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The Men First
Sometimes you even surrender for them.
"I tell you, as officers, that you will not eat, sleep, smoke, sit down, or lie down until your soldiers have had a chance to do these things. If you hold to this, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. If you do not, I will break you in front of your regiments!"
A commanding officer
insists that his men are the top priority.
Medical attention for the wounded is a high priority — especially if doctors are trying to treat the officer, and his injuries are less serious
— as is No One Gets Left Behind
, but in less critical situations, he keeps on eye on such things as their shelter and food.
He may inform anyone who finds it strange that it is his men who win his battles. This is most likely when an Officer and a Gentleman
is insisting on it for soldiers who are not Blue Bloods
, but any officer who is not A Father to His Men
may express surprise.
He may insist on getting no help at all if his men can't be helped. Compare In Its Hour of Need
; the commander will retreat if his men can be gotten away.
Note that this does not preclude his ruthlessly sending men to their deaths when the situation calls for it. He may explicitly say it is so that the men can fight
. The Glory Hound
may insist on his men's care off the field only to sacrifice them to his own glory. However, mostly this goes with a prudent unwillingness to expend his men to no effect
— which often doesn't go well with a higher ranking Glory Hound
or Modern Major General
. Appeals to him to surrender may be made on the basis of ending his men's suffering, but only when he actually believes it, and thinks it worth it, will he call off the Last Stand
on these grounds.
If he is at the top of a chain of command with several ranks between him and the grunts, he will generally insist that his subordinates follow his example — or else
Lower-ranked soldiers can also insist on help going to others, but that generally falls under The Power of Friendship
and Greater Need Than Mine
Compare Greater Need Than Mine
. Contrast Moral Myopia
; officers who do not fall under this often fall under that. We Have Reserves
is the inverse attitude of this.
Not to be mistaken for the opposite of "women and children first
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Roy Mustang. After suffering a massive stab wound and third-degree burns on top of it, he asks that an ambulance be called... for his wounded subordinate.
- He actually does this again at the end, when he is rendered blind through no fault of his own, but offered the use of a philosopher's stone to heal his eyes. Mustang still insists that the now crippled subordinate Havoc is treated first.
- Also Ling fully believes this, as he believes he cannot be a true leader without supporting his people.
- Hilariously parodied in One Piece with Captain T-Bone.
- And played completely straight with Luffy: poisoned, frostbite, beaten nearly to death, he begs whoever he comes across to save Sanji, Nami, or Bon-chan, whoever; never himself. Remember he is the captain and the leader of his men.
- Many version of Optimus from Transformers share this philosophy.
- Referenced in Hellsing during the second attack on the manor. After the outer defenses are breached, one of Pip's men says that in the movies, this is the traditional time for the captain to make a Heroic Sacrifice so that his men can escape. Pip replies that there's no point: none of them are going to make it through the night alive no matter what they do. Since only three of his men (Two in the OVA) survive, Pip not being among them, he was probably right.
- Ben from Ginga Nagareboshi Gin has just been poisoned by poison spikes Akame laid in a trap, pricking all the dogs' paws and poisoning them. When Akame (who is horrified at what he did) tries to give them the antidote, Ben says to give the herbs to the dogs of Ohu first, saying they need the cure more.
Films — Live-Action
- Shades of this in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, after a Cobra attack on the Joes' HQ, Scarlett hides her (actually fairly minor) wounds, treating herself in the bathroom, and explaining to Ripcord that with all the other dead and wounded, a couple of cuts to the face don't need the attention.
- General Waverly in White Christmas, as fondly remembered by his former underlings.
"We ate, then he ate. We slept, then he slept."
- In Memphis Belle, Colonel Craig Harriman might be a stoic commanding officer—but after Army PR Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Derringer accuses him of caring only for results and not the crews, he finally loses his temper, then has Derringer read from a box of letters ... responses to letters that Harriman personally wrote to the family of men who died under his command.
Craig Harriman: I have twenty-four crews up there. They are all special to me.
- In We Were Soldiers, two officers are contrasted. One wants to win medals. The other is both obsessive about both detail and his men; during a forced march, he has his men take off their boots to check for injuries. On finding that the soldier he is examining has a truly squick-inducing burst blister, he tells him to report to the quartermaster for new boots. Hal Moore, the Unit C.O., approves this approach, clearly putting him in this class even before he delivers a speech that assures his men that "when we go into battle, I will be the first one to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together." Interview footage of the real Hal Moore shows that this was based on reality; while asking the American public to appreciate the strength of the ordinary fighting man, he becomes so audibly choked up that he can barely get the words out.
- In Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000 Gaunt's Ghosts novel The Guns of Tanith, Gaunt involves himself personally in the military trial of a common trooper. When his superiors object, he says the troopers win the battles. His superior finds this a little quaint, but - as one of the very few decent members of the high command - is happy to give Gaunt his way.
- At the end of Only in Death, Rawne demands medical attention for his men and orders his officers to start going; he's not leaving until the men are out. When Ludd, being acting commissar, comes back with him, he tells him he can go.
"I'll leave when my duty's done, sir," said Ludd. "Let's get the men out."
- In Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain novel Death or Glory, Cain's first request when they connect with Imperial forces is for medical attention.
- In general, Cain always attempts to look out for wounded men, since this provides the dual advantage of looking like a good commander to his men and a good excuse to keep his head down in the middle of a fire fight.
- And so that he can avoid death by friendly fire, a very common fate for more traditional Commissars.
- Amberley's footnotes also point out that he follows this trope without even noticing. For example, one time a group of men swarm a tank (yes, like into melee range) and instead of using the anti-tank weapon he has a and killing some of them, Cain runs off to save the tank's target directly.
- When rescuing prisoners of war, Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan assures them that he will be going up in the last shuttle.
Tung: Have I expressed myself yet, Sir, on what a dumbshit piece of grandstanding that is?
Miles: Eloquently, with your eyebrows, a little while ago.
- In William King's Warhammer 40000 novel Space Wolf, when Ragnar is put in charge of the group that must Bring News Back, he carries an injured one out. He gives him over to the priests for his injuries to be cared for, and one priest inspects Ragnar's own injuries. Ragnar tells him to care for the other Space Marine, and the priest assures him that the man is being cared for and orders Ragnar to accept treatment.
- In George Mac Donald Fraser's McAuslan book The General Danced At Dawn, when the title general insisted on inspecting the men's quarters first, because of their priority, the whole inspection went somewhat awry from there. (Something had gotten spilled, and they couldn't clean it up in time.)
- In James Swallow's Warhammer 40,000 novels:
- Horus Heresy: The Flight of the Eisenstein, Temeter, seeing Horus's treacherous attack on the Space Marines on planet, refuses to get into the bunkers: "My men first." Since not all of them can make it, he dies with them.
- Blood Angels: Red Fury, the sergeants Rafen and Noxx are the last men to get on the shuttle to escape a fortress about to fall apart.
- In S.M. Stirling's Alternate History novel The Peshawar Lancers, the King-Emperor doesn't get the chance to order a doctor to treat badly wounded men first rather than looking at His Majesty's comparatively minor injuries; the doctor takes one glance at the situation and heads for the troops. The King-Emperor remarks, "I like that chap's priorities."
- In Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Annabeth manages to stop a tirade from Clarisse by pointing out that she had wounded.
- In Ben Counter's Soul Drinkers novel Chapter War, Falken stops talking about the battle on the grounds
I have men wounded, I should see to them.
- Honor Harrington pulls this in her own series. When trapped on the prison planet Hades, after having her cybernetic eye burned out, her arm blown off in the escape, and months of starvation, humiliation, and near-torture, her surviving staff still have to practically force her into taking her doctor's medical treatment and taking it easy for a change
- When they finally escape, her government wants to pin a medal on her for it. She identifies the person most crucial to the whole effort and insists they give it to him instead.
- This is used a few times to give characters a sense of nobility. There are leaders in all armies who will do this and leaders in all armies who honestly don't care about the people under their command, as well as everything in between.
- In Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Chessmen of Mars, when Gahal's ship is caught in a storm, one of his men is knocked overboard and barely manages to grab hold. On seeing it, Gahal instantly goes to the rescue — which results in his own fall.
- In Sandy Mitchell's Dark Heresy novel Innocence Proves Nothing, although Drake would probably be better suited to retreat last from the mutant, Horst says that he's the leader and will be the last.
- In Wen Spencer's Endless Blue, after Turk's loss, Mikhail carefully locks away his gun and gives away his vodka so that he can ensure that he will get his men to safety. There, he goes for the gun. Fortunately, he's interrupted by Turk.
- The Kings and Queens of Narnia are supposed to be "the first in every desperate attack, the last in every desperate retreat" — and those of Archenland, too, as the king warns Shasta in C. S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy.
King Lune: For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.
- In Steve Parker's Imperial Guard novel Gunheads, the colonel of the 98th refused to try to escape a Last Stand when the Gunheads arrive. He immediately asks if the tanks can open up a corridor where he and his men can escape.
- Imperial Grand Admiral Pellaeon makes good use of this trope, in contrast to the usual Imperial doctrine. A combination of looking out for the welfare of his troops, knowing when retreat is called for, and a lack of grandstanding or vanity projects helps him live long enough to, essentially, become top dog by default.
- He learned most of this from Grand Admiral Thrawn. While at times he would administer hard discipline on his men (especially when they make stupid mistakes), when one makes a rather ingenious Indy Ploy in an attempt to tractor in Luke's X-Wing? He promotes him despite it failing, and tasks him to find a counter for Luke's maneuver. This causes the entire crew of his ship to follow him to the death.
- In a later novel Lando Calrissian finds out the worst way that Thrawn's decision paid out: when he tried the same manouver used by Luke, he was tractored in, as the man Thrawn promoted succeeded in his task.
- In Robert E. Howard's "The Pool of the Black One", Conan and the pirates.
Conan did not leave the gate until he was sure all his men who yet lived were out of the castle and started across the level meadow.
- In Terry Pratchett's Thud!, Vimes, recovering from the Summoning Dark, insists on seeing how his men are doing.
- In Adrian Tchaikovsky's Dragonfly Falling, after Salma meets some renegede Auxilliens, he deduces that one had been a sergeant, from the way he tried to protect his men.
- In Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet, this is in the background, with the survivors from lost ships being heavily low ranking. Captain Duellos makes it explicit after his ship is lost.
- In Invincible, Desjani says that the bear-cows must have herd-leaders not officers — officers would not have broken off from a disabled ship and left the men behind.
- In Elizabeth Moon's Hunting Party, Serrano resigned just before the story because she was told that that way, they would not punish any of her men. They lied.
- In Poul Anderson's Time Patrol story "The Only Game in Town", the Mongol commander starts to object to the men sharing the distilled liquor, but stifles it: officers share equally with the humblest of their men.
- In "Arsenal Port", Heim contemplates his motives for keeping on plugging in the wearisome, dangerous and unlikely to succeed journey; one might be this, though he's not sure.
- Leto Atreides, in his Establishing Character Moment, orders a Harvester and its load of Spice be abandoned, in order to save the crew.
- In John Hemry's Burden of Proof, Paul asks for water after he gets out of the fire-fighting, and only after he gets it sees the sailors looking at it. He asks for them, too, and doesn't drink until they have theirs.
- Asha Greyjoy displays this a few times in A Song of Ice and Fire, such as insisting on their free passage home in return for surrendering to Stannis. As a female captain in a very male-dominated society, she relies on her crew's fierce loyalty to her personally, and in turn is an (in some cases slightly Oedipal) Mother To Her Men.
- Firestar from Warrior Cats refuses to eat any herbs in Long Shadows, saying that his Clanmates come first before himself.
- General Hammond of Stargate SG-1 would often see to it that his people where taken care of before himself. Jack had shades of this as well.
- Commander Adama from Battlestar Galactica fits in this as well.
- In one episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye refuses to leave to work for a general, because the men come first. He demands that the general admit it, and the general, with a sigh, does.
- Major Frank Burns sometimes get yelled by other characters for refusing to treat the most wounded first (or improperly setting up Triage) because the wounded weren't "the right type" (aka Not American)
- Of course, at the time, the rules actually were 'friendly wounded first, then prisoners'.
- There was another episode of M*A*S*H where it was payday, but due to a goat eating the pay, there wasn't enough money to pay everyone. Colonel Potter said that the enlisted men should be paid before the officers, and none of the officers disagreed with him.
- Another episode centered around Major Weems and his visit to the camp to visit his wounded men. He always visited his engineers after getting clobbered in combat and tried to work deals with doctors to get them sent home. Inverted in that Weems was a closet racist, and 90% of his casualties were African Americans that he sent into harm's way just so he could get them out of his outfit.
- In The Crossing, part of Washington's motivation for making one final attempt to keep his army together is a sense of obligation to them for their loyalty. He also sharply admonishes several officers who are keeping warm inside while their freezing troops prepare to cross the Delaware.
- The Office (UK) has a subverted civilian example. David Brent is constantly asserting that he places his staff above all other concerns, including his own career goals, but in reality he's just sucking up to be liked and will secretly sell out his staff to get promoted.
- Classic Traveller Double Adventure Horde. When General Varnikov is cut off behind enemy lines, he refuses to be evacuated until his troops and the refugees they're protecting are saved.
- Although far more prominent in novels (see the multiple listings under Literature), Warhammer40000 exemplifies this with the Imperial Guard. While all armies do field their military leaders as "HQ" units, the Guard has several choices to make. Certain builds for the generals are explicitly this (leading from the front with heavy armor so that their lower-ranked riflemen can do what they do best), and are typically fluffed as the "first in, last out, make sure the men are safe and supplied" types.
- In The Gentleman Ranker Violet, a nurse, steals Lieutenant Harfords brandy for the men under her care when the hospital runs out. Harford begins to object, but Colonel Graylen overrules him, saying that of course it's the right thing to do.
- In Galactic Maximum, Sarge is bringing one of his men with him.
- The current page image is from Girl Genius, in which the officer is surrendering in order to free his forces from the (offscreen) horrors of Tiny Monster Island.
- In Schlock Mercenary, when the mercenaries don't have enough money to pay everyone, Tagon suggests that the officers take pay cuts so all the grunts could get paid. Nobody objects even though they are mercenaries. (On the other hand, the officers do also agree that they're taking a pay cut in order to avoid possibly prompting a mutiny by cutting enlisted pay, which somewhat subverts the trope.)
- It could be considered a Deconstruction, as the men are only put first because they are a mercenary group. No men, means no jobs, which means no money. And if the men mutiny, no men, jobs, money or life.
- The motto of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst is 'Serve to Lead'
- Also relating to RMAS, inside a guide book for new officers is printed here.
- For the British Cavalry, the rule drummed into junior officers was "Horses first, men second, then yourself."
- Though British officers are taught a rather nuanced version of this trope, which is sometimes called "higher morality". It basically runs like this: "Whilst never asking the men to do something you won't yourself do looks good on in the movies, doing dangerous tasks for which you are not best qualified but they are [like minesweeping, for instance] will make you look like a tit and get you killed, thus depriving the men of their commander."
- Alexander Suvorov, likely the best Russian military commander of all time and one of the few undefeated commanders in world history, lived by this principle. In the field, he lived in the same conditions as his footsoldiers (as long as his weak health allowed it) and in battle, personally led the most daring and dangerous charges.
- Lesser example, but during The American Civil War, General George McClellan was known for putting the welfare of his troops above anything else, including attacking Robert E. Lee. This caused Lincoln a lot of consternation; after McClellan failed to pursue Lee's army after the bloody battle of Antietam, a move that almost certainly lengthened the war, Lincoln fired him. A more well-known and successful general (in terms of actual victories) was Ulysses S. Grant; who was more of the We Have Reserves mindset and often lost more men than Lee, though the Union was more able to replace losses than the Confederacy.
- The armies had very high death rates when they weren't fighting, owing to disease. Ending the war quickly saved lives that way.
- General Ulysses S. Grant had the We Have Reserves attitude precisely because of his disdain for the whole war. He wanted it to end, and fast. Despite popular belief he was far from an uncaring reserve expending butcher. Just ask Horace Porter.
- McClellan's lack of strategy also led to one of Lincoln's best quotes ever: "My dear McClellan, if you are not using the Army, I should like to borrow it for a while"
- General Grant's reputation for having a We Have Reserves mindset is mostly based on the Wilderness Campaign and is not really deserved. Grant was quite careful with his men, as the earlier western campaigns showed. In the Wilderness he was trying for a war of maneuver but General Lee wouldn't let him and is the one who turned it into a meat grinder.
- While Grant did send more troops into harm's way than previous generals, the soldiers did not complain because Grant did something no previous general did: Grant kept them moving forward, never in retreat. Being constantly on the offensive towards Richmond improved morale because it made the troops feel like they were closer to ending the war. Grant also improved the supply lines to where by mid-1864 the Army of the Potomac had every need taken care of: food, clothes, shoes, clean sheets, high-grade rifles and enough ammo for months, the works.
- Apart from one cut-off regiment that was later found and extracted relatively safely, Grant was the last man to board the final transport during the retreat at Belmont. Why the last? Because he had gone back to try and find that cut-off regiment. Any ruthlessness when it came to troops emerged much later.
- This is basic policy in the United States Marine Corps. USMC officers are trained from the very beginning that the entire Corps is about the enlisted riflemen, who are the ones who do the fighting and win the wars. Everyone else, including the officers, are only support.
- Not just the officers. This applies at all ranks enlisted. When chow is served, Privates go to the front of the line. PFCs are next, then Lance Corporals. Your NCOs stand around watching, making sure the other Marines have eaten first. Then they go through the line.
- Alexander the Great had an example where his men were desperately lacking drinking water after a forced march through desert. They assembled what they had, in a helmet, and gave it to their commander. Alexander dumped it out on the sand with the line, "There is not enough for everyone, and if I drink, the others will faint." This gave a huge boost to morale: "So extraordinary was the effect of this action," says Arrian, "that the water wasted by Alexander was as good as a drink for every man in the army."
- This incident is referenced in the film The Fall, where Alexandria points out that letting everyone have at least a sip would have been a much more practical way of putting his men first than dumping it on the sand and letting it go to waste.
- Sun Tzu, in The Art of War considered this trope...less than ideal. While a general certainly shouldn't expend his men needlessly, being too nice with them wasn't considered a good idea either because focusing too intently on the plight of the men tends to lead to battles being lost. Cultivating the image, persona, and reputation without actually Becoming the Mask, on the other hand, is encouraged; having soldiers that are willing to die for you has its benefits.
- Non-military example: When Brigham Young was leading the first team of Mormon refugees to Utah under harsh, often desperate conditions, he famously proclaimed that nobody in the camp would go hungry as long as there was food in his wagon.
- Partially Truth in Television. Ask any veteran, and chances are they knew at least one or two officers who lived this trope and quite a few who were anything but.
- A non-military, but still famous example, is Shackleton's treatment of his men when they were marooned off Antarctica.
- Exemplified by this quote: "For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time."
- As an example of Shackleton's leadership, the crew had decided to portion out food each day (determining who would get the most to eat that day) by drawing straws. Shackleton rigged the draw to ensure that the crewmen most in need received the food they needed to survive, and that the officers and himself never received more than the other men.
- In the Air Force Cadets, you line up for food in rank order, lower ranks eat first, higher ranks eat last,although this is the case in all types of cadets, not just Air.
- The Duke of Wellington spent a lot of time looking after his men, organising supplies and the like. A biography of him tells how, in the aftermath of one of the battles of The Peninsular War, he came across a group of officers who had commandeered a house for themselves to rest, leaving some wounded rank-and-file outside. Wellington immediately ordered that the officers get themselves out and the wounded inside. He came back a while later, found it hadn't been done, and cashiered the officers on the spot.
- According to one tale from World War II, a line of sailors were waiting in the "geedunk" line (American fighting men were famous for their sweet tooth). Two Ensigns shoved their way to the front. Then they heard a salty voice shouting "get back where you belong!" (with a number of sailorly words no doubt). The two ensigns turned to see the impertinent bluejacket who dared insult their exalted status. And it turned out to be Admiral Halsey waiting patiently in line with everyone else.
- It is difficult to overstate how much this trope made Julius Caesar's career as a general. He was known to have lax but fair discipline in the camp, he would overpay his soldiers and would even give them part of his own personal wealth if they couldn't be paid from the senate or hadn't captured any booty. He would also engage in their hardships with them and never ate, drank or slept while his soldiers were in danger. The amount of trust and fanatical devotion he got as a result was phenomenal and it was what enabled him to (get a map) march them from France to Rome, then to Spain (in record time) to fight a bloody war and back to Italy, then engage in a dangerous winter Mediterranean crossing to the modern Balkans while running a Naval Blockade during which he lost a third of his men, to fight a war against Pompey the Great in which he suffered heavy losses, down to Egypt to resolve a civil war and fight another war in Modern Tunisia, back up and through Syria to Asia minor to fight ANOTHER war, then back across to Spain to fight the bloodiest war of his life. All in about 3 years.
- During World War II, Japanese propaganda tried to cover up atrocities against prisoners of war by claiming that it was the fault of American officers who had had no compassion on their own men, but refused to surrender until their men were dying of hunger and disease.
- During the desperate retreat from Brooklyn Heights during The American Revolution, George Washington was on the last boat off.
- The page quote by Slim is demonstrated by one of his subordinates, 'Punch' Cowan of 17th Division. At the end of their retreat from Burma, the ragged survivors were assigned to camp in a ravine (in the rainy season). Cowan furiously seized some buildings in a nearby town to bivouac his sick and injured troops, risking censure to do so.
- Delta Force commander Pete Blaber authored a book titled: The Mission, Men, and Me. The title comes from his junior officer days where his commanding officer taught him that a good Army Officer always cares about the Mission, his Men, and finally himself, in that order.
- Bernard Law Montgomery did not insist on a General's Caravan that was, in essentials, a luxury motor home. But he did not refuse one when it was offered and in fact asked for a spare, just in case the first one became inoperable. Out of courtesy, the company manufacturing them offered them to the other senior British Army commanders in the field. The only man to take a look at it when it was offered, and then to refuse it, was Bill Slim. He asked for it to be reassigned to a more useful purpose, such as a field ambulance, and complained about an inessential item such as this taking up valuable shipping space all the way to Burma when the space might have carried a small tank or a heavy armoured car.
- Field-Marshal Slim was affectionately called "Uncle Bill" by all ranks of Fourteenth Army. Nobody would have dreamt of referring to "Uncle Bernard" in the same way.