There is a clear tension between the evolving practice of utilising the skills and experience possessed by Other Ranks (ORs) and the enduring tradition of maintaining rigid social separations based on rank in the contemporary Australian Defence Force (ADF). This presents a challenge as the ADF increasingly integrates OR skills, experiences, and perspectives into roles once reserved for higher ranks. 

These contributions are key to helping the ADF use its workforce effectively as it deals with today's complex geopolitical challenges. However, the traditional framework of social hierarchy within the ADF continues to enforce a clear divide in social settings, including mess separation and after-work gatherings, which contradicts the inclusivity necessitated by operational and technical collaboration. This contradiction raises questions about the full utilisation and integration of ORs’ skills and experiences and the impact on team cohesion and morale. 

The ADF is currently facing the challenge of adapting to the evolving strategic environment as outlined by the Defence Strategic Review, while also addressing issues related to attracting and retaining talent. In this context, bridging the gap between professional integration and social exclusion within the ADF is a strategic necessity and a question of organisational integrity and fairness. For the ADF to fully benefit from its members’ diverse talents, skills, experiences, and perspectives, it could be worthwhile to adapt its social practices to be more inclusive and reflective of every member’s contributions.

The Army in Motion philosophy, championed by former Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr, AO, DSC, MVO, led to a revolution in understanding how we employ Army’s teams:

Army’s people are our competitive advantage for Accelerated Warfare. Our people enable Army to quickly form teams whenever, wherever and with whomever is needed to succeed’ 

Army contributes to Defence through our teams. These teams make Navy, Air Force and joint capability stronger. Our people excel at integrating people and teams… Army’s people are good soldiers. They create high-performing teams who change roles for the problem at hand’

The Army in Motion philosophy reveals the usefulness of ORs with varied skills, experiences, and viewpoints in the ADF. The ADF is, therefore, better equipped to achieve its goals by forming diverse teams across ranks. My own transition from a tactical role in an infantry unit to a strategic and technical position within the Adjutant General’s office highlights the ADF’s broader acknowledgment of how diverse teams can enhance capability and readiness. This approach is integral to preparing Land Forces for war, reflecting the ADF’s commitment to leveraging the full potential of its total workforce model.

Although the ADF has made progress in recognising and using the different skills from all ranks, practices like having separate messes can sometimes go against the key ideas of unity and working together, which are very important for our collective strength and mission success. This segregation, emblematic of broader hierarchical distinctions, can quietly weaken the feeling of being part of a team and the mutual respect that is essential for esprit de corps

A poignant example of this occurred following a professional development activity I recently participated in, which was meant to help build teamwork and sharpen our unit's goals. As the only OR in a unit mostly made up of higher ranks, I wore civilian clothes for the week's training, making me stand out from the rest in uniform. I ate at the ORs' mess and had my after-work drinks at the OR bar, which was noticeably empty of soldiers from the surrounding units. 

One evening, sitting by myself, I really felt the difference between the teamwork during the day and the isolation in the evening, especially after heading to my bar for a drink while officers and senior NCOs met up at theirs. This experience reflects a broader issue where the physical and symbolic separations enforced by traditional practices such as segregated messes can impact morale. It highlights a dissonance between the military’s operational reliance on the diverse skills and unity of its members, and the perpetuation of social practices that undermine these very principles.

It may be necessary to re-examine and potentially change traditional military practices in some contexts, due to the evolving strategic environment and societal values that are moving towards greater inclusivity and integration. The military, which is a reflection of society, would do well to mirror the diversity and dynamism of the world it aims to protect. 

Inclusivity, particularly in social settings such as messes, is more than just social reform; there is a strategic benefit that improves team cohesion, morale, and, ultimately, operational effectiveness. When defence members from different ranks and backgrounds come together in an environment that values and respects each individual’s contribution, it fosters a deeper sense of belonging and unity. 

Such an environment promotes open communication, mutual respect, and a shared sense of purpose – which are critical elements of a highly effective team. By aligning traditional practices with contemporary values of diversity and inclusivity, the ADF can strengthen its internal cohesion and enhance its operational capabilities, ensuring a force that is prepared for the challenges of modern warfare and is also representative of the values it seeks to defend.

The foundational pillars of military effectiveness – discipline and the chain of command – are sacrosanct, underpinning the order, reliability, and decisiveness that define armed forces worldwide. Embracing adaptation and inclusivity does not entail the dilution of these core principles; rather, it signifies an evolution in their application, ensuring they remain relevant and effective within a rapidly changing global landscape. 

To harmonise the respect for time-honoured traditions with the imperative for modernisation, the military can explore innovative approaches that foster unity without compromising its ethos. Initiatives such as mixed-rank professional development and team building activities present opportunities for members of all ranks to learn from one another, share experiences, and build mutual respect in a context that values everyone’s contribution to the mission. 

Similarly, hosting more inclusive social events or occasionally mixing members between messes in some contexts can bridge the gap between ranks, allowing for informal interactions that strengthen bonds and promote a comprehensive understanding of diverse perspectives. These adaptations, by enhancing interpersonal relationships and team cohesion, ultimately reinforce the discipline and respect for hierarchy that are vital to military success, demonstrating that modernisation and tradition can, indeed, coexist and complement one another.

While it’s important to maintain discipline and respect for the chain of command, these goals need not be at odds with creating a more inclusive and respectful environment. The challenge lies in finding ways to better adapt traditions and social practices to reflect the contributions and dignity of all defence members, fostering a culture that values expertise, contribution, and teamwork across all ranks. For the ADF to fully benefit from the talents and skills of its members, it must also reconsider how it integrates and includes them within the broader ADF community, including in social settings. This conversation is an important part of the ongoing evolution of military culture and practices.