Cultural objects have no notable identity outside of that which we confer upon them. Their value is entirely a product of the interaction that we have with them.
– Brian Eno
As a junior Officer in the 1st Brigade, collective culture was cultivated in the confines of the mess. The mess provided a familiar environment where Officers from different Corps and cohorts could openly discuss and formulate ideas and fledgling concepts outside of the hierarchical norms. As a direct consequence, a platform of trust was forged within the Barracks setting that transferred to the field and by extension, to overseas operations. Regrettably, the enthusiasm for the collective to gather within the mess has diminished as we struggle to quantify its value proposition. The following article will discuss how our Army in Motion can harness the intangible benefits of the Mess and in doing so, enhance its collective culture.
Combined Arms Mess Culture
Manoeuvre Theory relies upon commanders who are expert in Combined Arms operations because there is no 'single arm' solution to the tactical problems encountered by a manoeuvre commander. Each combined arm complements the other arms’ strengths and weaknesses. When synchronised, the combined force compels the enemy to react to multiple tactical dilemmas. From a foundational level, Combined Arms fundamentally links to Manoeuvre Theory and is founded on trust, only achieved by familiarity and understanding. Army generates capability through its people by building trust at a foundational level. It also generates its competitive advantage through its people, enabled by technology, and prepared for uncertain and ambiguous environments. For our ‘Army in Motion’ to realise its true potential, greater emphasis must be placed upon what is referred to as ‘collective culture’ through successful team building.
The 1st Brigade generated mechanised capability and in doing so, promoted a strong combined arms culture driven by the Commander and his Commanding Officers who demanded integration at the unit level. Battle Grouping was commonplace as opposed to Battalion Grouping which is currently the norm. It was under this construct that we truly learnt our respective trade, not as individuals but as enablers within a system. Professional development was graduated by design allowing progression from single arms to combined arms. As a consequence, officers often gathered in the mess as friends and professional colleagues – it was an environment where families were truly welcomed and encouraged to attend. Sadly, it is this very same mess culture that has gradually evaporated due to a number of contributing factors.
The mess not only fostered the development of professional relationships but also generated an interconnectedness between like-minded professionals which played a key role in establishing a collective identity. Such a critical element of our individual and collective culture cannot and should not be lost to the annals of time. The Australian Army must reinvest both time and capital in the mess and in doing so, reinvigorate the mess culture that once provided Army’s leaders with the ability to socialise and test the collective think-tank in preparation for the inevitable uncertainty and ambiguity of conflict.
The ability to conduct combined arms operations and successfully execute close combat is directly related to a training regime that emphasises a willingness to endure hardship, to apply force appropriately, and an ability to function as part of a team in lethal circumstances. Team building is underpinned by shared hardships and collective thinking, all of which can be considered a bi-product of collective culture. The mess environment is pivotal in establishing the necessary tools and collective thought processes required to drive Army’s cultural mindset through Good Soldiering. It allows members to disengage from barracks routine and engage in professional discourse that would not otherwise eventuate within a Regimental or Battalion setting. It also affords the opportunity to disengage from our workspaces and re-engage in face-to-face communication. The combined arms mess supports the creation of future ready teams by fostering bottom-up initiatives where Officers and Senior NCOs are challenged to test and adjust concepts at the embryonic stage.
The real value of the mess is not easily distinguished or measured. One cannot simply show you a kilogram of morale, a tonne of cohesion or trust. Such an undertaking would be anecdotal at best. It is the ability to decompress, discuss and mentor at all rank levels that builds relationships and trust. The real value of the mess resides within the specific interactions between its members which ought to be inclusive, genuine and professionally nourishing. For many, their experience with senior ranks has been one of necessity and cold professionalism. Commanders at all levels should seek out the mess as a place to coach and mentor junior ranks. In doing so, the mess would become a cultural symbol that goes far beyond pre-existing customs and traditions.
A cultural symbol is a place, object or event that serves to transmit cultural meaning. Similar linkages can be drawn between the unit artefacts and equipment displayed within the mess. It is through these symbols of unit history that mess members demonstrate their pride and in doing so, build esprit de corps. The existence of unit rooms within the combined arms mess facilitated pride in a unit’s history and its various accomplishments. Napoleon recognised the importance of the mess in building esprit de corps. In his words, it is a ‘place to meet for meals that maintains the highest standards of excellence as to surroundings, cuisine and personnel’. It is these essential factors that build esprit de corps and provide a real litmus test in determining mess culture.
Unfortunately, the allure of the mess has somewhat diminished due to a lack of ownership from mess members and the proximity of alternate social establishments. The slow decline in interest can also be apportioned to a changing demographic that no longer contextualises the value of the mess. In an era where culture is topical, there is no better institution to instil a sense of collective identity than within the hallowed halls of the mess. It is the inherent responsibility of Commanders and by extension, the Mess Committee to impress a sense of ownership upon its mess members.
In the same manner that a tradesman or tradeswoman might renovate a building, mess members should look to improve, refurbish and regenerate the mess. The solution resides in the physical layout and décor of the Mess, both of which play a critical role in demonstrating an observable symbol of culture. An organisation that espouses knowledge sharing, such as the Australian Army, should place greater emphasis on member participation in the Mess Committee where decisions to improve and modernise the mess are formulated. At present, Mess Committee participation is viewed as a compulsory Regimental appointment and therefore much like a chore. Commanders must invest time in building mess culture, to desist the temptation to direct mess participation but rather foster an attitude that encourages subordinates to seek out the mess as a means to promote good soldiering. Essentially, good soldiering is about agility in thinking and quickly forming teams, both of which are synonymous to the combined arms mess.
The mess provides an ideal location to teach, coach, and mentor Army personnel through Professional Military Education (PME) programs. From a professional viewpoint, there is no better place to ‘get after it’. Commanders at all levels have a responsibility to instil a culture of learning and promote professional development opportunities. As such, it makes perfect sense to utilise the existing cultural foundations established within the mess to reinvigorate a rank specific PME curriculum. This is achievable through the allocation of funding to promote PME in the Mess, where units are actively encouraged to utilise the mess to undertake single arm and combined arms PME. A review of the distribution of bar profits set out within the Hamilton Review would provide an opportunity to re-evaluate how we can better support Mess Committees’ in maintaining activities such as PME based initiatives. In doing so, the Mess Committee could re-invest in promoting the mess as a unique environment in which Army can enhance professional learning through rank-specific PME.
The 1st Brigade Officer’s Mess Committee regularly supported weekly PME through the allocation of funding. In doing so, standardised and recurring professional activities were used to influence the behaviours and understanding of mess members. As a young Officer, it was these rites and rituals of the mess that helped generate collective culture and in doing so, created the framework through which a belief system could take shape. Ultimately, this is best characterised through the Chinese proverb ‘tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand’. Collective culture is based on shared goals rather than individual desires or goals. Only through a better understanding of the intangible benefits and value presented by the mess can we begin to rebuild the forgotten mess culture that once permeated throughout Army. Without command driven leadership through investment in time and capital, the mess will become a shadow of its former glory where participation is perceived to be compulsory.