In this week’s installment of blogs intended to generate professional discussion, we have a bit of fun from our British officer abroad in America. It is the week of the holidays, so a piece on the Mess is perfectly in the spirit of the times.
This is a subject near and dear to my scholarly heart as I have been researching and writing on military dining for several years now. I have dined in a British Army mess and it is an institution. In fact, until WWII the US Army boasted a mess tradition that, if not so bound to unit as merely to officer ranks, was a close rival to that of the British Army, particularly in expeditionary settings. (1) The influx of citizens into uniform in the WWII kicked over most of the traces of a custom that had existed since Washington’s family table in the Revolutionary War. Although “O Clubs” remained in the post-WWII Army, their appeal – as places to dine and drink socio-professionally has declined. On the other side of the landpower divide, the Marine Corps as well does not institutionalize socializing. There are, however, the odd turns in both the Army and Marine Corps when Mess Nights are held. Often formal affairs, these can be conducted with and without guests. It is, for example, an institution of the Basic School – Marine Corps finishing school for new lieutenants – to celebrate the conclusion with a Mess Night. And I know that while he was 7th Marines CO, the Colonel Mattis held field mess nights during certain regimental exercises at 29 Palms, though these were anything but formal affairs. However, there is no regular socializing to which officers or enlisted are bound or beckoned. Given the value identified in the bonds forged and renewed at the table, this absence is to be considered.
So, raise an imagined glass of Port in toast to our Colonel and enter the world of the British Army mess. And as it’s the holidays, I would simply ask that our band of merry discussants sip and ruminate on the role of professional socializing in the US armed forces. Where the Colonel identifies the value of the Mess for adding “soul” to the officer, consider where it is that the same is shaped for the American officer shaped. Add your comments to the hashtag, #CCLKOW.
The Colonel enjoys working with the Americans. I find them professional, courteous and mostly lacking the cynicism that is every British officer’s birthright. What has fascinated me the most about living and working in the United States are those nuances of culture, both social and organisational that delineate the two countries and armies. It is very easy for a British officer to think that he understands his US counterparts, such is the relationship built up over the past decade of conflict and the prevalence of US culture in the UK, but the truth is that we are subtly divided and it is often in the small things that large consequences can be seen. One of these matters is that of Messes.
I live and work in a large US Army base. I doubt that it is the largest base, but it certainly is not the smallest; by UK standards it would be a super-garrison. Having lived and worked here for some time it was with a growing sense of disbelief and not a little dismay that I realised that there was no Officers’ Mess on base, in fact there were no Messes at all. A British Officers’ Mess is analogous to an American Officers’ Club. If the general staff is the brains and the Senior NCO (SNCO) corps the backbone of an army, then the British mess system is its heart and soul. There are messes for junior NCOs, SNCOS and officers and they are present in every unit, HQ and garrison. The best glimpse of what a Mess means to a British officer can be glimpsed in this excerpt from John McMasters’ “Bugles and a Tiger”:
In the mess lived an echo from silver trumpets of the past. There were impressions of light and tone muted and wavering as in a cathedral under the sea. At dinner the Colours, cased and capped and crossed, stood like huge black rockets against the wall behind the president. On guest nights they were unfurled and lit the room with the embroidered battle honours of two hundred years. In their silken richness I saw all that glory, and all of those muskets buried in the mud of forgotten fields, and all those men – my uncle’s generation, Major Tom’s young friends – who had died, broken on barbed wire.
This regiment had a long association with India. As the 32nd Foot, it held the residency of Luckow through the famous siege of 1857, during the Mutiny. When the walls crumbled the mess silver, crated, was used to plug the gaps. At dinner we now ate off some of that silver; the rest, the pieces that had been twisted by enemy fire, hung in glass cases on the walls. Among them was a soup tureen with a hole in it where a musket ball had entered – and dents where the ball had ricocheted round and round – and the leaden ball itself. A little farther along hung a long row of bronze medals, each with a short piece of dull crimson ribbon. These were the Victoria Crosses won by the men of the 32nd at Lucknow. So, in the glow of the Lucknow silver and the self-effacing sheen of the Lucknow Crosses, we laughed and talked and quarreled and felt ourselves lapped in the warm continuity of tradition…(2)
For a British Officer on commissioning, the Mess will be home. (3) He will live in a Mess until such stage as he is either married or of such seniority that his presence is likely to cramp the style of his younger brethren. I use the term “brethren” deliberately because even without the bonds of shared campaigning the Mess forges a family ethos. Officers live and socialise together even before they fight together and as a result of these shared social endeavours and not least “in vino veritas” very quickly get to know the whole person and form extraordinarily tight bonds very quickly. I still count as three of my closest friends the officers I joined my regiment with over twenty year ago. Only I remain serving but we remain inextricably linked not just by shared bonds of experience but of friendship and family. As subalterns we ate together and drank together, we became field marshals at the bar in the evening and reverted to subalterns at breakfast in the morning; we saw the best and the worst of each other in the three years we lived together before assignments split us apart. I was there when they met their girlfriends, present when they married their wives and celebrated the arrival of their children; they are my extended family.
That is not to say that the Americans do not socialise, they do. In fact they are very sociable and generous with their hospitality. I have been on receipt of numerous invites (and I am always open to more, especially if there is red wine or brisket involved), but the socialising is very much individual and not collective, an officer will invite friends and colleagues around for drinks and a barbecue. What I have seen very little evidence for is collective socialising in manner with which the British Army conducts it. The U.S. Military seems to socialise off base (metaphorically), not on base. Whereas the British place the Mess at the centre of base and unit life.
The Mess is also where the junior officer will absorb the ethos of the regiment. Its history will stare down at him from the pictures and trophies on the walls, the silver will tell tales of past campaigns and characters and even the furniture will normally have a story to be tell. All this the officer will be expected come to know and in time cherish. The Mess is where guidance is given, standards are elaborated on and very often measured. An officer who sets poor standards at home, is hardly likely to set good standards elsewhere. As there is no rank in the Mess, at least not in mine, mentoring is both relaxed and pervasive. (4) Messes are the trustees of both standards and traditions. If Sandhurst makes the officer, the Mess refines him, adding polish and lustre; Sandhurst builds character while Messes add soul. (5)
There is another aspect to messes and mess life that is often overlooked, and that is of networking. Messes socialise both formally and informally. Most messes will hold one, if not two balls a year as well as regular Regimental Guest Nights. At Regimental Guest Nights the unit and its officers are showcased to guests and relationships either established or confirmed. Guests are normally from the wider military and garrison community and usually chosen on the basis that they have dealings with the unit; the nights are seen as a way of expressing hospitality and building constructive relationships. Guests are formally dined and then less formally entertained afterwards. (6) Informal socialising is simply a matter of the mess bar and common courtesy. Your mess, whether at unit, HQ or garrison level is your home and one should always be hospitable towards one’s guests. What this means in practice is that British officers socialise vertically and laterally within the chain of command and where officers socialise and wine flows so networks are established and the “good idea fairy” springs to life. My previously recounted expedition to the Hindu Kush was the result of a Regimental Guest Night and said good idea fairy settling on the shoulder of the very senior (albeit retired) officer sitting to the (now) Colonel’s right and recounting when he was on the North West Frontier. (7) It is at such gatherings that the brigade deputy chief of staff (S4 in US parlance) can for example hear the solution to his logistics issue from the infantry platoon commander who unaware of the issue until then, had a sister whose company solved precisely the same issue the previous year. In these gatherings alliances are made, deals are struck and things get done; juniors speak to senior and both esoteric knowledge and hidden talents can shine brightly.
What does this mean? Well as an intimate observer the non-deployed U.S. Military does rather seem like a nine-to-five organisation in a cultural sense. There is not the degree of social intimacy that is found in the British Army. Partly because of the lack of a Mess, but also it must be understood, partly the result of 13 gruelling years of campaigning during which the focus was on allowing individuals family time in between deployments. The current US military is without doubt a team, forged in the crucible of operations since 2001, but I wonder if it has lost sight of what it means to be a family, and indeed if it was ever thus? For while I am not blind to the weaknesses of the British Army, one of the strengths of our system is that we remain at heart familial in our social ethos.
So I am somewhat nonplussed by the lack of a mess. Pragmatically I wonder just how to Americans socialise laterally and vertically across their profession; where and how are networks formed? Culturally I wonder, if not in the Mess, then just where does the heart and soul of the US military reside? Both these matters are best pondered with family and friends, a glass of Islay whisky in hand, over the coming weeks as 2014 draws to a close and 2015 stands to. So I wish you all a Happy Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year, whether you are at the spear’s tip or the families that keep us all strong.
1 Although lengthy, this excerpt from a Fort Leavenworth 1917 manual of Customs of Service prepared by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Miller provides a thoughtful and thorough explication of the form in the US Army at that moment:
The main purpose of a regimental mess is to promote cordiality, comradeship, and esprit de corps, especially regimental esprit de corps, and while such a mess is social in its nature, the meals, especially the dinner, are, in a way, semi-official functions. Do not consider it merely a place where the bachelor officers dine, but rather as the regimental hearthstone where at certain intervals it is compulsory on all the regimental officers to dine together. It should be the place where the old regimental colors are displayed, where all the old regimental relics in the shape of books, pictures, plates, etc., are on file to be looked up and referred to. It should be the place where the colonel and the lieutenant meet in the social equality of gentlemen in that camaraderie and good fellowship which teaches the youngster respect and affection for his seniors, and the elders, kindness and consideration for the juniors; it should be the place where are forged the links that bind the regimental front unbroken to the outside world, and where in their own privacy their can deal with questions affecting the honor and tradition so dear to them; it should be the place where dwells the spirit and the soul of the principles that have made the regiment and that have preserved intact its prestige, its honor, its tradition. There is no single means more full of bright and promising good for esprit de corps than your regimental mess on a firm and zeal-inspiring basis. (Lieutenant Colonel Charles Miller, USA, The Customs of the Service; also Some Suggestions and Advice, p. 16, emphasis added.)
2 Reprint Society, London 1957, John Masters “Bugles and a Tiger” p. 26-27.
3 I will focus on the officers’ messes as that is where my experience is, but many sentiments hold true for JNCO and SNCO messes.
4 I will focus on the officers’ messes as that is where my experience is, but many sentiments hold true for JNCO and SNCO messes.
5 The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where all British Army officers undergo training.
6 ‘Bucket Reels” and “Fireball Hockey” were both favoured forms of post-dinner entertainment in my mess, quite probably due to the high likelihood of physical harm being incurred by participants in both.
7 Which gives some indication of how senior and retired the officer was, the Colonel is not that old.