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Gung Holier Than Thou

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Any military setting is bound to have at least one person who is Gung Holier Than Thou: a person assigned to leadership role with little, if any, authority. Typically a non-commissioned officer who likely sleeps with a copy of their force's code of conduct under their pillow. Given their relative lack of authority, anyone who is Gung Holier Than Thou is merely an annoyance. Often emphasizes his or her lack of authority with loud voice, insults, yelling, complaining to superiors or representing themselves as specially skilled. They sometimes may resort to bullying or even physical violence to emphasize their role (and lack of genuine authority). A temporary annoyance if only visiting, like Col. Flagg. A Gung Holier Than Thou can become too much of an annoyance and end up Reassigned to Antarctica.


This trope is omnipresent in armies based on conscription where young conscript noncoms are assumed to be this way. Gung Holier Than Thou is the Sister Trope to The Neidermeyer - the former is more likely to be a low-ranker such as non-commissioned officer, while the latter is likely to be in a higher position, such as a commissioned officer. The polar opposite is Sergeant Rock. A Drill Sergeant Nasty may act like Gung Holier Than Thou, but he has general authority.

A subtrope of the Rules Lawyer.

If you're looking for a soldier who's "holier than thou" in the religious sense, see Holier Than Thou.



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    Comic Strips 
  • Bill Mauldin's Up Front references the trope several times, contrasting the military regulations "in the book" with the no-frills lifestyle of the front line in their foxholes. "Go ahead and drink that water, boys. The officer who ordered it used for shaving ain't coming to the front."

  • Lt Kendrick in A Few Good Men.
    "I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant. The Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding officer Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and the Lord our God."
  • Sgt. Maj. Dickerson in Good Morning, Vietnam. His Karmic Pyrrhic Victory was to get Reassigned to Antarctica because he was deemed too much of a petty, vindictive hard-ass by his own superiors to run a radio station.
    "That is humor. I recognize that. I also recognize your brand of soldier."
  • Sgt. Webster to Recon in Heartbreak Ridge. Also a perfectly good example of The Neidermeyer—was perfectly good as a supplies clerk but being given leadership went to his head and he tried to be a By-the-Book Cop when following the book was totally worthless in a live combat scenario (his "elite" team was still stuck on the beach on the climactic battle while Highway's group made it all the way to the objective).
  • Private Shimizu appears to be one when he first appears in Letters from Iwo Jima. This is deconstructed later when it is revealed that he was in fact Reassignedto Antarctica (or, actually worse, since no one was expected to come out of Iwo Jima alive) as a punishment for not being a sufficiently brutal Kenpei back in Japan.
  • The 1WO in Das Boot is fresh into the U-boat corps, having come from a plantation in Mexico and knowing nothing about the horrors of the war or U-boat life. He is an ardent Nazi and a by-the-book officer and is the only one who even tries to maintain his appearance and cleanliness throughout the film, though even he winds up frayed around the edges by the end.

  • Colonel Olds in the Paladin of Shadows book A Deeper Blue is a Lawful Stupid stickler for the book.
  • In All Quiet on the Western Front, you have Corporal Himmelstoss who was ridiculous in his requirements for maintaining regulations, even when it was impractical (such as requiring full parade ground protocol in the trenches).
  • Sergeant Baxter in the McAuslan stories; as the best and most experienced Sergeants in the Gordon Highlanders are also the longest-serving men and therefore first to be demobilised in the immediate post-war years, the Regiment has to fill the sudden vacancies somehow. Baxter is painfully inexperienced and over-promoted, and takes refuge in his three stripes.

    Live Action TV 
  • M*A*S*H: Majors Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan were sticklers for rules and protocol, often trying to get the protagonists in trouble with the Colonel for their unmilitary behavior. Burns actually slipped out of this trope in the strictest sense of the term, as he was technically in command of the unit for an undisclosed amount of time. He is quickly dropped back in as soon as Colonel Potter arrived.
  • Red Dwarf: Kryten, being an android, is a harmless variation: able to cite any given Space Directive verbatim but with no authority whatsoever. Naturally, this gets under Rimmer's skin, as he's generally grossly incorrect in whatever regulation he means to cite, and Kryten cheerfully explains the code he did cite.
  • Nog of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a heroic example, being exceedingly enthusiastic about Starfleet customs. There's an element of overcompensation in this, since the Proud Merchant Race Ferengi are often stereotyped as avaricious cowards.
  • In the "Toy Soldiers" episode of Space: Above and Beyond, Lt. Herrick straddles the line between this and The Neidermeyer. He does have some authority, as he is in command of a Force Recon platoon, but the men under his command revere him; it's Marines of equal or higher rank that see him for what he is.

    Real Life 
  • Conscript corporals and other conscripted non-commissioned officers may become these in armies which are based on conscription.