hardly leaves their offices in Virginia- but it's justified in that a show where the protagonists sit at their desks all day would likely not be very interesting.
JAG: Occasionally the writers would have Admiral Chegwidden taking care of business, such as acting as a defense attorney, which ought to have been handled by a subordinate.
During "Day of Days", Lt. Winters is in command of Easy Company; however, at no point during the episode is he actually in command of more than a squad or so of men - though in a double example of this trope, one is another officer, Lt. Compton.
In "The Breaking Point", the first instinct of now Captain Winters when Easy Company's attack stalls is to rush into the field and personally lead the attack. He is quickly stopped by Colonel Sink, who reminds him that he is now in charge of the entire battalion. This is actually a subverted example in that as a captain, Winters is actually underranked for his position in the battalion, but of appropriate rank to command a company.
In "The Last Patrol", newly arrived Lt. Jones repeatedly asks to be assigned to the titular patrol. Winters agrees, but he is placed under the command of an experienced sergeant, who gives him minimal responsibilities.
The minimal requirements to play a game are two units of troops and the HQ. Meaning you have Imperial Guard generals directing operations from the field rather than in a fortified bunker miles away.
Taken even further in Dawn of War, where the command squad is the Guard's only melee unit until they finally upgrade to the final tier. Meaning the general and his retinue take on everything the other factions throw at them.
Tau Ethereals are considered nearly godlike by the lower castes, with the Tau being physically incapable of disobeying their orders,conferring bonuses but huge drawbacks if they die, and yet are often seen deployed into battle. Which is why it's especially hilarious in Dawn of War to see them charging headlong into melee.
There is also a minor case of this discussed in Ciaphas Cain. 40K's Space Marines are genetically modified superhumans that need years of training, surgery and indoctrination just to make it to the lowest rank, and after that decades more of unending warfare and drilling to become a full battle-brother, and from there even longer to become a sergeant. However, Cain wonders if the lieutenant commanding the security forces will be willing to take orders and advice from a "mere" sergeant (that is, a Super Soldier who's likely been sergeant far longer than the lieutenant's been alive).
The various Wolfenstein games have Captain BJ Blazkowicz as the player character. He commands no one. Justified, in that BJ works for an OSS Expy.
Mass Effect 3seems like an inversion, with a lowly Commander coordinating all the different forces in the galaxy to oppose the Reapers, but Commander Shepard is almost always operating on behalf of the Council, Admiral Hackett, or Admiral Anderson. Lampshaded during a conversation with Hackett, who explicitly states that Shepard is being sent as an Ambadassador to bring together the various races and serve as The Face of the Alliance.
In addition, being a Spectre effectively puts Shepard both above and outside the traditional command structure. Spectres are granted extraordinary authority in pursuit of their mission, whatever scale that mission may be.
In Star Trek Online, this is to be expected because rank is tied to level (also because it's Star Trek tradition), but it is most flagrant in the context of Special Task Force missions on elite difficulty. Elite STFs are locked out to all but those who have reached the level cap of 50. This translates to five KDF Lieutenant Generals or Starfleet or Romulan Republic Vice Admirals each commanding an individual ship against the Borg or, worse, five Vice Admirals/Lieutenant Generals beaming down alone* or, at best, accompanied by four security guards and a medic each if they're tactical officers with the proper items into a Borg-infested base.
Also, if you're in a fleet and decide to visit your fleet starbase or embassy, its Officer of the Watch can assign you any of a number of tasks ranging from inspecting cadets' uniforms to searching for misplaced datapads. There's no shortage of redshirts around to handle these things, either. Oddly enough, those of the Officer's tasks with actual reasons for needing someone of a higher rank, like inspecting freighters for contraband, are the ones that have him acknowledge this by apologizing that the other people who could do it are busy right now.
A number of military-themed games use promotions as a form of Cosmetic Award. This can result in either straight or inverted forms of this trope, depending on the abilities (and consequently, the scores) of the individual player.
X-Wing and its sequels, TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance, all tie promotions to cumulative mission scores, but the player's rank has no bearing on the circumstances of future missions. The player will always command a single flight, with anywhere from zero to five wingmen. They will be able to give orders to their wingmen, whether they are a Flight Cadet or General, but will not be able to give orders to any other friendly units. Similarly, if reinforcements are available, the player will be able to request them regardless of rank.
At least partly averted in Sierra's Aces Over Europe, which allowed you to choose at the start of a campaign whether you were a 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Lieutenant, or Captainnote or their RAF or Luftwaffe equivalents. Both what aircraft you were in the flight and what radio messages you were allowed to send depended on your rank. A 2nd Lieutenant was typically the last aircraft in the flight, and could only send messages to his wingman - either calling for help or warning of approaching enemies. A Captain, in contrast, was always the flight leader, and could order all or part of the flight to perform specific tasks like bombing the target or flying cover.
In Companyof Heroes 2 and similar RTS games, players gain rank based on mission stats. This has the effect of hilarious inversions initially (privates commanding units of any size) while later in the game high ranking officers find themselves micromanaging the movements of individual squads and vehicles.
In the Wing Commander games, the main character starts as a 2nd Lieutenant and can work his way up to Lt. Colonel by the end of the first game along with a ludicrous number of medals (Including the equivalent of two Medals of Honor), but no matter what his official rank, he is never shown commanding anyone in the field other than his wingman (Which he does even when the wingman outranks him).
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine: The protagonist, Captain Titus, would normally lead an Astartes company of around 100 Space Marines. He ends up accompanied by a sergeant and a battle-brother (at one point several other Marines from other Chapters show up, but there are never more than a dozen).
Truth In Television
As noted in the page quote above, General Maxwell Taylor found himself in this position on D-Day. Immediately after landing, he found himself in command of a single private; as he gathered more men, a disproportionate number of them were high ranking officers.
True of many of the paratrooper officers on D-Day. Since their units were scattered during the jump, the paratroopers simply joined up with any friendly soldiers they encountered, leading to situations where officers found themselves either commanding smaller units than normal or as part of a small unit commanded by someone of even higher rank.
Similarly, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Yes, his son) insisted on going with the troops landing on Utah Beach, feeling that in the chaos that was going to ensue, someone had to be on the scene who could take control and make the necessary strategic decisions. At 56 years of age, and while suffering from arthritis and heart trouble, he led his troops on the beach using his cane to signal with. He ended up dying of a heart attack the following month.
During World War II, a number of intelligence agencies, such as the OSS, SOE, and MI-6, gave their agents officer rank, with the hope that if captured, they would be treated as prisoners of war, rather than as spies.
The United States Army Air Force made all their enlisted ranks (mostly gunners) sergeants for a similar reason: they heard that sergeants and officers were generally treated better then privates and corporals. And since the USAAF had ridiculously high bomber losses, and those who weren't killed outright tended to end up in POW camps, this made sense.
Many elite units will accept only experienced soldiers into their ranks. As these units tend to be small, this usually means every member will be a higher rank than their counterpart in a conventional unit.
In most militaries, doctors, chaplains, and others with similarly specialized training will be officers, but will have fewer command responsibilities than other officers - in fact, international law may prevent them from commanding a combat unit.
During the Russian Civil War, the White Guards started with only the officers loyal to their cause. Their first battles were fought by officer-only units, with lieutenants attacking as common riflemen and colonels commanding platoons and companies.
Due to cutbacks in the Royal Air Force, officers now command smaller units than their World War II counterparts. Wing Commanders, for example, now typically command squadrons, while Squadron Leaders are actually flight leaders.
The problem of this happening is why British generals of World War One stayed behind the lines in chateaux (to which the phone lines from their brigades, divisions, etc. were connected). In the absence of battlefield voice radio, the further forward they went, the less influence they had over their entire commands. (The other factor was that too many good generals got themselves killed early going forward to check out the situation for themselves. The dearth of talent had terrible repercussions later.)
More or less the rule in Human spaceflight. The small size of crews (the largest crew on a spacecraft has been eight on two shuttle flights, the International Space Station has at one point had 13 crew members onboard for a few days) and the need for experienced personel means that commanders (who are almost always military officers and senior ones at that, notable aversions include Neil Armstrong a then retired Naval Aviator) are incharge of only a handful of persons, sometimes just one. On Apollo-Syouz in 1975 this led to a situation where a General (Tom Stafford who was a Brigadier General USAF at the time, he retired as a Lieutenant General) was commanding 2 other men. Apollo 13,14, 15, 16 and 17 were commanded by Navy Captains and Colonels, one rank below that of Admiral and General.