Innovation and Adaptation

The Importance of the Military Mess

By Benjamin Gray May 16, 2019

Click here to access a copy of the paper 'The Importance of the Military Mess'

Military messes contribute to fighting power by acting as a nexus point that enhances unit esprit de corps, cultivates leadership attributes, and fosters a binding military ethos. By performing this role, a mess contributes to the development and strengthening of the moral component of fighting power, which ‘embodies those individual and organisational characteristics that are fundamental to success — morale, integrity, values, and legitimacy’ . Regrettably, few authentic messes remain and I believe that as members we have become morally dislocated from institutions that once acted as wardens of tradition and principle. The institution of the mess is an important instrument for the development of leadership, the delivery of professional military education, instilling and fostering of ethos, and developing resilience.

In this paper Benjamin establishes the importance of the military mess by examining the role it plays in three aspects of the profession of arms: soldiering, ethos and behaviour.



Benjamin Gray

Benjamin Gray is the Senior Instructor of Combat Command Wing, and has served in a range of operations and training appointments within the Australian Army, including overseas service in the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters of Strategy and Security and a Masters of Military and Defence Studies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


I agree with Benny's assertion that messes are an important part of military life. However I think part of the challenge is how to get members to see the value as well. Many messes that I have been a part of have struggled to get members to attend events outside of 'core' hours. Maybe that's not a deal breaker to their retention but it certainly makes it difficult to ensure their ongoing viability. The question is how to attract the younger demographic (that makes me feel old) that may not have the same fond memories that we hold.

Pip good points all. There are structural and ownership issues that could be dealt with which may address your concerns. Messes have been viable and attractive for many decades prior. I think this was because there was a sense of ownership and proximity (physical, emotional and social) that overcame generational vicissitudes. Ones Battalion, Regiment or Unit had their Mess imposing and providing ownership in equal measure. You were responsible for and delighted in your Mess. The move to centralised area and formation messes challenged markedly if not broke this paradigm. It diminished ownership and sense of place for the Messes’ Officers and usually increased physical distance from unit to Mess as well. Some Messes either by circumstance or more often design (1Bde) met this challenge successfully but many have not. To my mind this is the root cause as I have experienced reasonably recently how British Messes have retained their esprit and value in the face of similar financial and generational pressures. Interestingly I have seen a reaction in Units to recreate Unit messes of a form given withering of formal messes. Perhaps the Mess will reinvent itself by reverting to its origins? While not du jour decentralisation and a reversion to Unit Messes likely less grand and less well provisioned but truly owned by the Unit its officers and Warrants and SNCOs would help? I fear that in our rush to centralise usually based on a beguiling but specious argument of efficiency the moment may have passed in the annals. Maybe the answer has to lie in using the Messes as they stand better although that struggle has been underway for sometime...rose tinted glasses and echoes of in my Day aside perhaps the Mess as an idea and a whole is slowly being consigned the way of the dinosaur and dodo, inexorably edging towards extinction. I hope not.

Well done Ben, Messes are a singular aspect of military life and we have been poor at illuminating their value. Business put goodwill and brand value on their balance sheets along with other intangible assets. Perhaps we can do the same for Messes reflecting the morale and esprit they engender along with the day to day value they offer to coordination and building relationships in the unit or formation. Finally they offer a unique dimension to our profession that civilians regularly comment on and often envy. We may not be able to return to Regimental Messes as I had when a junior officer but we need to protect and cherish as well as argue for and articulate cogently the value of our remaining Messes...

Ben, an interesting and thoughtful paper on an important topic. I agree that messes used to play an important role in developing professional military ethos and unit morale. A healthy mess life institutionalised unit identity and was part of our ‘psychological salary’, as you aptly put it. In fairness to the organisation, any cultural and moral implications of centralised messing would have been hard to foresee when we started down this road. Arguments based on intangible factors like tradition, morale and honour (important thought they are) only go so far when cutting costs. Your paper highlights the differences between civil and military society. For right or wrong, contemporary Australian military culture has increasingly conformed to civilian norms and wider cultural expectations. The extent to which a mess environment ‘confronts the friction between cultures’ is open to debate. Tribalism, abuse of alcohol and unacceptable and non-inclusive behaviours were not uncommon in unit messes of the past. I also think the demographic ownership aspect Pip mentions needs to be considered. Over the last decade or so, I have only really observed traditional mess life at Canungra where there were captive audiences and relatively few off-base options for socialising. Big area messes were invariably deserted during visits over the past few years. The contemporary generation of young officers either have little interest in socialising on base, or today’s messes hold no appeal. I suspect both apply.

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