With 100 years of war films combined with the infamously derivative nature of Hollywood, there were bound to be a few archetypical characters popping up here and there (and everywhere). As a result, any given war movie will have at least one of these guys:
1. The Recruit
Young, green, and completely new to war and death, the Recruit is a little naive but ready to tackle any challenges thrown at him. He or she will either lose his or her innocence or die. (Oops, spoiler alert).
If the story starts in basic training, the movie will see a number of characters grow and evolve into some of the other character types.
It doesn't have to just be a basic trainee, though. There are many stages of military training where a service member can show how green he or she may be. The longer they remain naive, however, the more likely they won't make it to the end of the movie, because it makes their death more tragic and that is a great catalyst for the main character.
2. The Cocky Pilot
Everyone knows this guy before he even shows up. He knows his bird, he knows his job, and he knows the skies. So does everyone else. He might be a loose cannon, a renegade... a Maverick?
Sometimes the other pilots don't entirely trust him; his leadership questions his judgement. He might be too good. You may not trust him at first either, but he'll surprise you. He probably rides a motorcycle.
3. The Drill Sergeant
Where would the platoon be without training? Who turns the recruit into the Dependable NCO (more on that later)? The Drill Sergeant of course. the most famous example being R. Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket, his lines are, at some point in their career, quoted incessantly by everyone who ever served ever.
You don't see much of the Drill Sergeant lately, but if there's a story that covers a character's entire service or requires a group of raw recruits to congeal as a unit, they have to start somewhere. It's usually basic training.
If you civilians are wondering why someone who is supposed to be scaring the undisciplined crap out of recruits to train them to be the best American fighting forces on the planet is depicted as being so funny, it's because the drill instructors are funny. We just aren't allowed to laugh until at least a year later.
4. The Crazy Officer/NCO
He could be a war junkie or he could be literally insane. The truth is, there's a screw (or two) loose up there somewhere and unfortunately, everyone in his chain of command will still act on his orders. Because the Drill Sergeant trained us to.
If the Crazy Officer gets too crazy, you can be prepared for his downfall being central to either the main plot or one of the rising actions as the story goes along. If you hate him and he doesn't really add anything to the unit like the Drill Sergeant does, chances are good he's gonna die or just be removed in some way. Captain America in Generation Kill is also a good example of the Crazy Officer, but one the most memorable is Col. Kilgore from Apocalypse Now.
5. The Dependable NCO
This is the guy you want leading you into battle... because he will lead you out of it. You will not only learn how to fight this war, but you'll learn why you're fighting it and why it matters to your country. He will probably save your ass at some point. He is 100 percent good, following the laws of war and protecting his men and civilians. This earns him some enemies among his own but he is still one bad ass good guy. Sgt. Elias in Platoon is a good example of the Dependable NCO.
Unfortunately, your emotional attachment to him means his days are probably numbered. He might be too good for the enemy to kill, so he will likely be killed by either friendly fire or in some sort of fragging incident. You will want to save him and so will many of his men... but they probably can't. There are a few notable survivors, however.
6. The Dependable Officer
A true leader, he is also undeniably human. Where the Dependable NCO knows the score in every situation, the Dependable Officer struggles with the morality of every decision he or she makes and weighs it against what his gut tells him. When it comes time to be decisive, he nails it. You would never know how long he or she thought about it. This is why his troops trust him. He also regularly pulls his people out of harm's way.
The Dependable Officer sympathizes with the people he or she leads, but takes the fallout of the decision on and doesn't let themselves get too carried away. No matter what, they will always do the right thing until they can't go on.
He is often an old school officer, never fraternizing, but knows his men well. The Dependable Officer may talk to other officers about his thoughts, but he will only reveal himself as a real person to his men if/when necessary.
Like the Dependable NCO, the Dependable Officer's fate isn't always sealed. For unknown reasons, The Dependable Officer actually has a much higher survival rate than the NCO.
7. The Gruff NCO
The saltiest of the salty, the grizzled, old Gruff NCO has been there and done that and survived. You don't have to like him, and he doesn't care if you do or not, but you will respect him. Chances are good he will make it to the end credits and teach you about life along the way.
8. The Incompetent Officer (or NCO)
The Incompetent Officer seems like he's in the unit way too long. How can it not be clear to everyone how bad this person is at his job? The truth is we need this person to commit egregious acts of stupidity and inability for far too long, right up until the critical moment, because from his removal or comeuppance, a true leader will emerge.
If the true leader doesn't emerge, then the incompetent one is used either as an example of what the worst case scenario for an officer could be, or to contrast with the really good people in the outfit, to make them look even better, like Captain America did to contrast Lieutenant Fick's leadership in Generation Kill.
9. The Jokester
Usually the best part of that particular movie, the Jokester is the comic relief for a film or one of the central characters. They're usually up against a person or system that is so unfunny and rigid so as to be like... an Army or something.
Still, their behavior doesn't make them unlikeable, at least not on screen. Chances are good, however, in real like you would probably want to blanket party this person every night. But this isn't real life, and watching mudwrestling with Ziskey and Ox seems like a great time.
The Jokester doesn't have to be an outright party animal. Joker in Full Metal Jacket may have been a Jokester, but he was actually still a good troop who did his job, even as a rifleman, despite his personal feelings about the war. Remember, Joker is the one who shot the Vietcong sniper at point blank range.
10. The True Leader
He emerges when he's needed most. He handles every situation he's in like an expert, even when he's not. He wears a brave face for his men, but even so, the men know he cares for real. More often than not, when the True Leader shows up in a war film or show, the character is based on a real person.
The True Leader would have to be based on a real person who was a true leader, because if he were fictional, no one watching would ever be able to believe he did the things he did.
11. The Sniper
This one is pretty self- explanatory. The Sniper isn't in every movie, but when he's there, he's the guardian of the troops on the ground, the eyes in the sky, and the avenging angel of death who gets sh*t done when no one else can.
One thing is for certain: it really is awesome to watch sniper scenes.
12. The Veteran's Veteran
Maybe he's trained in a bunch of stuff the average troop will never see or even read about. Maybe we're better off not knowing guys like this exist. Some of them are so awesome in battle, they don't need a quick reaction force, close air support, or even a gun.
No matter how operator they may be, what makes them The Veteran's Veteran is what they do for their fellow warfighter. Their feelings are usually captured in a meaningful speech during or after the battle.