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"For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventurey

Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century

But still in matters vegetable, animal and mineral

I am the very model of a modern major-general"

The opposite of a Genius Ditz, a character who seems competent at everything... except his actual job. A sort of adult Book Dumb, the main question on everybody's minds, in- or out-of-universe, is "How on earth did this guy get hired, especially given there are other jobs he'd be far more competent at!?" (Though sometimes his Blue Blood may give you a reason to suspect nepotism.)

Different from Fake Ultimate Hero in that the latter at least puts on a ruse of being competent that could actually fool someone. When this character's actual job seems to be nonexistent, they're one of The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.

Like the Pointy-Haired Boss, may be a result of The Peter Principle; he's been promoted from a position he mastered to one he has not.

If they also have Blue Blood, they are very likely to be an Upper Class Wit.

(If you were looking for the song and works which parody it, see Major-General Song.)

Examples of Modern Major-General include:

Anime and Manga


  • Max Fischer from Rushmore.
  • Max Smart in the 2008 movie Get Smart is cast in a role something like this; many characters remark that he's probably the finest intelligence analyst in CONTROL. However, he desperately wants to be a field agent — and when he's finally promoted, he's not entirely incompetent, but he is notably over-eager, naive, bumbling and prone to making a fool of himself.


  • The extremely minor Marvel Comics villain the Jester is a would-be actor who, in a bid to advance his career, enrolled (and earned high marks) in every course of study that he thought might make him more employable. Well... every course except acting lessons.
  • Hindsight Lad (later simply "Hindsight") of the New Warriors wanted to be a superhero and coerced the team into letting him join. Having no powers or fighting skills he turned out to be terrible at it, but when the team realized he was an excellent strategist and analyst, he became a useful asset anyway, just not in the field. (Well, until he turned on them later, but that's another story.)

Live Action Television

  • Wesley of Buffy and Angel started out as one of these before character development turned him into a Badass Normal. Though the guy had all the historical, demonic and magical knowledge one could ever want, he began his tenure in the shows as a spineless coward with no personal skills--hardly someone the average person would consider qualified to be a mentor figure in the battle between good and evil. Ironically, it was only after he was fired from the Watcher job that he developed the skills that would have made him good at it.
  • Jack from Thirty Rock was put into this situation by higher-ups who moved him from the appliance division to TV production. Liz, too, is a comedy writer by background, ability and official job title, but she spends most of her time doing HR work these days.
  • Michael Scott of The Office is a TERRIBLE manager, his actual job, but an almost savant-like salesman, which used to be his job and his success with which got him the manager gig in the first place.
  • Star Trek Voyager: Captain Janeway is suspected of being one of these by some viewers as she's portrayed as being rather good at science and engineering matters but inconsistent character portrayal left her rather lacking when it came to being an actual Captain. As an extension of this logic, she got Kicked Upstairs by the time of Star Trek Nemesis, shown as a Vice Admiral on Earth.


  • In the Cadfael books, Brother Oswin is hopelessly clumsy, refuses to admit that putting cold things into hot places or vice versa shatters them, and is Cadfael's assistant for several books. Cadfael generally has him do all the easy stuff that doesn't put him near fragile things or herbal remedies - especially the ones that could be used as poison. He does get better over time and in the end is quite competent - it just took him a lot longer to learn than Cadfael's other assistants.
  • Captain Trips from the Wild Cards books. He's a genius biochemist-- was one of the best in the world, before his drug-and-superhero problems. He manages to be a competent detective when working with Tachyon on the Swarm case. In regular life, he tries to be a businessman, but couldn't sell tuna to dolphins.
  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Monstrous Regiment.
  • The Austrian general Weyrother is portrayed this way in War and Peace. A good two or so pages is dedicated to how all the other generals at the war council prior to the Battle of Austerlitz despise him. He has a knack for drawing up troop dispositions and knowing terrain, just nothing to do with strategy or winning battles.
  • Redjack Teal from Brian Jacques' The Angel's Command is basically Maj. Gen. Stanley...AT SEA!


  • The Trope Namer is Major General Stanley from The Pirates of Penzance, who introduces himself with a long-winded song listing all of the things he knows, eventually summing up with a long verse about his complete and utter lack of military knowledge (he can barely tell the difference between a rifle and a javelin). He eventually concludes that:

 For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventurey,

has only been brought down the beginning of the century.

But still in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,

I am the very model of a modern Major General.

  • Though Major General Stanley's the Trope Namer, the concept appears in an earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, HMS Pinafore, in the person of Admiral First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, KCB.

 Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,

If you want to rise to the top of the tree,

If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,

Be careful to be guided by this golden rule ?

Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,

And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!

    • Note that Major General Stanley even mentions that operetta in his song:

 Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,

And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore!


Western Animation

  • Colonel Hathi, from Disney's The Jungle Book. In the Kipling novel, however, he's probably the single coolest character in the series, next to Mowgli.


Video Games

  • The Judge from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is senile and easily swayed. He once accepted a thug with a cardboard badge as a genuine lawyer. The characters frequently comment on it, but no one says anything to his face.
    • This one has much to do with the Japanese history of court corruption. Put simply, judges are viewed in Japan the same way lawyers are viewed in the West.
    • On the other hand, the Judge is also famed for almost always handing down the right verdict, though this may have more to do with Phoenix's skill as a defense lawyer than anything about the Judge himself.
    • Luke Atmey from the third game also qualifies, as his extensive vocabulary and incomprehensible metaphors make him look... somewhat competent as a detective, but he's actually not very good at it. At all. Subverted when it turns out that the reason he doesn't appear to be very good at detective work is because he is actually the criminal.
    • It's worth noting that everyone was willing to accept Furio Tigre with a cardboard badge as the main character. Even though he has bright red skin.
      • Then again, when the player sees him impersonating Phoenix in that case's opening, he...uses Phoenix's exact sprite.
      • However, it helps that this guy also, well, threatens to have people killed.

Real Life

  • Before the modern period, the way to become an officer in most Armed Forces was to pay for the privilege, or (for some of the top leadership positions) to be appointed there by politicians, who often selected their friends (c.f. William "Pinafore" Smith, discussed above under theatre). Hence, you got a lot of people commanding the armed forces... whose only real qualification was that they could pay. Examples of the result of this system include:
    • George McClellan's popular reputation is of a high quality at training and organizing his troops, and got along with them well, but he would eventually be dismissed by Abraham Lincoln both for their poor relationship and for McClellan's lack of aggressiveness as a battlefield commander, partially influenced by overestimating Confederate numbers. Unsurprisingly, this is still contested from a historical standpoint. Lee, when asked who his toughest opponent was, actually named McClellan. It doesn't help that McClellan was replaced as general right before his massive planned invasion of the south, subsequently ruined by a failed General Ripper.
      • His subordinate (and, later, successor) Ambrose Burnside considered himself one.
    • General Thomas Gage, commander to the British Forces in North America at the beginning of the American Revolution. His career is a repetition of the same events: Get Assigned - Screw Up Royally - Get Promoted - Get New Assignment. Forget King George - 90% of the American Declaration of Independence consists of complaints about Gage's actions and policies. It has been argued that if it weren't for Gage, the U.S. wouldn't have even wanted to become independent. He was in command of the vanguard ("walking point") during Braddock's Defeat (just about the worst ambush in Colonial British military history).
    • Related to the above is George Sackville, 1st Viscount Sackville. He was court martialed and driven out of the British army after he prevented a decisive victory at the Battle of Minden out of pure pique. He was ruled "...unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever" in 1760. On November 10, 1775, Sackville (now with the title Lord Germain) was appointed Secretary of State for the Americas, making him the guy in charge of suppressing the American Revolution. Many of the problems with British strategy can be attributed to him.
    • Another British incompetent was William Elphinstone, as depicted by George MacDonald Fraser in Flashman: "Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganised enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with a touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again."
    • Across the Channel, the French could be plagued with this too. By the War of the Spanish Succession, Louis XIV had begun mistaking personal loyalty for military talent and appointed dullards like Villeroi and Tallard as generals and marshals, whereupon they proceeded to get their asses kicked by real commanders like Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy. Subverted Trope with Villars, who was a genuinely skilled general and was instrumental in salvaging the situation for France.
    • Actually, the problems described above did not apply to many armies - paying for commissions was a problem specific to the British army, and political appointments were really more something that applied to republics and parliamentary systems, e. g. the United States in the 19th century. In autocratic monarchies although officers tended to be recruited mostly from the nobility, there actually was quite a bit of competition among them and it generally was possible to maintain a certain level of competence (let's not forget: Napoleon was a product of the officers' schooling of Louis XVI's army). But there were different types of problems, namely that some people would be pushed forward by personal connections to the monarch or those close to him (Villeroi had been raised together with Louis XIV as a boy, others were helped by the influence of a king's mistress like the Marquise de Pompadour) and that the very top positions would usually go to monarchs or their relatives.
    • The Charge of the Light Brigade is probably the Ur Example of this as the incident was subsequently used to discredit and end the practice of purchasing commissions, however the facts themselves are rather more complicated. It was led by Lord Cardigan, described by one historian as "an overbearing, hot-tempered fool of the most dangerous kind in that he believed that he possessed real ability." His immediate superior was Lord Lucan, also none too bright and much too hot-tempered. However, tied up in the performance was Captain Louis Edward Nolan, a "merit" officer, who may have intentionally miscommunicated the order to advance (the supposedly "garbled" order would have been quite comprehensible to a man standing where it was drafted). Lucan ordered Cardigan charge his men through a gauntlet of fire to capture a battery of guns at the far end of the valley. After capturing the guns the light brigade was driven off due to the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, retreating through the same gauntlet of fire a second time. The result was over two hundred British cavalryman killed or captured in a charge that accomplished nothing of real military value. At the time Cardigan was lionised as a hero, while Lucan and Raglan the supreme commander variously blamed each other and Nolan.
  • This is the intended meaning of The Peter Principle: that people who are good at their job will earn promotions until they reach their level of incompetence, at which point they will no longer be promoted, because they are incompetent at their current position. This can get short-circuited if the person isn't actually so bad at their job to justify being demoted or fired, yet do badly enough that their superior wants them out. The only solution? Promote them elsewhere, which is the entire point of the British comedy The Brittas Empire.
    • John Bell Hood of the Confederate Army of Tennessee fits the Peter Principle. He was a fine brigade and division commander, but was disastrous when promoted to Army command.
    • This arguably influenced the Battle of Gettysburg — after Stonewall Jackson's death he was succeeded as commander of Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia by Richard S. Ewell, one of his division commanders. After Ewell drove part of two Union corps through Gettysburg and south onto Cemetery Hill on the opening day of the battle, Robert E. Lee ordered that Ewell take it "if practicable," while avoiding a general engagement until the other divisions had arrived. Lacking Jackson's experience in divining Lee's priorities between those conditions, he chose not to attack, leading to the Union fortifying Cemetery Hill and causing massive Confederate casualties in the following days.
    • Italy was especially notorious for this during World War I. First we have commander in chief Luigi Cadorna, an excellent military administrator at any level who also happened to be a particularly aggressive and headstrong General Ripper with little people skills. Because of this he had been passed over when it came to command the invasion of Lybia of 1912 (the command was given to general Caneva, who had trounced him in a wargame a few months earlier) and the post of commander in chief of the armed forces (due the influence of then prime minister Giolitti, who knew him well but didn't knew general Alberto Pollio, who got the job due being competent), before becoming commander in chief on the King's decree after Pollio's death. While able to multiply the size of the Italian Army during the war and have all the necessary weapons produced in spite of Italy's weak economy, he screwed up on many offensives before getting defeated at Caporetto and replaced by Armando Diaz. Then we have Pietro Badoglio, Diaz's chief of staff... Who just happened to have missed the one occasion to prevent the defeat at Caporetto with a well-timed artillery barrage. Many other Italian officers of the conflict fits the bill, but Cadorna and Badoglio are the most notable due the alternative skills of the former and the ability to get promoted in spite of being half of the reason of the worst defeat of the Italian army ever of the latter.
  • Of course, there's other ways to get to be highly incompetent in your field:
    • Santos Degollado is a Mexican example, guy was incredibly adept to gather and motivate men to fight for the Liberal cause, the problem is... he totally sucked to lead these people into victory. He was nicknamed "prince of defeats" and in some versions "Apostle of defeats". Incredibly likeable because of his motivation to the cause and his enthusiasm but he should have delegate the actual military tactics to someone else.
    • Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin are textbook examples of this trope. Hitler was a brilliant demagogue, motivating his people to go to war against the rest of Europe...but turned out to be a rather inept military commander. Stalin was a maestro at keeping his subordinates in line and building up a nearly impenetrable network of power within the Bolsheviks, but his blunders led to the USSR getting its ass kicked by Finland when it invaded that country, and very nearly getting destroyed by Nazi Germany before he smartened up and let his generals direct the war.
    • Let's not also forget Benito Mussolini, who proved just as incompetent as Hitler and Stalin. If anything, he actually proved to be more of a hindrance than a help to the Axis, as Germany repeatedly had to come to Italy's rescue whenever Mussolini fouled things up.
  • The Dilbert Principle proposes that the only reason why executive management positions exist is to provide slots where incompetents can be removed from day-to-day contact with the company's product and/or customers.
  • Idi Amin was a total douchebag and complete moron, as he was shown in the media. With all those badges, he probably fooled himself into thinking he was a real military commander. But he lost completely in his war with Tanzania, as his armies did very little fighting at all.
    • Which didn't prevent him from living comfortably for a good, long time, nearly *25 YEARS* after being ousted from power, with multiple wives at his side (simultaneously) and so much time on his hands that he actually bothered to finally learn to read and study politics. An interview very late in his life shows him to be anything but the apparent buffoon of old. However, theories abound that the man was never anything of the sort, instead showing the great powers of the world a facade of backwards idiocy to avoid ever-popular Cold War meddling in his affairs.
  • Mao Ze Dong was pretty much the reverse of Hitler and Stalin. While a skilled commander and charismatic leader capable of leading what was essentially a peasant guerrilla movement to take over China, as a statesman, his economic and social policies were a complete failure.
    • Case in point: The Great Leap Forward. Mao hoped to turn China into a first-world country through a campaign in which backyard furnaces were set up in villages to produce steel, untrained peasants were assigned to work industrial machinery, farmland was deep-ploughed (a now-discredited idea that deeper layers of soil were more fertile) to increase crop yields, and sparrows were mass-culled so they would not steal grain. None of this was planned with any knowledge of metallurgy, ecology, or agriculture. The backyard furnaces produced junk-quality iron, industrial machinery failed due to incompetent operators, fields were left untended due to all the farmers being moved to the cities, crops failed to grow properly, and whatever grain that could be harvested was devoured by the swarms of locusts the culling of sparrows (their main predator) had created. Combined with mismanagement and reporting of exaggerated production figures by officials, the ensuing fuckfest resulted in about 50 million dead.
    • For those keeping score at home that is more non-military deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined (non-military discounts WWII casualties, but not the Holocaust or Stalin's purges).
    • It is more non-military deaths than most dictatorships and modern-day ethnic cleansings combined, as a point of fact... and it wasn't even on purpose.
  • Pretty much every officer in the Canadian Militia in the late 19th century who was actually from Canada was one of these as the militia commander positions were patronage appointments by the federal government. This led to most of Canada's successes in World War One happening under the command of British officers up until the appointment of Sir Arthur Currie as commander of the Canadian Corps mid-1917.
  • Muammar Gaddafi started wars with Egypt, Tanzania and Chad during his time as Libya's dictator. He lost every single one.
    • Of special note is the war with Chad, known as the "Toyota War". It got this name because Chadian soldiers used Toyota pickup trucks as troop transports...and they still managed to trash Gaddadi's forces.
  • Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, was largely responsible for getting involved The Vietnam War. He was a technocratic midcentury corporate executive freshly recruited from the private sector by the administration.
  1. Imperial Chinese governmental exams really DID require you to write long discursive poems or essays - the government figured if you could write an insanely difficult, precise, pedantic and technical piece on something completely unrelated to anything in real life, you could learn how to do your eventual civil service job, not to mention the social importance of being good at poetry. Before you laugh, it worked for the British Civil Service (they did it with Latin and Greek), and this system of government lasted, unbroken through flood, invasion and dynasty, for two thousand years. It's arguably a bit like the Google interview questions that show up periodically online - intended to demonstrate flexibility of mind rather than any specific skill.)