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Creators often like to emphasize the importance of a military character by giving him a high rank. This is understandable, since one's first thought when seeing a character of high rank is that he must have gotten that far because of his merits, and there's a certain amount of Truth in Television to it. Since, for example, battlefield commissions and promotions have been given to soldiers who've distinguished themselves for great deeds and exemplary service, giving a character a high rank means they must have done something to earn it, right?

However, writers can take this too far. WAY too far.

Over-ranked Soldier refers to a character whose rank is, quite simply, impossible for him to possess. The character's rank is so high, it breaks the audience's suspension of disbelief. While the creator might just mean to use the character's rank to show his importance to the work, it shows the creator did not research the plausibility of the character possessing said rank.

This trope manifests in certain ways:

  • The character is too young: Improbable Age as it applies to the military. Quite simply, it'd be impossible for the character to possess the rank at such a young age. Even the most prodigious soldier still needs a certain time in service to possess certain ranks, and some ranks are only attainable after a lifetime of service and excellence. Oh, and the character being an Ensign Newbie does NOT justify this. After all, it's ENSIGN Newbie, not ADMIRAL Newbie.
  • The character is too disruptive: The Military Maverick will always be an attractive character archetype to audiences, since we tend to root for guys with guts and attitude. However, this works best with characters who are, at best, in the low officer ranks, where he spends more time in the battlefield than in the war room. The armed forces frown on disrespect to the chain of command, and would not give a high rank to such a disruptive soldier, no matter how much of a badass he is. In fact, the soldier's antics would more realistically result in a demotion instead of a promotion. (Note that Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher, aka Baron Fisher of Kilverstone, is a Real Life exception to this rule, being an incredibly controversial sailor who bruised egos everywhere he went, in a Navy and a society almost notorious for their deference to the chain of authority, and still rose to the very top of the tree.)
  • The character is too incompetent: Another character type that is common in military media is a soldier who is high-ranked, yet is actually quite sucky at being a soldier or leader. Think of it as the military version of a Pointy-Haired Boss. In humorous media, this is all well and good, since it's just part of the absurdity of the setting, but in more serious fare, it makes the viewer wonder how the hell he got that far (but note that even military organizations are not immune to The Peter Principle). This is aggravated by the fact that rank is partly merit-based, so a soldier that sucks at a low rank will STAY at a low rank (or in most modern militaries, dismissed from service for not making the promotion list).
  • The character is actively dangerous/insane: This is a tricky one to deal with, because a character's lack of stability could be a sign of post-traumatic stress, which is completely plausible and sadly all too common, but this refers to a character who's obviously unstable and the chain of command doesn't do anything about it. If the character develops instability throughout the course of the story, it's completely plausible as long as it is addressed. If the character's instability is a regular part of the character and it is not specifically addressed in the work, it's this trope.
  • The character is not respected by his subordinates: Any soldier who attains a high rank gets there both by his merits and the merits of the soldiers under him. A soldier whose subordinates subvert his authority at every chance they get will not reach a high rank, because not being able to lead limits his advancement. Common in humorous media, and animosity between high-ranked soldiers and subordinates does happen, but when it is to an extent that the higher-ranked soldier is disrespected and made to look a fool, it breaks plausibility.

One thing to note: this trope does not refer to rank outside of the traditional structure followed by most of the world's armed forces. Honorary ranks, ranks based on privilege, or self-granted ranks do not count. A nobleman given a high military rank because of his high status, as unfortunate as it might be, is completely plausible, as are the extremely young appointments made during revolutions, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, promoted from major to général de brigade (major-general) at age 25, or to the inflationary handing-out of ranks such as by the Confederate government during the American Civil War (before 1860, the highest rank carried by an American soldier was lieutenant-general (three stars). Jefferson Davis started appointing full generals (four stars) shortly after the first major battle of the war). This trope is specifically about characters in fiction, within traditional military structure, that have a rank way beyond the realm of logic and possibility.

Generally speaking, senior members of the British Royal Family hold military rank and Regimental commands, but these are strictly honorary - the real business of command is done by trained professionals and the royals are figureheads. Junior royals are expected to serve as junior officers in the Armed forces, and here their responsibilities and duties are consistent with rank. Prince Charles, for instance, commanded a Royal Navy inshore ship, HMS Hunstanton. (His father commanded a destroyer, with some distinction, in WW 2, but that was before he married into the Royal Family. He's Lord High Admiral now, but that is an honorary rank.) Prince Andrew was a helicopter pilot in the Falklands War; their brother Prince Edward wimped out of Royal Marines officer training (indicating that some standards apply to Royals as to ordinary joes). But older royals are ceremonial figureheads, not active soldiers and sailors. For instance, King George VI had generals' rank, but no generals' duties, in WW 2 (though he had served as a junior naval officer in WW 1).

No Real Life Examples, Please

Examples of Overranked Soldier include:

Comic Books


  • Carried to absurd levels in Stephen Ratliff's Marissa Picard series of Star Trek the Next Generation Fanfic, in which the title character becomes a fully-commissioned starship captain (of a starship bigger than the Enterprise, in fact!) while still a pre-teen, and Admiral of the Fleet at age 21.


  • Heartbreak Ridge: Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood) is a is a Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) in the US Marine Corps, which is more than plausible given his age and how long he's been in, both of which are lampshaded throughout the film. However, given his conduct, it's hard to believe that was allowed to stay in to close to mandatory retirement and not forced into retirement, if not court martialed and discharged from the Corps. In the film, in addition to showing little respect for the rank and authority of his superiors, he's shown being arrested twice for drunk and disorderly conduct, and both the judge and his CO in the beginning of the film mention that it's happened multiple times before.
    • It might have something to do with that Congressional Medal of Honor he has. The status that comes with a CMH does carry some weight with the retention boards as well as the promotion boards.
  • Top Gun: Tom Cruise's character, Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. The stunts he pulls during training make it a miracle he even gets to fly in combat, let alone not be demoted.
    • Justified by the fact that it is very difficult to demote an officer.
  • Although most Star Trek fans agree that James T. Kirk belongs into the captain's chair, the promotion (from cadet to captain!) of his Alternate Universe counterpart in the movie from 2009 went way too fast for many.


  • The Doc Savage novels. Four of Doc's aides had high military rank during World War One: Major, Lt-Colonel, Colonel and Brigader General. Given how late the US entered the war, it seems unlikely that they could have achieved these ranks if they enlisted when the US entered the war. Fanon, as used by Philip Jose Farmer in his "biography" of Doc Savage, has them enlisting in other nations armies at the start of the war and transferring to the US Army when the US joined. Even then, Ham's Brigadier Generalship is stretching credibility.
  • Footfall, a Larry Niven-Jerry Pournelle novel, features a female Army officer who goes from being a Captain (a rank attainable at a relatively young age; the character is introduced when she is only 28 years old) to being a Lieutenant Colonel within the space of three years time. The subversion comes from the fact that she's directly promoted, twice, by the President of the United States, who as Commander in Chief of all American military forces has the right to promote whoever he wants any time he wants for any reason he cares to use.
  • Honor Harrington: State Sec Citizen Brigadier General Dennis Tresca was a mere Corporal before the revolution.
    • Somewhat justified by the Klingon Promotion-type side-effects of the post-coup purge of the secret police. In fact, it's repeatedly mentioned that the Havenite military is lacking in personnel with the experience normally required for the higher ranks, but they're forced to promote anyway as they need someone to fill those slots.
  • Catch-22 had Major Major Major Major (Rank, first name, middle name, last name). When he enlisted, he was instantly promoted to Major by "an IBM machine with a sense of humor almost as keen as his father's"
  • A huge example occurs in the Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars novelization, where Private Vega is promoted to Sergeant on his first day out of boot camp, over other, longer-serving, more experienced troops, due to a combination of nepotism and idiot luck. His absurdly fast-tracked promotions continue throughout the book until he reaches the rank of Captain at the end of several months. Vega thus combines being too young (he's still in his early teens) and incompetence (the most decisive order he ever manages to give is to charge), with an added bonus of being completely undertrained for his rank.
    • Actually, Vega was afraid it'd be the opposite of nepotism, due to his relative being the drug-addicted Nod General Vega. His first promotion was due to luck (he randomly happened to see a a heat signature of a weapon aimed at his squad from a vent) and skills he gained prior to enlisting (shooting bottles on a farm). His immediate superior even tells him he argued against giving him a promotion because he didn't earn it on merit but was overruled, as this promotion is mostly for publicity.
    • Oh, and the cancelled tactical shooter Tiberium was supposed to put the player in Vega's shoes.
  • Discussed in Orphanage. Jason Wander leads a strike team to one of Jupiter's moons. He is quickly field promoted to general-on-the-ground due to the insane casualty rate. Everyone there including him expect him to be demoted when the battle ends, however he remains a general (at only 19!) because as the "savior of the human race" the brass decided he's more useful as a symbol than a soldier- although he still has plenty of infantry life ahead of himself.
  • In Simon Scarow's Eagle series of novels about the Roman Army, the two heroes are a hard-bitten centurion called Macro, who has risen to officer rank purely through merit and experience. And Quintus Licinius Cato, a youth who has grown up as an emancipated slave in the Emperor's palace. Macro is told by the imperial legate Vespasian that like it or not, Cato is on an unprecedented accelerated promotion through ther legion's ranks. He must, therefore, act as mentor to a youn man who goes from recruit to Legionary to the junior officer rank of Optio in an incredibly short time, assisted by Vespasian's patronage. At first a man with no discernable miltary skills, Cato grows through the books into a very capable officer and soon outranks his friend Macro. And the manipulative future emperor Vespasian guards them and steers their missions for reasons all of his own...

Live Action TV

  • F Troop: In one episode, the Hekawi Indian chief is disguised as a trooper so that he can be taken to the fort and treated by the Army dentist. A visiting general takes a liking to "Private Howe" and quickly promotes him through the ranks all the way to Captain!
  • The Phil Silvers Show: Sergeant Ernie Bilko is a Master Sergeant, which is plausible according to his age and responsibilities, but the fact he keeps this rank without being demoted because of his antics borders on divine intervention.
  • Star Trek Enterprise: Tucker is chief engineer of the Enterprise. Canonically, he cannot do basic algebra (episode Shuttlepod One for source of that).
  • James T.Kirk, original version, is an arguable example. At thirtyish, he is the youngest man yet to command a first-rate ship of the Federation Starfleet. He is a tactical genius, A Father to His Men, a brilliant improviser, and a very good negotiator. He is also an inveterate rule-breaker and emotionally fragile to the point that apparent failure, death or injury to his crew, or even romantic trouble can send him into a spiral of ranting depression and rage.
    • Picard beats Kirk and becomes captain at 28 after Captain Ruhalter of the Stargazer is killed in battle. Although, in the Star Trek: Stargazer novels, it's clear his promotion is opposed by Admiral McAteer, who clearly sees Picard as too young to be in command but can't override another admiral's promotion without cause.
  • In Stargate Universe, Marine Master Sergeant Ronald Greer is 20--if he signed up on his eighteenth birthday, he's still fourteen years too young, as the Marines require a Master Sergeant to have at least 16 years' service.
    • Cameron Mitchell of late Stargate SG-1 is technically old enough for his, but at his age, he would need to be promoted as soon as he was eligible every time, and even then, some of them would have to be field promotions, making it really unlikely.
    • On the DVD of Stargate SG-1 there is mention of an episode featuring the actual Air Force chief of staff at the time of the show's filming. Richard Dean Anderson asked him if he had colonels as disruptive and irreverent as his character, Jack O'Neill. The man's reply? "Nah, I have worse". So much for disruptiveness being an obstacle to promotion.
  • General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth is grossly incompetent, being a deliberate example of the 'lions led by donkeys' opinion of the British forces in World War One. The others are probably at their correct ranks: Captains Blackadder and Darling are competent soldiers, Baldrick is a private and therefore cannot be any lower ranked, and Upperclass Twit George probably joined as a lieutenant and was never promoted.

Manga and Anime

  • Justy Ueki Tylor is lazy, having joined the military so that he can retire with a fat pension check. He is also uncontrollable, issuing controversial and outright ridiculous orders to his crew, like "Do whatever you want." He had probably never even seen the cover of the USPF military's rulebook, considering how often Commander Star and Lieutenant Yamamoto have to bring them up. He's also all of twenty years old, and a Lieutenant Commander. The only reason he has that rank is because he rescued an old war hero from a hostage situation. This trope is subverted in that Tylor's irresponsibility does get him sent to an obscure section of the galaxy. Sheer luck is the only thing that ensures he regains his rank half the time.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist. All registered State Alchemists receive an automatic military rank of Major, regardless of their age, and afterward they can be promoted like a normal soldier. This is at least part of the reason that Roy Mustang is resented by several members of the High Command; at the time of the series, he's only 29 years old and already a full Colonel because he became a State Alchemist at the age of twenty. Interestingly enough, though, Ed is never addressed as "Major" and rarely treated as a superior officer. This is mostly because Ed doesn't hold a high opinion of the military and therefore tries not to play up his status. He also has stated that he doesn't really like the idea of people having to "kiss up" to him and would rather interact with others as equals.
  • Legend of the Galactic Heroes has quite a bit of this: Reinhard was made Fleet Admiral and placed in command of half the Imperial fleet at age 20. Though he had genuine battlefield accomplishments and his sister being a favorite of the Emperor explained his extremely rapid promotion, it is still ridiculously young. (It was made possible by blatant favoritism on the emperor's part.) Then he creates his own admiralty from officers loyal to him, leading to a group of Vice Admirals in their mid- to late twenties being commanded by the twenty year old brother of the Emperor's favorite concubine. Given the setting, though, it actually makes sense.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha: Hayate Yagami, Lieutenant-Colonel at 19. Even if you assume she started her career at nine - there are better places to discuss the Values Dissonance - ten years does not a Lieutenant-Colonel make in a Real Life military barring severely extenuating circumstances. Contrast Nanoha, who's more reasonably a non-Navy Captain. The justifications are, first, that powerful mages are quickly promoted through the ranks anyway, with ranks often being considered "decorations", and second, that Hayate has connections in the highest ranks and was bucking for promotion since the day she joined. It's also revealed that Hayate, being a former criminal, was put in command of Mobile Division 6 because she was considered expendable in case anything went wrong and she had to take the fall for it, and Hayate herself notes that the officers at headquarters tend to see her as a young girl first and a Lieutenant Colonel second, indicators of factors apart from a belief in Hayate's merit.
    • Just as bad: Chrono Harlaown reaches the rank of Admiral with fourteen years in service. His mother is also an admiral in the Navy (albeit for an unspecified length of time; she is 31 upon her first introduction), and he's one of those connections that helped propel Hayate to battalion command. In Chrono's case, the justification is that after his dad died in the line of duty when he was just 3 years old, Chrono went all Bruce Wayne, becoming a fully fledged Enforcer by the age of 14. Enforcers, for the record, are the elite of the elite within the Bureau, with the personal authority of a Field Officer, so his advancement to an Admiral ten years later wasn't much of a career ladder jump.
  • One Piece: Averted with Commodore Smoker. He is said to be stronger then his Captain rank implied. However, he was stuck at the rank of Captain for a very long time due to his insubordination with his superiors in the Marines. The only reason he was promoted to Commodore at all was in part of a conspiracy by the World Government--he just happened to be in the area.
    • One Piece does have a number of examples played straight, most notably Vice Admiral Garp, who actively and openly helps pirates, laughs at top-ranked Marines for their mistakes, and recruits from questionable places. He has been offered several promotions to Admiral. However, Admiral of the Fleet Sengoku does sometimes wonders to himself how Garp managed to climb up the ranks with the attitude he has.
  • Rebuild of Evangelion: Asuka is eventually given the rank of Captain.
  • Saint Seiya: Most of the Gold Saints earned their ranks before the age of ten!
  • Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross/Robotech: The Masters Saga, pictured above. Jeanne Francoix/Dana Sterling begins the series aged 17 and ranked a Sergeant Major, later being promoted to Lieutenant. While the promotion to Lieutenant based on merit is plausible, her initial rank of Sergeant Major is most definitely not, and is even more outrageous than Ocelot's rank. Both because of her age AND her attitude to authority, it'd be totally impossible for her to hold this rank.


  • The Navy Lark: Sub-Lieutenant Phillips, is both improbably old for a Sub-Lieutenant (which is the lowest active service officer rank) and improbably incompetent to hold a rank at all having done more damage to Naval property than both world wars. Rule of Funny is in effect.

Video Games

  • Airforce Delta Strike features Lilia, the 14 year old Major. It is handwaved by a few throw-away lines early in the game.
  • Blaz Blue: Noel Vermillion is somewhat neurotic for her rank in the NOL, although it's stated to be a result of a combination of Asskicking Equals Authority and that as a member of the Absurdly Powerful Student Council she was practically guaranteed a reasonable rank. There's also the fact that Noel is Mu-12, and due to her importance got a higher rank than she really deserved (since Hazama would need a reason to get her where he needs her).
  • Final Fantasy VI: Celes Chere is a General in the Imperial Army, despite being only eighteen years old. Then again, the Empire also made Kefka a General....
  • The Halo series. Miranda Keyes is a borderline case with her rank of Lieutenant-Commander, then later Commander. She is competent, she does her job to the letter, the soldiers under her trust her explicitly, and she always keeps a level head on her shoulders. At the time of her death, she was twenty-seven years old.
    • It should be noted that she is a Lieutenant Commander during a war where the UNSC has been repeatedly getting slaughtered in fleet engagements. She is a Lieutenant Commander because not only is she competent, most of the officers with more experience than her are dead.
    • Several of Noble Team's members, like Carter and Kat hold high ranks and are even younger (Kat being an Lt. Commander at 22, Carter being a Commander at 32), but it's justified because they've been soldiers since they were children.
  • Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater, Ocelot is a Major. At 19 years old. If one charitably assumes that he rose in rank in the least amount of time required to hold said rank, he would have enlisted at around 4 years old. Several characters do express surprise at this rank, so it's not a simple case of Did Not Do the Research. Plus, he has been a soldier/spy since he was a child. And being the son of The Boss probably helped.
  • The Sims: It is possible for Sims on the "military" track to go from a trainee to a General in a matter of weeks if one effectively manages motives and develops the requisite statistics. Then again, all the other career paths work this way.

Western Animation

  • Futurama: Captain Zapp Brannigan is as incompetent and cowardly as they come, yet the general consensus among the populace is that he's a great hero. He was suspended once and only once, and was only reinstated because the only witness able to testify against him wanted him out of her hair.
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