Misfits, rejects, and screwups: the best terrible US service members in movies and TV
The troops you love — and your chain of command probably hates.
When it comes to portrayals of martial valor in popular movies and television series, officers tend to get a lot of credit, like Patton’s eponymous general. Then there are heroic non-commissioned officers, like Saving Private Ryan’s Sgt. Horvath and Heartbreak Ridge’s Gunnery Sgt. Highway — all certified badasses, and all thoroughly committed to living the values of the military.
But serving directly beneath all of those Pattons and Horvaths and Highways, however, is another distinct persona: the scheming junior enlisted misfit.
In real life, the junior enlisted ranks ensure sure that the military functions, even if they’re fighting that every step of the way. They’re privates, specialists, lance corporals, airmen, seamen, and presumably, in 2023, Guardians as well. They can be good at their jobs, but not necessarily all the time; there will inevitably end up fucking up during their military service, probably when an authority figure least needs it to happen. They are often terrible service members — and that’s what makes them so fun to watch.
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For the purposes of this list, a certain degree of competence will exclude some contenders. Characters from Band of Brothers? Black Hawk Down? No. Even Generation Kill has plenty of moments skewering the incompetence of officers and NCOs, and generally poking fun at some of the inanities of Marine Corps, but every character is ultimately motivated to be there. Making this list requires a certain level of indifference to the military. Not exactly “the worst troops,” but who an officer or NCO might put on their list of “the worst troops.”
Gomer Pyle, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.
For many people, “Gomer Pyle” conjures up images of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, screaming that name in some poor recruit’s face at Marine Corps boot camp when they’ve fucked something up. But Ermey was referencing another well-known television Marine, one whose name is virtually synonymous with complete and utter incompetence.
The Pyle character started out on another television program, The Andy Griffith Show, as the hapless gas station attendant. Having nothing better to do, he enlists in the Marines. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. ran for five seasons, 150 episodes, chronicling a well-meaning but thoroughly incompetent Marine whose mere existence consistently causes problems for not just his gunnery sergeant, but also anyone of any position of authority in the Corps.
Pyle is bungling. Pyle is fumbling. Pyle is apparently incapable of going through a single day on Earth without fucking something up. Still, Pyle seems competent at his job of being a Marine Corps private, and based on the number of crazy situations he finds himself in, well, you’d still want to bunk with him.
Every member of Sgt. Oddball’s tank platoon, Kelly’s Heroes
Donald Sutherland’s “Sgt. Oddball” is technically a non-commissioned officer, but his complete indifference to anything resembling military discipline, which he has swiftly passed on to every member of his platoon, earns him a place on the list.
Prior to Clint Eastwood’s character recruiting them to help steal a stash of gold stolen by the Nazis, World War II mostly seems to be an event that is just kind of happening in this platoon’s general vicinity, that sometimes occasionally disrupts their days in which they live in tanks. Why do they walk, talk, dress, and act like hippies even though they ostensibly exist in 1944 and have presumably not traveled back in time from 1969? Don’t ask those kinds of questions; in fact, don’t ask them any questions.
Just accept that while they may appear to be lounging in the French countryside with more than a few farmer’s daughters, they are, as Sgt. Oddball says, “holding themselves in reserve in case the Krauts mount a counteroffensive that threatens Paris or maybe even New York.” That’s a level of cultivated incompetence we can all get behind.
Maxwell Klinger, M.A.S.H.
The movie and subsequent television show M.A.S.H. are set in an Army hospital and one big conceit is that, as doctors, many of the characters don’t always take well to military discipline. But this isn’t a list of captains, it’s for corporals, and that’s where Maxwell Klinger fits in.
Klinger was first introduced in the television version of M.A.S.H., as a clerk. His main concern? Obtaining a discharge from the Army through any means necessary. Most of the time, that involved wearing dresses, although he also resorted to various scams like trying to fly out of Korea via hang glider and, God forbid, applying to West Point so he can be promptly kicked out and return to his life in Toledo, Ohio. This is all a bit ridiculous, but this show aired before the days of eight-episode prestige television series, and they had a lot of content to produce. Maybe Klinger was just desperate to get out of the Army because it seemed like M.A.S.H. would never end.
As Keith David’s King says in Platoon while dragging a barrel of shit to be lit on fire, “Motherfucker, I’m too short for this shit.” Agreed, King.
King is always a mentor to Charlie Sheen’s Taylor, whether it’s combat or how to smoke a joint. He’s not a malcontent and he’s not an NCO, he’s just a member of the platoon with very little concern for uniform regulations or whatever the senior, more serious soldiers he calls “the lifers” want from him. And in the end, he makes it out of Vietnam, leaving Taylor with the invaluable advice, “just keep your pecker hard and your powder dry, and the world will turn.”
Ray Elwood, Buffalo Soldiers
Army Spc. Elwood is not a good soldier. He lies, he steals, he’s dating the first sergeant’s teenage daughter, and he supplements his Army income by producing and selling heroin, mostly to his fellow soldiers. Do not be like him.
Elwood also lives almost the platonic ideal life of a specialist. He has a cushy job at brigade headquarters where he can know about everything and also not do much of anything. He has his own barracks room, with a couch and a television. He drives a BMW.
Elwood is smart in the sense that he can get around the mundanities of enlisted life, but also not smart enough to avoid detection for his criminal escapades. Of course, in keeping with the cruel comedic sensibilities of the movie, in the end Elwood’s drug supply explodes just as he’s about to be arrested, killing everyone around him. The Army is none the wiser, and Elwood is transferred to a new headquarters company in Hawaii. Classic Army.
This isn’t really a ranked list, but if it was, is there any doubt that Pfc. William Hudson would come in at the top spot, even if he’s technically not a U.S. service member?
Hudson seems quite good at his job among the bottom rungs of the Colonial Space Marines, but he’s not exactly, say, leadership potential. If there is a chance to duck out of a work detail, he will duck out. If there is a chance to complain, he will complain. And if there is no chance for either, he will make wiseass comments about it. When Hudson is motivated, he is “the ultimate badass. State of the badass art.” Most of the time, though, he just wants to know, “how do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?”
The mere possibility of a Sgt. Hudson – or god forbid, a Gunnery Sgt. Hudson – seems inconceivable. He can’t not exist as a sarcastic comment you’d love to say out loud to an officer or NCO. There is no world in which Hudson isn’t a private … and, unfortunately for him, the aforementioned aliens make sure of that.
Is this list definitive? Of course not: there are probably many others who have been missed. If you have a favorite terrible fictional service member in mind, share it in the comments below.
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