Armchair Military

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A war waged by committee is a war already lost.
Ecclesiarch Sebastian Thor, Warhammer 40,000
It seems Field Marshal Haig is making another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
Captain Blackadder, Blackadder Goes Forth

Armchair Generals (and Admirals) are those persons who decide to critique and/or run military operations from the comfort of their - ah, well, chairs. This shouldn't be a surprise. There are two possible interpretations:

  1. The Big Brass who enjoy pushing little figures or unit symbols around a map, oblivious to the actual horrors of war being inflicted on said units. Prone to saying "We Have Reserves". Often are devotees of the textbook and incapable of realizing that their own experience contradicts it. Prone to hog any credit for success and slough off any blame, and often inordinately fond of Bling of War. They are almost by definition Soldiers At the Rear.
  2. Noncombatants (with or without a military background) commenting on actual military operations (as professional pundits or otherwise) or wargaming past military operations with other enthusiasts.

While the idea of a General who valiantly leads his troops from the front line has some basis in reality, in modern battlefields it is a common case of Hollywood Tactics. If the guy in charge of your army dies in the first volley, chances are you're going to lose. And even if he doesn't die, fighting with the army is going to make it much harder for him to tell what's going on or relay orders.

If they are merely incompetent anyhow, compare General Failure.

Compare Miles Gloriosus. A common subversion to a character who first appears to be an Officer and a Gentleman.

Examples of Armchair Military include:


Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • In Patlabor 2: The Movie, the civilian government and police act this way, undermine their control over the military, and allow the terrorists to attack Toyko.
  • In Maiden Rose, every administration that we see has its own armchair military. In Vol. 2 the brass from Taki's country are particularly obstructive and serve as a contrast to the type of frontline leader Taki is.
  • Lelouch pointedly averts this trope in Code Geass. "If a general does not lead, how can he expect his subordinates to follow?" While he isn't necessarily on the front lines, he is personally present at nearly every battle he commands. He takes this philosophy to such an extreme that his chess strategies often involve the king being right out with the rest of the pieces, making offensive moves.
    • Hilariously this doesn't or barely works since his troops are prone to threatening him and running if the battle isn't going in their favor. This is why Lelouch turns the Black Knights into a military force because in his second major battle his troops ran. In the third major battle? They would've ran beforehand but Lelouch the Magnificent Bastard that he is told them they had no choice but to fight and threatened to kill himself and leave them helpless when they threatened mutiny.
  • Yuna Roma Seiran of Gundam Seed Destiny thinks he's a brilliant strategist because of his experience with war games. In practice, he makes General Failure Lord Djibril (who at least has a certain ruthlessness to commend him) look brilliant.
    • Subverted in Gundam Seed by Captain William Sutherland, a General Staff officer notable for both his banality and Moral Event Horizon-crossing strategies. Sutherland seems like an armchair admiral who can only recommend the strategies he does because he's never actually seen combat. Yet in the final episodes it's Sutherland who leads the attack on ZAFT from aboard his flagship, the Doolittle; it quickly becomes apparent that he uses the tactics he does not because he is ignorant, but because he has no regard for human life.
  • General Damon from Valkyria Chronicles and his top brass commanders never take part of the fighting itself, show racism to Darcen soldiers, and overall are terrible commanders. It's no wonder that they are rather unpopular among fans.
  • The original Mobile Suit Gundam plays with this in the form of Gihren Zabi, the son of Sovereign Degwin Zabi, and Supreme Commander of Zeon's forces. A definitive Non-Action Big Bad, Gihren has, unlike his brothers and sister, never seen combat. He's also a totally ruthless psychopath who has no problems with throwing away the lives of his soldiers. At the same time, however, Gihren is also reasonably competent, organising the war effort, leaving the tactical and operational decisions to his siblings, and holding the country together through his genuine skills as an orator. It's not until near the end of the war that some of his strategic mistakes actually begin to catch up with him.

Fanfiction[edit | hide]

  • By definition, the Battle Commanders in Tiberium Wars have to command in this way, standing far off from the battlefield and issuing complex, often micromanaging orders to their units in the field. Both of the Commanders, however, get brushes with front line action and are no slouches in personal combat, and the GDI Commander, Karrde, deliberately goes out into the field with his troops and commands close to the front to earn their respect.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Marshall Murdock in Rambo 2 was an armchair general.
  • Some movies show generals in British High Command during World War II as heartless armchair generals.
  • Subverted in The Hunt for Red October. Jack Ryan is an author of books on naval history and a CIA analyst, but he winds up rolling up his sleeves and going face-to-face with Captain Ramius.
    • Ramius also lampshades the trope when he learns what book Jack wrote and tells Ryan that his conclusions were all wrong.
    • However, Ryan was actually in the military, a U.S. Marine. The novels and movies tell slightly different stories on how his career ended, but agree that his career ended right at the start when he survived a helicopter crash that left him partially disabled.
    • In both the movie and the book, it is Captain Ramius and Captain Mancuso who do the submarine tactics in the battle at the end, while Ryan gets to turn the wheel whichever way they say and pray to God that he doesn't die.
  • The overweight General Miller from In the Loop is frequently accused of being an armchair general because he has spent the last 15 years at The Pentagon and away from combat. Miller is appropriately insulted by the accusation. He actually does have combat experience in his past, and he's the one trying to prevent a dubious war. His hawk opponents, on the other hand, have no military experience and are trying to start a war for political reasons.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • About Face, an autobiography by Colonel David Hackworth, proposes that the war in Korea and Vietnam was undermined by academic 'experts' and military commanders with no understanding of what was happening in the field.
  • David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest is about the decisions of America's military and foreign policy experts under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that led to the US getting bogged down in Vietnam.
  • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Straight Silver, the high command is explicitly described as regarding the war as a chess game, with all the pieces having fixed moves. They were also incapable of seeing that their strategy had been tried three times and failed all of them.
  • The armchair military appears in Discworld a few times, where there's much general critique of this style of warfare. The disconnect is especially notable in Night Watch, which features several scenes of two officers discussing the situation in their tent while Vimes (and the rest of the Night Watch) are engaged in the real fighting.
    • Strangely, the gods of Discworld themselves may be an example of the first type, most notably in Small Gods. They play games with humanity on a board, and have no concept whatsoever that the people down there are real, until the climax, when Om goes up to Cori Celesti, the home of the gods, and forces them to pay attention to him and call off the war.
  • Played with in Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Ender realizes he was sending real pilots into battle while he himself stayed safe, thinking it was all a simulation. It's both a plot point and the basis of the sequel that, had he known, he couldn't have done it. The first sequel is spent trying to make up for what he has done.
  • Admiral James Cutter in Clear and Present Danger is depicted this way.
  • In the novel Stark's War and its two sequels, by John Hemry, the entirety of the US military command being loaded with this type is what causes the title character and his fellow soldiers to mutiny, after deciding they were through with micromanagement using horribly broken war theories getting troops killed for nothing.
  • Senator Arnos in the fourth Codex Alera book Captain's Fury is the first type. Despite being a figure of authority in military tactics, Tavi notes that Arnos doesn't see the soldiers he's commanding as "real", having only seen battles through strategy meetings or high above the air in an air carriage. This causes him to adopt We Have Reserves-style strategies and try to order the deaths of civilians who the Canim spared as "sympathizers to the enemy".
  • Subverted in the semi-literal but not figurative case of the real-life General David Petraeus, US Army (most famous for overseeing "The Surge" in Iraq) who has a fictional version of himself portrayed in The Salvation War. He's never at the front lines of any battle and at first glance seems to simply be commanding from the back through monitors. However, he's not unaware of the cost of war in lives, and he is damn good as a commander. In fact, he ends up as commander of the Human Expeditionary Army, although this is because only the U.S.A. has the command/control capability to actually lead a force of its (nominal) size.
  • In 1632, John Simpson is originally portrayed as armchair military when he cites his service as, "having served in the Pentagon". In later books, it comes out that before he served in the Puzzle Palace, he commanded a riverine unit in Vietnam.
    • Jeff and his friends are fascinated with military history. Of course they take to it like ducks to water.
  • In David Drake's Hammer's Slammers, many of the titular mercenary unit's employers are distant from the actual fighting.
  • In The Regeneration Trilogy, set in World War I, this idea is always in the background as the death toll goes up. The main character, British poet Siegfriend Sassoon, is very bitter about his superiors' ignorance of the soldier's suffering.
  • The men responsible for organizing the Battle of Yonkers in World War Z were armchair military types. Their list of blunders included putting soldiers in hazmat suits that made it difficult for them to reload, not paying attention to the fact that they were fighting an army made entirely of infantry, therefore giving their tanks the wrong kind of ammunition, bringing bridgelayers, not securing the area or taking advantage of higher ground, digging trenches when they weren't needed, using a really big airstrike on just the front ranks of the enemy, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It's torn to shreds by the man being interviewed in the story, saying that most of the inappropriately chosen stuff was there for purely PR reasons.
    • Worse than bridgelayers- they had Anti-Air and Electronic Warfare vehicles on hand to help battle the Zacks.
      • This display of extreme tactical stupidity and more are why World War Z is on the Dan Browned page because its just so bad in its depiction of Warfare
  • War and Peace devotes several chapters to explaining how Russia's many losses during the Napoleonic Wars were thanks to various (mostly German) generals, who formulated complex plans based, on scientific/mathematical proofs of how wars SHOULD be fought, which server no purpose beyond turning their mob of poorly trained, poorly equipped, poorly led conscripts into a very tired and very confused mob of poorly trained, poorly equipped, poorly led conscripts. It doesn't help that they're all more concerned with earning favor with the Tsar and proving their pet theories than actually winning the war.
  • One of Bill Mauldin's cartoons had scruffy veteran infantryman Willie fasten a map of Europe to the remnants of a brick wall; sitting on the ground in front of it, he began drawing movement arrows and the like on the map, possibly trying to figure out where the brass intended to send him next. The caption was his friend Joe calling him an "armchair strategist!"

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • In Star Trek, almost anybody in Starfleet Command has been away from the sharp end for far too long.
    • In the Deep Space Nine episode "The Maquis", Sisko complains that his superiors back on Earth will never understand the grievances of the Federation colonists because Earth is a paradise.
      • Sisko manages to avoid becoming one when he has a major strategic operations role during the early Dominion War.
    • In the episodes Homefront and Paradise Lost, an admiral who nearly topples the UFP government says politicians are armchair military.
    • Some Expanded Universe novels do feature an admiral or two getting down and dirty when necessary. Even the stuck-up Admiral Arlen McAteer, whose grudge against Picard being made captain is entirely based on his own ideals for a perfect Starfleet (translation: Picard is too young to be a competent captain, despite his numerous successes).
    • There is a fine example of one in Star Trek Elite Force II, when a typical example of an armchair admiral disbands the Hazard Team as unnecessary in these "civilized" times. Along comes Picard and points out that this may be the case at the heart of the Federation but is definitely false on the outskirts. He promptly reassembles the Hazard Team despite the admiral's objections.
  • In the Babylon 5 episode "And Now For A Word", Sheridan refers to armchair quarterbacking from the Senate. [1]
  • A lot of the upper brass in Stargate SG-1 remain far behind the front lines. Subverted because they sometimes get down and dirty as well later. In the first couple of seasons nobody ever had to deal with a Stargate in the modern age for such a long period of time, leading to many mistakes.
    • The best example, however, is the IOA. They make a lot of decisions that aren't logical at all, such as, in Stargate Atlantis, ordering a preemptive strike on the Replicator homeworld of Asura when the Replicators hadn't even made any hostile moves towards the Atlantis Expedition. This causes the Asurans to retaliate by sending a laser satellite that drives Atlantis off of the planet it's on, leaving it stuck in space for a while. And they repair the damage done to their cities very quickly, making the entire attack a waste of time and resources.
      • It's frequently pointed out in later seasons of SG-1 and Atlantis that the IOA, when faced with a difficult decision, will deliberate until after the deadline so that someone else can make the decision and they can criticize it. While the operating principle behind the IOA is sound (civilian oversight of military operations), they are so incredibly ineffectual as to be criminally negligent.
  • Anyone perceived as armchair military by Mash character Hawkeye was in for an interesting time.
  • Blackadder Goes Forth. Played horrifically straight in the Finale.
  • Arnold Rimmer from Red Dwarf tries to justify his claim that he is a potential military prodigy despite his tendency of cowering in a corner whenever a fight happens.
  • This trope is the entire point of the BBC game show Time Commanders, where random people off the street get to direct historical battles simulations (with help from historians and professional tacticians) to see if they can change the outcome of history.
  • Courtney Massengale from Once An Eagle; also in the book.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • The trope name is often used as an insult for obsessive strategy types in online shooter games like Team Fortress 2. "All hail X! Our fearless armchair general!"
  • Brutal Legend has an achievment called "Armchair General". It can only be obtained if the player wins a battle by only giving orders.
  • You are this every time you play a strategy game.
  • Flagg from Medal of Honor (2010) is unworried by avoidable losses of his own and Afghan forces.
  • In the Kingdom of Loathing, the Orcish Frat Boy Army is led by Armchair Quarterbacks who shout orders at the television screen the faraway battle. Less literally, their superiors are the Orcish equivalent of White Anglo Saxon Protestant legacy students.
  • Referenced in Conkers Bad Fur Day at the conclusion of the "It's War" level.

Sergeant: You’re right there. All these fine young men... sent off to do the dying. While those bigwigs... those pen pushers... those guys who never ever... see a single bullet whizz past their heads... we wanna get them down here. Those so-called generals... in their big fancy houses... twenty miles behind enemy lines. Who are they to tell us? Who are they indeed? Look at that! What a sight.

  • Alluded to by Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In an optional Codec call, Snake mentions that whoever is receiving Dolph's speech must have a cozy room with hot coffee (note, Snake had to be in the rain for most of the mission).
  • General Lee Oliver of Fallout: New Vegas is disliked by the NCR troopers because he got his position through Nepotism and is more focused on achieving personal fame and possible political clout than anything. He considers Chief Hanlon of the NCR Rangers to be a political rival and so does the exact opposite of whatever Hanlon suggests, even though it was Hanlon's strategy that won the First Battle for Hoover Dam. On top of that, Oliver is so intent on a second, climactic battle at the Dam itself that he seems blind to Legion raids taking place anywhere else.

Web Original[edit | hide]

  • A frequent target of the satirical spEak You're bRanes blog is people who go onto news blogs and smugly lecture on military tactics, warfare and the need for martial solutions to social problems while simultaneously making it clear that they're both lacking in military experience and as far from the fighting as it's possible to get. Fittingly, the tag used to identify examples of these people is 'Armchair Generals'.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • Subverted by Leon Trotsky, the Russian Bolshevik who founded the Red Army and ensured the survival of the Soviet Union against the Mensheviks, foreign invaders, monarchist forces, and pretty much everyone else who wanted to destroy the Bolshevik regime. Despite having no military training or experience before this, Trotsky proved himself to be a remarkably skilled organizer and commander, building the ragtag Bolshevik militias into a formidable fighting force. All this in spite of the rather incompetent Josef Stalin continually trying to undermine him.
  • The clash of ideas between General Shinseki and Donald Rumsfeld, Shinseki's ideas were based off traditional military tactics on how to control a country such as Iraq while Rumsfeld's thoughts were pulled out of his ass. Rumsfeld simply didn't understand that defeating Iraq's military was the easy part, controlling Iraq's people enough so Iraq could be rebuilt was the difficult part.
  • As a lighter example of Interservice Rivalry, the US Air Force is frequently referred to as the "Chair Force" by the uniformed personnel of other branches. Airmen with a self-deprecating sense of humor have also been known to toss the term around themselves. Ironically, in the Air Force, it's only the officers who are supposed to get shot at - unless one is in Combat Control or Pararescue.
  • Adolf Hitler is halfway to this trope. While he did have combat experience, he only made it to the rank of Corporal before taking the reins of the largest army in Europe. While Hitler did come up with some effective strategies, he greatly overestimated his military acumen. The fact that he had made a lucky guess regarding his disposition of forces during the French invasion gave him the impression that he was a closet military genius, which would color many of his decisions throughout the remainder of the war.
    • During the invasion of Russia, Hitler became more and more annoyed with the performance of his commanders, relieving them only to assume their duties himself. By the time the tide started turning against Germany, the rather strange command structure had Hitler directly issuing orders to the 2nd Panzer Group (more or less officially commanded by himself), which answered to Army Group Center (unofficially commanded by himself), which answered to the OKW (the German equivalent of the Joint Chiefs, commanded by Field Marshal Keitel), which of course answered to the German Head of State.
  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower never actually served in combat. He did face criticism for that from military leaders at the time (including George S. Patton), but he's still one of the most decorated military leaders in modern history and served in the military for over forty years, both before and after his presidency.
    • Eisenhower benefited from the unique nature of his command: a multinational force fighting along a large front (well, two fronts, if you count Italy)[1] with logistics in particular being a nightmare. As it turns out, Eisenhower was a good diplomat and knew how to leverage the United States military's logistical skills (logistics has historically been the US military's strongest suit) into victory[2] Eisenhower was competant as a strategist, but not especially skilled at it; however he was perfect for the job he was there for - getting the Americans, British, French, Canadians, Poles, and others to concentrate on fighting the Axis and not squabbling with each other over who got the glory.
    • This is probably the reason why he was such a competent President afterwards, unlike another American war hero turned president.
  1. Yes, we know the Eastern Front was bigger. Eisenhower had nothing to do with the Eastern Front. So please, pipe down.
  2. Yes, we know that the Eastern Front was extremely important. However, neither the Western Allies nor the Soviet Union could have won without the other's efforts. Now pipe down.