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Soldiers at the Rear
"I made coffee through Desert Storm. I made coffee during Panama, while everyone else got to fight, got to be a Ranger. Now it's 'Grimesy, black, one sugar' or 'Grimesy, got a powdered anywhere?'"
Similar to the Straw Civilian
, this trope shows up in Military Fiction. Unlike the civilian or the Draft Dodger
, this guy joins the army when things go bad because he knows the safest place to be is in
the military, in a position where absolutely nothing can go wrong. While everyone else is out fighting on the distant Planet of Hats
, he's safe and sound back in Muskogee, Oklahoma, sewing buttons onto uniforms.
Whereas a civilian might not know any better, being fat and stupid, this guy's actually been through basic training, but he's currently assigned to a unit that's not going into combat anytime soon, if at all. He still gets all the perks of being a soldier (respect, drinks, and a uniform) but none of the hassle (strangers trying to kill you a lot). He's the military version of the fat, lazy cop. In modern military parlance, he's the "Rear Echelon Motherfucker."
Because fiction tends to be black and white, the REMF usually isn't portrayed as someone who got lucky, or as someone doing a superficially dull but vital job, but as someone who kissed a lot of fat, rich behind. A REMF will be someone who pulled some strings themselves
or had Daddy call the right people
to get a cushy post. He's a Senator's son, or a celebrity, or he's got a lot of money
in the bank. It's never luck, or actual skill, it's who he is and who he knows
The story in Real Life
is, naturally, different. The military is a big organization, and a lot of necessary jobs don't involve getting immediately shot at by random [INSERT BAD GUY HERE]'s. In fact, in modern armed forces, there's roughly 10-15 REMFs working in support for every soldier actually pulling a trigger at the front. This doesn't mean the REMF isn't resented, mind you, he's still a REMF who isn't deep in the shit at the moment - though many frontline grunts won't care and still hold grudges.
Often, and perhaps against the stereotype, the children of important and/or wealthy people do join the military because they want to serve. Fortunately or unfortunately, the military brass aren't morons and know that if the child of a VIP dies on their watch, they're in for a world of trouble. Thus, through no fault of his or her own, the kid with the silver spoon might spend the war behind a desk somewhere typing up reports.
Along with REMF, "pogue" is a term with similar connotations (from POG: Person Other than Grunt). Fobbit (a portmanteau
of "Forward Operating Base" and "Hobbit
", given how Hobbits love to stay at home and never
go out on adventures) is another similar term, specific to troops deployed but who do not go on patrols for varying reasons. "Wire Hugger", and similar terms have grown from the recent wars in the Middle East (as in, desperately tries to keep close to the base, even if it means hugging barbed wire).
It's worth noting that being a REMF in an unconventional conflict might be almost impossible, since by definition there isn't a rear-echelon once you're in the theatre, and someone whose job normally isn't anywhere near combat might find themselves under fire or IED attack at any time, such as in places like Afghanistan.
This guy is often Gung Holier Than Thou
and a Miles Gloriosus
. A bad Officer and a Gentleman
and General Failure
are both probably REMFs. A good Drill Sergeant Nasty
If becoming a soldier at the rear is actually because of the individual soldier's actual skills, it is known as getting wise
. No wonder becoming the company clerk is one of the favourite tasks amongst the conscripts around the world.
See also: Armchair Military
, and Desk Jockey
- During World War II, Captain America had the secret identity of a clumsy infantry private who'd get stuck at the rear.
- Many of Bill Mauldin's cartoons are about soldiers who aren't allowed in the rear because they don't look soldierly enough.
- "It's either enemy or off-limits."
- Mauldin also described a hybrid species between the REMF and the combat dogface: the garritrooper. "They're too far forward to shave and too far back to get shot at."
- Beetle Bailey's entire unit appears to be composed of such; while they're frequently seen attempting field exercises, they never have been (and per Word of God, never will be) deployed to a combat zone.
- Despite becoming later becoming a Badass mercenary, Jon Sable of Jon Sable, Freelance spent his tour of duty during the Vietnam War as a clerk/typist in an intelligence unit.
- Operations Specialist, 2nd Class Kybok in Red Fire, Red Planet. Most of Kybok's fellow Starfleet personnel at Listening Post 204RT rather justifiably view being posted to an early warning station on the edge of the Sol system to be a dead-end assignment. However Kybok's father (Chu'lak from DS9: "Field of Fire") completely snapped from the stresses of serving in the Dominion War and Kybok wants to avoid that fate. But he also wants to serve his country, so he resolved the logical conflict by getting himself put on an unimportant rear-echelon post.
- The movie Soldier deals with a Sorting Algorithm of perfect soldierdom. The first generation of perfect soldiers were chosen at birth and trained therefrom. The second generation were genetically engineered. The first generation are led by a battle-tested son of a bitch (Gary Busey). The second generation are led by a REMF (Jason Isaacs). In the end, the first generation kills the second, and all the angels applaud.
- Mister Roberts (US Navy in WW II) the film and the play. The Captain and Ensign Pulver are happy to be out of the line of fire. The title character desperately wants a transfer to a warship.
- Specialist Grimes, (Ewan McGregor) one of the Rangers, in Blackhawk Down has always been away from the fighting, a fact he says isn't his fault. It's because he has a rare and valuable skill beloved by the Army that keeps him busy: He can type. However, he doesn't like being in this trope and actually wants to fight, rather than spending his entire career typing and making coffee. He ends up getting caught up in the worst of the movie's fighting. And copes with the stress by making coffee during the lulls. This is probably one of the most realistic and unbiased portrayals of the regular REMF there is. The logistics system to maintain even a small force in the field is a beast, and most people get shifted to help maintain it without even a whit of corruption or nepotism involved.
- Lawrence begins Lawrence of Arabia like this.
- Saving Private Ryan has some clerks who land ashore next to Capt. Miller's position to set up a command center. When Miller's only translator is killed, a replacement is drawn from the command center staff, and he ends up with a green Corporal who had been drawing maps and hasn't fired his weapon since basic training. Resentment towards REMF soldiers even gets a bit of Lampshade Hanging, as Miller immediately takes note that the command center troops all have easy access to hot coffee and fresh food, while he's probably been living on C-Rations since he came ashore.
- Double subverted in the Full Metal Jacket - the officer in charge of the Marine combat correspondents, Lieutenant Lockhart, states his intention to stay where he is comfortable - "in the rear, with the gear" - and that very evening the base comes under heavy artillery attack. Later in the movie it's however made clear that being posted on the rear base is still relatively much safer than being a front-line rifleman.
- Captain America: The First Avenger. After taking the Super Serum and becoming a Super Soldier, Steve tries to join the war proper, but is told that he's too valuable as a Fake Ultimate Hero and that a single soldier, no matter how super, is not enough to win a war. He's sent out to do stage shows and publicity stunts, and feels more and more useless as time rolls on.
Live Action TV
- REMFs show up a lot in the works of David Drake, as he writes mostly Military Science-Fiction.
- At the beginning of Redliners, a group of elite commandos on R&R want a drink. The REMF behind the bar sneers at their battered BDUs and refuses to serve them. The Redliners (a term that means "about to blow") take this badly. Trouble ensues.
- In his Ranks of Bronze, the bad guys aren't the people the Roman Legionnaires are fighting against (mostly just bronze age, barbarian aliens). The bad guys are the fat assholes telling the Romans who to fight. And one arrogant prick who happens to be a Roman.
- Robert A. Heinlein, no stranger to the military himself, also had a problem with REMFs. Sort of. As with every other trope, he played with it.
- In Starship Troopers, he both despised and avoided REMFs. For anything that required esprit de corps, a member of the MI served (possibly on disability, if it was something like teaching, which requires spirit without the corp). For everything else, they hired civilians. Civilians are like beans; buy 'em as you need 'em.
- In Time Enough for Love, Lazarus first intends to avoid WWI by fleeing to South America. Then he's faced with the scorn of his birth family and is motivated to join the army; he then realizes that being a lily-white, red-haired gringo in Brazil would paint him as an agent of some European power and get him killed, so his actual best bet is to join the army and be the best damn REMF he can. Unfortunately, his adopted family has some pull, and they put him where every red-blooded, kraut-hating American should want to be. France. Oh, Crap.
- Also in Time Enough for Love, "The Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail". He joined the navy because he didn't particularly care for farming. Then he bucked for officer. Then he applied for pilot training. Then he bucked for multiengined seaplanes rather than fighters to avoid serving on carriers while still accumulating all the promotion and pay benefits of sea duty. He didn't particularly cotton to getting shot at. Then he bucked for early retirement on disability (crazy on the job), getting an honorary bump to rear admiral and three-quarters pay. Then he went back to the farm (loved the farm; hated the farming) and paid a guy to do all the work, and spent his time lounging in a hammock and putting on his whites for holidays.
- As far as Ernest Hemingway is concerned, you're a REMF, you're crazy, or you're dead. And if you're not dead, you're going to be dead. Soon. Alone. In the rain.
- Ciaphas Cain aspires to be this; early in his career he managed to pull some strings (although by doing well at poker, since he's Conveniently an Orphan like all other Commissars) and get himself transferred to a nice, safe artillery unit. Unfortunately, it turned out less safe than expected and gave him a reputation for mighty heroism. Later his reputation makes this much harder, so he has to find somewhere safe to be when the fighting breaks out. It always leads to a sort of self-targeting Reassignment Backfire when he inevitably gets in danger anyway (and thus even more of a reputation when he survives).
- At one point, he does manage to become a true Soldier at the Rear, and it makes his life measurably worse. Instead of being in a unit that spends great portions of its time securing and guarding planets after combat, his garrison status lets his superior officer assign him to increasingly dangerous special assignments, including a liaison position with Space Marines. And because he never has to stay for clean up (Unless he can somehow justify it), he gets forced into participating into more numerous combat situations then normal. By his own reckoning, Cain thinks he spent more time in gut clenching terror during his garrison time then a front line assignment.
- His response to this? Play up the idea that he's not cut out for a 'tame' desk job and get sent back to a frontline combat unit, getting him sent to the Valhallan 597th. Double Subversion?
- Some of the books touch on the 597's Third Company, which (while trained for infantry fighting) are mostly specialists, such as medical staff, quartermasters, and the regimental colors band. They do see action from time to time, such as during The Traitor's Hand when a Chaos dropship lands in headquarters, and acquit themselves well, all things considered.
- In a later book Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures series, the heroes are trying to disable an army. Some of the gang are disabling from within; after Basic Training, they face deployment. At first they're offered, literally, a shit assignment. They mention they know the commander-in-chief... a few comments later their interlocutor learns they know a Retired Badass... And they're offered their choice of sweet, sweet candy.
- Former PFC Wintergreen always manages to avoid being sent into combat by manipulating the discipline system. Many of the other characters would do the same if they thought they could pull it off.
- Milo Minderbinder also avoids combat. His superiors literally grant him the medals from other men's actions while Milo stays safely in the rear.
- Doc Daneeka wants no part of the war, and even falsifies his records to get out of the training ridealong flights. This bites him back when one of those flights crashes and he's declared dead.
- All Quiet on the Western Front has Corporal Himmelstoss - until he's sent to the front as punishment, after he overdid his usual training method on an especially unlucky bunch of recruits, one of whom turned out to be son of an important government official.
- Richard Marcinko, author and former SEAL, has several of these in his Rogue Warrior series. Some are inspired by service members and even SEALs he knew.
- John Clark from Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books hates REMFs, especially when one is in charge of an operation and fails to run it properly, putting the front-line grunts at risk. In Clear and Present Danger, when he finds out that National Security Advisor James Cutter is behind the deaths of some Army soldiers, he personally talks to the man and convinces him to commit suicide rather than face the inevitable Congressional inquiry. And he does it with a smile.
- In War Story by Derek Robinson, the newly arrived gung-ho pilot, Paxton, is surprised to see the squadron clerk, a mere lance-corporal, is a on old boy from his prestigious public schoolnote . He asks why his old schoolfriend is in the ranks, when surely a chap like you has family, has connections, knows people? You should be at least a captain by now? To which the public-school corporal replies that he'd successfully dodged recruitment until enlistment became compulsory. Then he took a typing course, as men who can type are so rare in the Army that they are never ever sent into the front-line trenches. Then he enlisted as a private soldier, and with any luck will actually survive the bloody war.
And they say life expectancy for a new pilot is, ooh, sixteen hours, sir?
- In The Honorary Chinese Paratrooper, Soldier of Fortune Magazine writer Jim Morris shows how this trope can go from bad to worse. During the 1960's he was in the US Army Special Forces. While his friends went to Vietnam, he went to Taiwan.
- Victor Henry goes through most of World War II like this in Hermann Wouk's Winds Of War / War and Remembrance duology. He does get a fighting command in the Solomons and at Leyte though. He also takes opportunities to go on observation missions up forward.
- In the Nero Wolfe stories set during the war, Major Archie Goodwin is effectively stuck doing his civilian job at half the pay — his boss, Nero Wolfe, is a genius vital to the war effort, and Archie's the only one who can manage him. Unlike most examples, the people he works with are (mostly) shown as honourable people doing a worthwhile job, despite never getting shot at.
- Subverted with Lawrence Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon. Initially he finds himself assigned to a marching band, but that doesn't stop him from being present on one of the ships sunk in the Pearl Harbor attack. After reasignment it's discovered that he is a cryptography prodigy and therefore one of the most valuable assets in the whole second world war, and the military spares no effort to keep him as far from danger as possible. And yet, at one point he still ends up on a dangerous enigma machine recovery mission, because the remote listening station where he is stationed at that point holds the only unit close enough to an enemy submarine in trouble.
- Commissar Blenner from Gaunt's Ghosts aspires to be such an officer, and he spends decades of his career in rear-echelon garrison positions (not entirely without merit — while he's something of a Non-Action Guy, his skill with morale and managing the common soldiery is very real). Naturally this gets a lot tougher when he signs on with the Ghosts. In Salvation's Reach, he unofficially places himself in charge of a detachment of the regiments' less combat-worthy elements, including their brand-new colors band, which nobody, himself included, wants to see in combat. They end up driving and escorting supply trucks up to the Ghosts' lines, which he explicitly points out is a way to make them feel useful without getting the lot of them killed.
- In If I Die in a Combat Zone (Box Me Up and Ship Me Home) Tim O'Brien summarises the feelings and attitude of the Vietnam War era conscripts thus:
If foot soldiers in Vietnam have a single obsession, it’s the gnawing, tantalizing hope of being assigned to a job in the rear. Anything to yank a man out of the field — loading helicopters or burning trash or washing the colonel’s laundry. [...] Except for one or two of them, the men in Alpha Company were quietly, flippantly desperate for a rear job. The desperation was there all the time. Walking along under the sun, pulling watch at night, waiting for resupply, writing love letters — we thought and talked about all the rear jobs waiting back there. We were not all cowards. But we were not committed, not resigned, to having to win a war.
- The Honor Harrington series explores various implications with the Solarian League Navy. The League Navy is divided into two internal organizations: Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet. Battle Fleet is theoretically the primary combat component of the League, receiving the overwhelming majority of the funding and equipment of the League Navy, but since the Solarian League is so much bigger than every other nation in the universe they have not had an actual war in several centuries. Frontier Fleet, which is dedicated towards policing, disaster relief, exploration and other peace-keeping roles, is the component which has actual service experience. As such, Battle Fleet is generally slovenly and lax even in routine procedures since they have no combat history, much to the disgust of Frontier Fleet and the other space navies that are encountered throughout the series. As members of the Royal Manticoran Navy point out, accidents can happen even in peace-time, so there is no excuse for being so inattentive to proper procedures and protocol.
- Band of Brothers mostly featured genuine grunts on the ground and in the shit. A few people qualified, though.
- Many of the higher ranking officers might qualify, as they had no real understanding of the situation on the lines. Captain (later Major) Winters was exempt because he had combat experience and trouble distancing himself from his men following promotion.
- Captain Nixon never fired his gun in combat, a fact he lamented. May qualify as he spent much of the war cultivating his alcoholism. Probably doesn't, as he jumped out of a plane into three separate war zones and spent a lot of time freezing in a hole in Bastogne. He ended up being the one of the very few members of 101st Airborne to get three Jump Stars.
- Any soldier who was insufficiently eager to escape from an army hospital and rejoin the effort was viewed with suspicion. If you didn't buy a ticket home with genuine infirmity, then you belonged on the lines, dammit. note
- Henry Jones, a green lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, showed up late in the war, desperate for field experience. Everyone smirked at him and hoped he didn't get anyone killed. After one sortie across a river, he was promoted because he was related to someone and everyone shrugged it off.
- Capt. Herbert Sobel, E Company's first CO, was Kicked Upstairs into this after a mass near-desertion revealed to regimental command that, by God, these men were NOT following such an incompetent man into combat. This wound up eating at Sobel for the rest of his life, and until the day he died, he harbored a deep resentment of the men of Easy Company. The fact his XO Richard Winters eventually wound up outranking him did NOT help matters. note
- Possible inversion or subversion with Major Charles Winchester from M*A*S*H. He was using family connections to keep his cushy Tokyo posting until he ticked off the wrong person at the wrong time and got sent to the 4077th, and spent most of the rest of the show trying to pull strings and get back to a nice safe clean Tokyo hospital.
- Justified with Father Mulcahy. As an Army Chaplain, he is specifically forbidden by regulations to fight, so his proper role is usually behind the lines. Normally no one has a problem with this, but one front line soldier refused to talk to him because he had no combat experience. As a result, Mulcahy has an adventure in the front which includes doing an emergency tracheotomy under fire, which impresses the soldier.
- An inversion: one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation dealt with Riker being offered his own command. He turned it down because the ships offered were in areas of space that were less likely to see action. He also noted that being the executive officer on the flagship Enterprise was superior in terms of prestige to being captain of any other ship.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
- Captain Ben Sisko. After his wife was killed at Wolf 359, he transferred out of starship duty into working at the Fleet's shipyards. Of couse, while there he was part of the design team of the USS Defiant to fight the Borg (and later he used it against the Dominion). As the war progressed, Admiral Ross "promoted" Sisko to a desk job as his adjunct and Commander Dax took over as the Defiant's CO. As much as it grated for him to see his baby in someone else's hands, Sisko would later hatch a plan to retake Deep Space Nine and get his command back.
- Poor Nog. He joined Starfleet and was the Team Pet and a good engineer. Then he gets sent to AR558. He idolizes the ShellShockedVeterans, until the Wham Episode goes in full effect....
- In Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Darling is happy to be General Melchett's aide-de-camp because that way he doesn't have to be in the trenches. In the last episode he gets sent there anyway.
- Blackadder himself spends the entire series trying to get out of the trenches and into a position where he's less likely to be killed. It never quite works out.
- The entire point of Sergeant Bilko's career in The Phil Silvers Show.
- Joe Walker from Dad's Army will do almost anything to stay off the frontlines.
- Downton Abbey's Thomas, a Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk, joins the army at the announcement of WWI anticipating a cushy assignment at a hospital, having wrangled something with the local physician. Instead he ends up in the trenches as a field medic, terrified for his life and hating every minute of the war. The only way for him to leave is if he gets killed or injured. So he encourages a German sniper to shoot him in the hand and gets reassigned to Downton as the sergeant in charge of the hospital staff.
- Enlisted is a 2014 sitcom about such soldiers on a base in Florida.
- Terry and the Pirates had a famous strip in which Terry, having just gotten his fighter wings, is given a speech by his instructor who makes it clear that he expects Terry to treat his support crew like the supply pilots and mechanics with respect.
- In The Navy Lark C.P.O. Pertwee dreads the spectre of active service, mainly because he's making a very good living selling navy stores on the black market. Despite his best efforts HMS Troutbridge eventually does put to sea.
- In Israel, these people are known as ג'ובניקים (Jobnikim), because (supposedly) their military service is just a kind of "job".
- Funny because it's true: In Russian, the word "Jopnik" refers to perverts who grope people in crowds. Every 6th IDF recruit comes from a Russian background and has to explain his new "title" to his parents, or better yet, grandparents. A complicated bit of wordplay among the more motivated recruits translates as "better be a pervert than a REMF".
- In Finnish army, these people are known as 'töpinä (thumping) as they are seen nowhere, only thumping of their shoes is heard.
- In Swedish, the common term is kasernjägare. Jägare literally means "hunter", but is used to denote units with special forces training (it is usually translated to "ranger"). In the Swedish armed forces, "jägare" are defined by their primary area of operations and/or their preferred way of fighting, for example "fjälljägare" (mountains) or "fallskärmsjägare" (parachute trained). Kasern means "barracks". Compare the English term "Chairborne Ranger".
- PVT Murphy's Law had a comic about "Fobbits"; in a visual pun, it's Bilbo in a flack vest and ACUs (and a bag of snacks from the FOB's PX).
- Terminal Lance had a few comics about various types of "POGs", typically admin troops and "Water Dogs" (Marine plumbers. Someone needs to make sure there is fresh drinking water.) Representations of these troops varies from obnoxious to merely being definitely-not-grunts but otherwise inoffensive.
- Red Panda Adventures: The Red Panda's millionaire playboy alter ego was officially given one of these jobs when he enlisted, to cover for the Red Panda's real mission: fighting Nazi agents on Canadian soil.
- In Hey Arnold!, Gerald's dad joined the army during a time of war. During training, he accidently shot his commanding officer and was assigned a desk job. While he didn't fight in the war, when transporting some documents he ran across an injured soldier and brought him to the nearest medic, saving his life.
- In Futurama, Fry and Bender join the military purely for the benefits. Unfortunately for them, shortly afterwards, war were declared and they are shipped to the front lines.
- The Simpsons: In "Simpson Tide", Homer joined the US Naval Reserve expecting it to be like this. It doesn't quite go according to plan.
- In The Clone Wars, both sides have a We Have Reserves mentality regarding their troops (clones for the Republic, droids for the Separatists).The people safe and sound away from the front lines are occasionally criticized for it. One general is criticized for his reckless plans that cost lives because, unlike Anakin, he's not willing to share the risk his troops will be facing.