In this dialogue, two female agents (two of the most conscientious officers of the team) are having a phone conversation from two different countries. The one who is baking the cake is inviting the other to come along for a special occasion in a forward operating base in Afghanistan where a suspicious mole is supposed to arrive and provide important information to the investigation.

– Don't be so literal, everyone likes cake. It's not too late for you to come, you know, it'll be fun.

– No, I don't want to be a straphanger. It's your show. You were the first to see the potential in this.

I guess 'straphanger' seems to be used in a metaphorical way here, but I didn't understand it in a clarified way. I'd like to get further clarification because it appears to be used in an interesting way.

(Film: Zero Dark Thirty - United States, 2012)


"Straphanger" seems to have a different, and negative connotation in current US military parlance. Since this is a militarily-oriented movie, it is probably the definition that applies.

In an article unrelated to Zero Dark Thirty, I found a reference to strap hangers.

"We have a saying in the SEAL Teams about the 90-10 rule. It goes: 90% of the guys that make it through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training are solid Operators and go on to do great things. The other 10% are constantly bringing the community and their team down. We are always trying to cull the 10% out of the herd. In the military these guys are commonly referred to as “strap hangers”....grabbing at the straps of the good men that participated in this operation."

I found another reference in a book review titled The Poetry of Military Vernacular: Randy Brown’s “Welcome to FOB Haiku” that defines "straphanger" as deadweight.

So it means something like a hanger-on person who does not productively contribute to the mission, but who takes credit for it anyway.

I have never heard this use of this expression before, nor have I seen Zero Dark Thirty, but this seems to fit, as even the context implies a negative connotation.


In this context, it is not metaphorical, just idiomatic within the military context.

If the speaker is military, a 'straphanger' is an interloper to an existing team and while a bit deprecating not necessarily a pejorative. The quoted dialog is a good example.

If the speaker is civilian, a 'straphanger' could be someone who is just along for the ride, coming from a term used for standing subway passengers. Again, this is not a pejorative since there were, and still are, straps to hold.

  • I think adding some references that support the "subway" sense of straphanger and show how it is used would improve your answer. For example, merriam-webster.com/dictionary/straphanger. There's even a Straphangers Campaign to improve public transit in New York City. I doubt they would name themselves something that was derogatory :) Straphangers happen when the train is over-crowded and there aren't enough seats, so I think there's a nuance of being a "5th wheel" in contexts outside of public transit. – ColleenV Jul 19 '17 at 15:05

In U.S. Army Airborne exercises, based on 10 years of being a paratrooper, a Straphanger is an active paratrooper who is not on the jump manifest who is on standby to join the jump. After the initial manifest is verified, any open spaces available on the plane are then offered up to the Straphangers waiting in the wing. The Straphangers are usually, but not necessarily, from an outside unit. As paratroopers are required to make a quota of jumps (1 per quarter), this is a pretty common way to ensure everyone meets the requirement.

For example, 1st Battalion Headquarters reserves a C130 airplane for a para-drop. The C130 can hold 64 paratroopers. 1st Battalion HQ puts 64 personnel from their unit on the jump manifest (list of jumpers). On the day of the jump everyone is counted and there turns out to be 5 personnel that are sick or otherwise unable to jump. Meanwhile 2nd Battalion HQ had sent over 5 people from their unit that need to fill their individual jump quota. These extra people are called Straphangers. It this case, they would fill the spaces vacated from sick paratroopers to fill out the 64 seats on the C130.


You want a good reference for "Straphanger" one word, not two. Go read just about anything on MACVSOG in the Vietnam War, you'll find the term used multiple times by Recon Team members, also know as Spike Teams, they also had what was called Hatchet Teams, Reaction Teams, and others. The term is used often by the SF guys, and it's not use in a derogatory sense: a straphanger is just somebody along for the ride, say on a Bright Light mission for example. Their typically not part of the team, but they are SF qualified and SOG, they may just be long as an observer, or for technical advise. Try telling a 5th Special Forces SOG type that his Straphanger buddy coming along for the ride is a bum, or someone who doesn't pull their weight, I think you'll get an argument for sure. RamBoze

  • The knowledge shared here is very deep, which is amazing, but it is explained using military jargon and acronyms that would also need more explaining if the OP (or someone viewing this question later) would also need to know. Could you add a portion where you could explain it in basic words without acronyms, slogans or idioms (like along for the ride)? – katatahito Jun 27 '19 at 2:12

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