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"Never have so few been commanded by so many."
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. note 

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, and can be a result of Mook Depletion.

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. For "Outjobbing your Rank" see Almighty Janitor. When royalty are on the front lines, see Royals Who Actually Do Something. See also The Peter Principle, The Dilbert Principle, and Passed-Over Promotion.

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 & 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.note 

    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • When he's not just giving exposition to Batman, Commissioner Gordon is often depicted as personally leading investigations and hunting down criminals as if he were a beat cop. His wife lampshades this on at least one occasion, noting the police commissioner isn't even supposed to wear cuffs. Ironically, the Adam West show's mild-mannered, utterly ineffectual politico is probably the most realistic version of Gordon on-air. However, Gordon does have a logical In-Universe reason: Gotham PD is so incredibly corrupt that anything important enough for Batman is probably also something any corrupt cop would be working to cover up.
  • Both in the comics and the film, Captain America typically either works alone or commands the Howling Commandos, a squad sized unit. Justified by the fact that the Howling Commandos are, well, a commando unit; Special Forces are often regiments on paper but closer to an understrength battalion in actual numbers.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: In the Golden Age, 1st Lt, and later Capt and Major, Steve Trevor generally works alone or with Wondy and is only ever seen commanding a unit when he's rescuing a group of POWs from captivity.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Dirty Dozen features Major Reisman leading twelve convicts and a sergeant on the film's climactic raid.
  • A subtle example in Ghostbusters (1984). When Walter Peck serves the team his Cease and Desist order, the NYPD officer accompanying him wears the insignia of a captain - normally the commander of an entire precinct. Possibly justified; between Peck's ego and the Ghostbusters' celebrity status, this is the sort of situation that could warrant the personal attention of the NYPD's mid- to upper-level management... though that begs the question why the captain is the only officer involved.
  • 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.
  • 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..." It's also only temporary, as a deal is worked out with the insurance company and Riggs and Murtaugh revert back to their usual Sergeant rank by the end of the film.
  • 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.
    • Invoked early on to provide Kelly and DeVoe their first clue as to what's really going on. When they receive a list of troops who were aboard the doomed weapons train, DeVoe recognizes the name Kodoroff... and immediately wonders what General Kodoroff was doing personally supervising a platoon of guards on a routine assignment.
  • In Running With The Devil, the Cook is a veteran drug smuggler who has risen through the ranks of a drug cartel and now is in charge of a major smuggling route from Colombia to Canada. However, someone is stealing from the cartel so his bosses order him to personally audit the entire smuggling chain and find the thief. This means that he has to go back in the field and supervise every exchange in the complex smuggling operation and personally protect the shipment when it is targeted by rival criminals. It is the type of work he has not done in years and it is way about his pay grade but his boss takes the theft personally and even assigns his personal hitman to assist the Cook.
    • On the law enforcement side there is the DEA Agent In Charge who should be supervising the investigation from her office rather than personally interviewing a junkie. However, a bad batch of drugs sold by the Man killed her sister so she takes a very personal interest in the case.
  • 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.
    • Justified in that the mission is more political than military. Putting a Captain in charge "shows" the brass is taking it seriously, while only sending 8 men is not wasting resources. It's also mentioned that Miller's company took extremely heavy losses on the beaches and is basically down to platoon size anyway, and the only other thing Miller could be doing is sitting around and waiting for reinforcements.
  • The Secret War of Harry Frigg, is about a group of brigadier generals who were captured by the Italian Army in World War II. None of the generals can command the others and so every escape plan is a stalemate. Allied high command sends Harry Frigg, an escape artist, to rescue them, and that they must promote him from private to major general so that he can actually give orders to the POW's.
  • Stargate has Colonel O'Neill leading a specialized team of a Lieutenant Colonel, a number of Lieutenants, and a civilian scientist. Of course this is justified as the United States Air Force is accustomed to sending small teams of experienced officers (aka flight crews) on long missions away from a base.
  • Tango and Cash: Both officers are Lieutenants. Both are also seen to be Cowboy Cops who only work alone.
  • Major Gates' assignment at the beginning of Three Kings is to babysit a single reporter. Which he already manages to screw up by trading the reporter's stories to a rival reporter in exchange for sex.

  • 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).
  • 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. This is justified because the Kingdom of Lancre is a "kingdom" with a population of less than a thousand people, and only really has an army because nobody can be bothered to formally disband it.
    • His Grace Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh, commander of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, is at his happiest when acting as a beat officer, or maybe a squad leader, albeit one who knows for a fact that an outraged suspect declaring "I'll speak to your commanding officer about this treatment!" doesn't really work. He becomes a bit less hands-on in later books, partly because the City Watch has grown large enough that he can't really avoid dealing with the administrative side but also because he makes a point of not being an absent father, but still makes a point of doing the occasional foot patrol to keep his hand in and make sure everyone's doing their jobs right.
    • Seemingly parodied with William de Worde, who transplants this trope into the world of journalism, attempting to be both Da Editor and an Intrepid Reporter. Since he more or less invented the industry on Discworld, it's not as if he, or anyone else, knows any better.
  • Deliberately invoked in the Alternate History novel Fox at the Front. When Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is confronted with the horrors of The Holocaust, he abandons his duties as a commander, and instead personally cleans the barracks at the recently liberated Buchenwald camp. Until he is persuaded to resume his regular duties, anyone wishing to talk with him — including other Generals — are required to do the same. At least one American General lampshades this, saying he hasn't had to do such menial tasks since basic training.

  • 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.

  • In the Honor Harrington stories, the Solarian League Navy has ridiculous rank inflation. One eight-ship squadron is commanded by a full admiral, with a staff comprising a vice admiral, two rear admirals, and a captain. The marine major taking their surrender thinks, "At last, someone who isn't an admiral!" Later, Fleet Admiral Filareta notes that his staff astrogator is an admiral; it's a responsible job, but no way does it need flag rank.
    • It is discussed that part of the reason why the Solarian League suffers from this is because of Prolong treatments becoming more widespread. The earliest recipients came up the ranks at a normal pace for pre-prolong groups but with a good century or two of working life ahead of them, causing issues for those coming up behind them. Manticore and Haven avoided this by a combination of vastly expanding their fleets and brutal shooting war (and a fairly vicious revolution in Haven's case), creating more positions as well as a fairly high degree of attrition, even among the senior officer corps.
  • 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.
  • Lampshaded in Rainbow Six. When Rainbow is initially formed, Ding and Clark assume they will be granted the respective ranks of captainnote  and colonel, and are surprised to be addressed as Major Chavez and General Clark. Note that the entire Rainbow unit, including support staff, consists of less than 50 people. And all the enlisted personnel under them were various flavors of Sergeant (Which is justified by the fact that they were all recruited from various special forces units, which requires several years experience and the promotions that go with them before being considered for entry) - the lowest ranked named member of the team is Corporal Mole, Clark's chauffer.
  • Downplayed in Red Storm Rising with General Alekseyev. He's a four-star general and the deputy to CINC-West, the general in charge of the entire war in Europe. But he temporarily steps in to command the 20th Tanks Division (a two-star general's job) when the division commander was killed in an airstrike.
  • 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  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-sapient dogs), as are all Special Talents. It is however pointed out that these specialists aren't actually in the chain of command as such, and pretty much honorary in the case of the Special Talents. (The British Army would make them Warrant Officers, but the MI either don't have that rank or already use it for something else.)
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • X-Wing Series: Zig-Zagged.
      • Wedge Antilles, the commander of both Rogue and Wraith Squadrons for most of the series, spends most of it Declining Promotion so he can keep flying (he's ranked commander, which in Star Wars's rank system is apparently higher than captain but below generalnote ). In Isard's Revenge Admiral Ackbar finally guilts him into accepting his long-delayed general's pips on grounds that his subordinates are following his example. This results in a unit in which half the pilots outrank the commanders of other squadrons. Somewhat justified in that Rogue Squadron is an elite unit, and also deconstructed in that once these promotion cycles happen, Rogue Squadron tends to break up, with them going to command other squadrons, and only reforming in special instances, or leaving Rogue Squadron proper to the next generation.
      • Averted with Pash Cracken, who voluntarily accepts a demotion to join Rogue Squadron in Wedge's Gamble, then resumes his former rank and is Put on a Bus in The Bacta War when the rest of the squadron resigns; Pash can't stay because with his father, he knows his presence would ensure nobody believed the Rogues had truly gone renegade.
    • It's played very straight in the Hand of Thrawn duology, in which General Wedge Antilles has a rank that would normally at a minimum mean command of a three-squadron wing, and given the New Republic military's relatively loose division between the Army, Navy and Starfighter Command could also allow for command of an entire fleet (and at some previous points he has). Colonel Tycho Celchu is also sufficiently high-ranking to be in command of a fighter wing, though low enough that command of a single squadron would also be plausible...but he's just the XO. Majors Wes Janson and Hobbie Klivian are of sufficient rank to command a squadron, as are Captains Corran Horn and Gavin Darklighter (though more frequently a Captain would be the XO). Those are up half of Rogue Squadron's pilots in that era.
    • Generally averted when these characters appear in the New Jedi Order series, though many have apparently not been promoted in the interim. Wedge, as a General, is seen commanding task forces and the defense of entire systems, with Tycho frequently as his second in command. Wes and Hobbie are squadron commanders, as is Gavin Darklighter, now a Colonel and in command of Rogue Squadron itself. Corran Horn, meanwhile, left the military entirely to join the Jedi Order (his commission is reactivated in Edge of Victory II: Ruin).
    • Also largely averted in the Wraith Squadron books. Wedge is still a Commander, making him if anything under-ranked for someone who is in overall command whenever the Wraiths and Rogues are working together. The rest of the Wraiths are either Flight Officers or Lieutenants, with one eventually promoted to Captain when Wedge transfers back to the Rogues and chooses him to lead the Wraiths in the field in his absence.
  • Vorkosigan Saga:
    • Barrayaran Imperial Security Headquarters 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.
    • Inverted in the case of ImpSec chief Illyan, who kept his own rank at captain — though by the time he retired he was being paid at the rate of a vice-admiral. This was because his predecessor was also a captain, because he cared more about power than formal rank, and he was ridiculously powerful. Luckily, Illyan's replacement was already a general.
    • During the planning for Emperor Gregor's wedding, Captain Ivan Xav Vorpatril is assigned to help the upper-class women planning the thing, which is strictly-speaking below his pay grade. This includes his own mother, the Emperor's social protocol manager. He describes the situation in the following picturesque metaphor;
      My chain of command is built upside down; there are twenty-three commanders, and only one enlisted. Me.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Frank L. Baum seemed to like playing this trope for laughs. It may be that in Oz, this is the normal state of formal militarizes.
    • 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).

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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? Somewhat justified by the fact that between Galactica being in the process of being decommissioned and turned into a museum ship when everything went to hell and a lot of casualties being taken soon afterwards, so they probably don't have a lot of other people to send; it's mentioned in passing the first time this comes up that their Marine detachment is a fraction of what it should be, for example.
  • Blake's 7. For the leader of a galactic empire, Servalan does a lot of running around after the Liberator. It's somewhat justified as Space Commander Travis is the one chasing our heroes while Servalan pilots a desk at Star Command, only risking her life when she's got some personal interest in the outcome (e.g. Servalan is either looking for kudos or running a private scheme that she can't afford to delegate). When she becomes President of the Terran Federation in Season C it's become a Vestigial Empire that's collapsed into chaos and Civil War, so Servalan is hoping that capturing the Liberator and Orac will increase her own power base against rival Federation factions. It's no surprise that the forces loyal to her are overthrown after Servalan is stranded on an isolated planet and apparently killed during a final ill-fated attempt to seize the Liberator in the Season Finale.
  • Blue Bloods:
    • Jamie sometimes inverts this, since he holds the rank of Officer, yet he and his partner often are shown performing the kinds of stuff that normally would be done by a Detective.
    • Both of Danny's supervisors - Sgt. Sid Gormley (before he was promoted to Frank's staff) and later Lieutenant Carver - are almost never seen outside the 54th Precinct.
    • Frank seems to be borderline this. That said, when matters come up on the 14th floor of One Police Plaza where he needs an investigation conducted, he's not the one to conduct it himself. Instead, it's his secretary Abigail Baker (who is a Detective First Grade and head of the Police Commissioner Detective Squad), Special Assistant Sid Gormley, and Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Garrett Moore who do the legwork and report back to Frank. Then again, Frank does sometimes go out and actually do detective work proper. One episode had him do so trying to exonerate a police dog accused of biting a boynote  and another episode had him helping a former partner of his when human remains turn up matching the subject of a missing persons case that the two investigated.
  • Breaking Bad:
    • Averted with George Merkert, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque DEA office (as in, the head DEA officer) and Hank's supervisor. The only time he appears onscreen outside the DEA office is the scenes at the hospital after Hank gets shot.
    • In season 5A, Merkert is forced to resign due to his affiliation with Gus Fring. Hank is offered the post of ASAC and Marie talks him into taking the post. The trope comes into play when Hank personally participates in serving a search warrant on Mike Ehrmantraut. This leads to Hank being chewed out by his SAC Ramey for knocking down doors and serving warrants when the post of ASAC is primarily a desk job.
    • After Hank finds out that Walt is Heisenberg, he goes rogue and begins neglecting his ASAC duties while carrying out his vendetta to bring Walt down.
  • The Closer: The Major Crimes Division 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. Partially justified since the unit exists to show that the LAPD is giving serious attention to high-profile cases.
  • Lt. Columbo should have been running a squad rather than out investigating murders on his own, although some episodes do show how giving orders to other policemen, usually near the start after the body is discovered, and sometimes having another officer assisting him.
  • The title character on The Commish frequently conducted investigations and made arrests personally, despite being the police commissioner.
  • 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.
    • Part of the reason for this is that the serial killers and criminals on the show are not portrayed realistically either; most serial killers commit their murders over the course of several weeks, months or even years, but due to Rule of Drama a given episode will cover a span of a day or two (making them technically spree killers). Part of the reason the real life BAU never leaves their offices is because there is no reason to, but on the show the stakes are often immediate life and death and the experts need to be called in.
  • Captain Brass of CSI spends far more time kicking in doors and questioning suspects than he does supervising. The same can be said for his counterparts on CSI: Miami and CSI: NY.
    • Subverted in one episode of CSI: NY when Lindsay asks Det. Taylor to help her out with the mountain of evidence she needs to process.
    Mac: [grinning for once] Sorry, I get to be the boss this week. [walks away]
  • 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.
  • Deputy: Hollister continues to work as if he were a simple deputy long after he becomes Sheriff of Los Angeles county, and didn't have over a thousand subordinates to do grunt work. However, Hollister also points out that one of his biggest frustrations when working the beat was the disconnect between the highly politicized and bureaucratic upper echelons of the Sheriff's department and the realities of law enforcement on the ground, especially in the more rural parts of Los Angeles county, and he is hell-bent on doing something about that.
  • Diagnosis: Murder: Steve Sloan is the sole LAPD investigator on the majority of homicides in the series, despite being a police lieutenant who should be in charge of an entire watch shift of sergeants and detectives. Even as a sergeant himself in Series 1, he should still have been in charge of a team of detectives.
  • In Doctor Who, during the period when Barry Letts was the showrunner, UNIT often consists of The Brigadier, one Captain, and one Sergeant.
  • Played straight and then corrected on Dragnet. Joe Friday was promoted to lieutenant, but Jack Webb quietly made the character a sergeant again upon learning that lieutenants don't do investigative worknote .
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Seen a couple of times in Band of Brothers:
    • During "Day of Days", Lt. Winters is in command of Easy Company, but the unit is scattered and no more than a squad's worth of troopers are available for the Brecourt Manor assault. It would be days before Easy Company was reassembled.
    • 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 the XO (2nd in command) of the entire battalion and that it isn't appropriate for his position to rush in and bully his way into command regardless of the circumstances; he has other officers for that now. With great reluctance, he snags another lieutenant and sends him out to assume command of the attack force. 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.
  • On McMillan & Wife, Stewart Mc Millan is the Police Commissioner of San Francisco, who solves murders with the help of only one sergeant and his civilian wife.
  • In Monk, Captain Leland Stottlemeyer and Lieutenant Randy Disher are shown to be involved in crime scene investigations, as well as actually making arrests, conducting interrogations, and whatnot. In real life, the two would be running the squad and primarily riding desks.
  • Sharpe the TV series suffers from this, owing to the small budget the show had. Most episodes retains 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. (At best, he is the same rank as the lowest ranked members of the squadron.)
  • In Stargate SG-1 we see the typical SG team is very small, around 4 people and is generally commanded by a Major or Colonel who would usually be in charge of many more people. Justified by the regularity that SG teams would be making first contact with other civilisations and need to the clout to negotiate and speak for Earth. (well, the US)
  • Star Trek: 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 enemy drill, when he probably should've stayed on the already-damaged ship to supervise repairs, even if he had "advanced hand-to-hand combat training" as Pike requested. And it was all for nothing in the end anyway, as he didn't survive the jump. The film implies he's something of an adrenaline junkie with poor judgement.
    • In a Mirror Universe episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, someone in the Terran Rebellion bemoans the rebellion's many captains and apparently very few foot soldiers.
  • The Wire: Ellis Carver in season 2, despite having passed the Sergeant's test and gotten promoted, finds himself and Herc relegated to doing menial work for the Sobotka investigation detail. Feeling Daniels doesn't have any respect for them, the two transfer out to Major Colvin's drug enforcement unit in the Western District at the first opportunity.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • 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.
    • 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).

    Video Games 
  • Zigzagged 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 Captain.note  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.
  • The Delacroix from Criminal Case: City of Romance.
    • Jean-Philippe is the Parisian Police Department's High Commissioner also serves as the team's Profiler and occasionally partners up with the player character to do field investigation when their regular partners are otherwise unavailable.
    • Gauthier, JP's son, is the Chief of Police, but like his father would occasionally help the team perform analyses on various clues—which is something that none of the previous PD Chiefs ever does. Also, in the very first case's Additional Investigation, he personally helps out Carrie (a Nave Newcomer) to find her missing brother, even accompanying her to patrol the city for clues. This is actually lampshaded by Antoine Macaron, who asks why the Chief of Police is patrolling around the streets like a common beat cop.
  • In Company of 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 Dawn of War, 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.
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: at high levels, the only goblins you will find are Warlords and Shamans, with easily a Dozen Warlords in many caves.
  • In Fallout 4, if you join the Minutemen, you are quickly promoted to the rank of General, but treated as a low-ranked mook, constantly told to go rescue kidnapped settlers by yourself. Justified because you are given the rank by the only other active Minuteman in existence, and you are free to take him with you on you missions.
  • Armies in Fire Emblem seem to consist entirely of rank-and-file soldiers being led by generals, with nothing in between, and they're usually seen leading forces between twenty and eighty men each. There may be some interstitial ranking system insofar as some of your enemy's leaders often answer directly to The Dragon, but they too are almost invariably referred to as "General". "General" is also the promoted version of the Mighty Glacier "Knight" class, so this means you can have multiple generals with very little leadership skills barging headfirst into the fray at the speed of smell.
  • Hidden City has Mr. Black, the Head of the Security Service (which is the Upper City's equivalent to a police department). The citizens report directly to him whenever they witness or suspect a criminal activity, and he gets personally involved in the investigations. He does occasionally delegate some tasks to his subordinates, Kira Woodville and Rayden Storke, but they always report back to him and he'd personally follow-up their reports and possibly make an arrest. Possibly justified since he's a Control Freak who doesn't readily trust others, and the region is small enough for him to be able to directly oversee the investigations.
  • Mass Effect 3 seems like an inversion, as Shepard has not been promoted and is still a lowly Lieutenant 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.
    • Almost played straight in the third game as reportedly some members of the Bioware team wanted the council to award Shepard the rank of "Supreme Commander" and yet would still have Shepard commanding only the Normandy and leading his three man team. However the title was deemed a bit too hokey and the promotion was never carried out.
    • Played straight with Samantha Traynor, your communications specialist. Due to the presence of the Artificial Intelligence EDI onboard the Normandy, her job amounts to an extremely over-qualified secretary. Justified, as anti-AI sentiment meant EDI was pretending to be nothing more than a VI during the Normandy's retrofitting to avoid getting shut down, and if that were true, Traynor would definitely be needed. Also her job quickly grows into being in charge of cryptography and signal tracking for the Normandy and much of the fleet.
  • In MechWarrior Living Legends, players rank up in matches via Field Promotion. You start as a volunteer / cadet, and go all the way up to General. This can lead to situations where a General is fighting alongside 14 officers and a single enlisted soldier. These numbers aren't that inconsistent with the comically small armies in the source material, though Living Legends is missing the (non-Powered Armor) infantry that make up the bulk of a military unit.
  • Adam Malkovich in Metroid: Other M is a General. You can tell by the fact that he leads a team of five men.
  • In Spec Ops: The Line, the player character is a captain, leading a team composed of a lieutenant and a sergeant. While their ranks are partially explained by their being members of Delta Force, a three man team with two officers is still unrealistic.
  • 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 level 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 into a Borg-infested base. If the people involved have gotten to the level cap of 60, it becomes five KDF Generals with title of Dahar Master or Starfleet/Romulan Republic Fleet Admirals doing exactly the same thing.
    • The Elite STFs have their own "ranks," which are based on the player's equipment. Having Only Mk. X equips makes you a recruit or initiate (depending on which set you have) and having the final level of equips makes you an Elite Commander. Yes, this does mean that your level 60 Fleet Admiral is technically cannon fodder.
    • Done with your bridge officers as well. It's required to promote them in order to unlock better bridge officer abilities, so an away team mission will have the Vice Admiral player accompanied by four Commanders. If you use the same officers for both ground and space missions, all but one of those Commanders will be filling bridge positions at a lower rank, including Ensign.
    • 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.
  • 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). Justified Trope in his instance — the protagonists are responding to an order to scramble their forces to defend a critical planet that has come under sudden attack, and those three just happened to get there first.
  • 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).
  • The various Wolfenstein games have Captain BJ Blazkowicz as the player character. He commands no one. Justified, in that BJ works for the OSS; see Real Life below.
  • In World of Warcraft The player character is made a General in Warlords Of Draenor. While they do make the motions of leading a major army for the desk, for the most part the main "brilliant strategy" the player uses is still to personally kill things, maybe with a Bodyguard along for the ride.
    • In the following expansion, Legion, the player character was made leader of an entire faction based on their class, such as Warriors leading Odyn's Valajar armies or Paladins leading the Order of the Silver Hand. Again, there was some examples of assigning missions to followers, the vast majority of the player's efforts were... going out and personally killing things.
  • 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 - up to and including Darth Vader, basically the second-highest person in the entire Empire, in TIE Fighter.
  • X-COM

  • Schlock Mercenary: While the comic is usually good about correctly utilizing officers and ranks, the rather loose nature of Tagon's Toughs, and the fact that the vast majority of the officers were promoted from infantry, means that it's not uncommon to see captains and commanders leading individual squads. This leads to a small bit of friction in the "Mandatory Failure" story, where Kevyn tells Elf that she shouldn't have been the first one on an enemy ship, since that's what her grunts are for.

    Western Animation 
  • In DuckTales (1987), Admiral Grimitz is in direct command of Seaman Donald Duck, a difference of well over a dozen ranks. He also commands an aircraft carrier, conducts personal inspections of equipment, and supervises routine training maneuvers, all jobs for lower ranks. About the only thing he does in the series that is appropriate is meet with a civilian military contractor to negotiate the purchase of top secret materiel — and he does that while in port in a hostile country instead of in a secure facility ashore.
  • StarCom: The U.S. Space Force: Dash, Slim, and Crowbar are all colonels, and as such should probably be flying a desk most of the time. However, they are always out flying active combat missions, and very rarely are they seen commanding lower-ranked personnel. What's more, they frequently fly together in the same Star Max, which if they were ever shot downnote  then StarCom might end up with a Decapitated Army.

    Real Life 
  • 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.
    • It wasn't just Taylor. Many of the paratrooper officers on D-Day ended up in this sort of situation. 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, President Theodore Roosevelt's 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. His superiors felt that the initial invasion plans had been nailed down already and that the first beach battles would be strictly small unit action, that there would be little need for general officers to expose themselves to unnecessary danger until the Army's presence was established. Roosevelt repeatedly requested to be allowed to join, since if something major did go wrong, there might be a score of colonels on the beach trying to decide who was in charge and that would bog down decisionmaking, until finally his superiors acquiesced, thinking they'd just signed his death warrant. 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. The problem was: when he went ashore with the first wave of soldiers, they found they were on the wrong beach. A quick reconoitter and they fact that they weren't dead yet told them that this beach was less defended than the original, with serviceable access over the bluffs into the interior. When asked by his men what they should do, Roosevelt replied, "We'll start the war from right here." He radioed the oncoming waves and had them redirected to his position, spending the entire day as invasion traffic cop, keeping men and vehicles from bogging down, under gunfire all the while. In this, he turned out to be exactly the right rank for the job, as a lesser officer wouldn't have had the weight to change war plans on the fly. He would be promoted and awarded the Medal of Honor. He ended up dying of a heart attack the following month.
  • During World War II the Western Allies' intelligence agencies, such as the OSS, SOE, and MI-6, gave their agents officer rank in the hope that if captured, the Germans would treat them as POW and not spies. This is because the "Commando Order" mandated the immediate execution of spies upon their discovery.note 
  • The United States Army Air Force made all their enlisted aircrew ranks (mostly gunners) sergeants for a similar reason: they heard that sergeants and officers were not used for slave labour. 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. As an example, a standard US Army Special Forces "A-Team" consists of 12 people: a captain in charge, a chief warrant officer as second in command, and a mix of sergeants (typically senior sergeants) making up the remainder of the team. In comparison, a similar-sized infantry unit would be led by a sergeant or even a corporal. This allows them to be paid more, command better treatment if captured, and simplify the process of requisitioning equipment if needed.
  • 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 now circumscribes doctors and chaplains from commanding combat units under any circumstances.
  • During the Russian Civil War, the White Guards started with only the most vehemently anti-communist officers loyal to their cause. Their first battles were fought by mere thousands of men in 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. (And this is Older Than They Think - squadrons of multi-engined aircraft, such as bombers or long-range maritime patrol flying boats, have been commanded by Wing Commanders since 1920s or 1930s.)
  • 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, and at one point 13 for a few days on the International Space Station) and the need for experienced personnel means that commanders (who are almost always military officers, and senior ones at that) are in charge of only a handful of people, sometimes just one. On Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 this led to a situation where a General (Tom Stafford, who was a Brigadier General in the USAF at the time, he retired as a Lieutenant General) was only commanding 2 other men, while on the Soviet side, Alexey Leonov (a Colonel at the time) commanded just a single subordinate, Valery Kubasov, his flight engineer, who wasn't even in the military. Apollo 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 were commanded by Navy Captains and Air Force Colonels, one rank below that of the flag officers (Rear Admiral Lower Half through Admiral for the US Navy and Brigadier General through General for the US Air Force).
  • During his time as New York City Police Commissioner, Bernard Kerik earned the nickname "The Beat Cop Commissioner" because he routinely cruised the streets at night as if he was a regular patrolman. In less than two years in charge of the NYPD, Kerik personally made 5 arrests.
  • Downplayed and justified, but still noticeable aboard US Navy aircraft carriers. The Strike Group Commander is a Rear Admiral and the Commanding Officer is a Captain... as is the Executive Officer, the Commander of the Air Wing, the Strike Group Commander's Chief of Staff, along with maybe half of the department heads; the other half are all Commanders, of course. This continues down the chain; the Principal Assistants are Lieutenant Commanders, the Division Officers are Lieutenants, there's a significant portion of the Navy's total Warrant Officer corps running around in various roles, and you'd be hard pressed to find an Ensign anywhere—basically every officer seems about two ranks higher than expected for their role. It makes sense when you think about it; the average department on a carrier has more people in it than the entire crew of a destroyer and the ship is both extremely technically complex and very expensive,and has 5 squadrons of aircraft and an Admiral's staff aboard, so there are significantly more officers aboard of senior rank than you'd find on nearly any other ship. But it can still be pretty shocking for someone more familiar with other parts of the Navy to walk aboard and be unexpectedly swarmed with brass when walking down the passageway.
  • Most air forces and naval air forces (with some notable historical exceptions) require all pilots, even of single-seat aircraft, to be commissioned officers, despite the fact that most of those pilots are typically not in command of anyone and their squadrons tend to have a very skewed officer-to-enlisted ratio. The justification is that the pilots, while not having any people under their command, are still in command of extremely expensive aircraft capable of terrific levels of destruction and so you want the person in control to both have the authority to make the kind of life-and-death decisions flying a warplane entails and to be held to the higher standard of responsibility of a commissioned officer.