Saturday, 8 March 2014
The barbaric habits of the British Army today
Well it seemed Humphrey picked a bad week to go out of the country on business – Russia and Ukraine are dragging the West into arguably the worst crisis of the post-Cold War era. In the Gulf tensions are mounting between Qatar and other GCC nations, with ambassadors now being withdrawn. Venezuela appears to be on the verge of near chaos as a result of riots between opposition activists and the Government. Meanwhile in the UK the worry seems to be that some Army officers have adopted ‘barbaric’ eating practises.
Yes, ‘that’ memo is the subject of the latest article, mainly because it is so much more than just a ‘light hearted email’ but is in fact, to the authors mind at least, a fascinating insight into the quiet social revolution going on in our officers messes. The story so far is that a memo written by the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 3 (UK) Division- Maj Gen Cowan, and sent out to a fairly small list of 1* officers has been leaked to the media. In it he complains in three distinct areas about conduct today – namely, the conduct of an officer in the mess – particularly when eating. The manner in which some officers conduct themselves at dinner parties and guest nights, in particular the seating arrangements, and finally the standards and use of writing by some officers today.
The reaction in the media has been one of predominantly barely controlled ridicule, seeing this as yet another example of a Victorian General completely out of touch with the modern nation and the standards of today. The defence being used is that the email was intended to be sent in a manner showing light hearted banter to try and get people thinking about how they conduct themselves.
Personally Humphrey thinks the General has made the cardinal mistake of trying to apply humour to an email, without considering how it may be read by others. No matter how you mean something to be read, the danger is that unless you know the author well, and can interpret the inflections and subtleties as you read it, then the danger is that it can be interpreted very differently. Its far better to have verbally briefed your concerns for onwards briefing, rather than commit them to a medium which can be easily passed on. In this case it has rebounded very badly, causing the Army a minor PR disaster at a point when it desperately needs PR wins.
At its most basic the Generals email highlights the growing social change in the military, and the manner in which it has changed out of all recognition in the last 30 years. When the Generals generation joined the Army, the expectation was one that Mess life was very much the centre of the individual officers personal life, inhabited for most of the year and with a small group of individuals living, working and socialising together. The shared camaraderie and opportunity fostered a strong team spirit, and built bonds which lasted a lifetime. Underpinning this was a shared sense of common values and conduct – one only has to look at the way that the three Officer training establishments used to conduct training in officer like qualities for many years. When people married and left the mess, they would usually inhabit the married quarters, and the Regiment or Service would work around the world as an extended family, particularly as it was less common for wives to hold down full time careers. Thus things like dinner parties and wider social gatherings were very common.
Today though the mess as a concept is very different – the growth of home ownership or at the very least renting somewhere off site has massively reduced the numbers of full time ‘livers in’ who occupy the mess. The average officers mess is a ghost town at weekends, and the move to commercial catering such as Pay As You Dine (PAYD) means that many of the perks of mess membership seem to have quietly vanished. Officers have partners and families The explosion in easily accessible social media such as internet, consoles, mobile phones and all the other means of staying in touch with friends means that people have very easy access to their wider social networks. Speaking to senior officers recently, they bemoaned that the modern generation of junior officers arrive in the military with already formed social networks outside of the armed forces which they prioritise above their military colleagues. In other words, there has been a shift between the generation where the military and Mess life was seen as a calling and a way of life to now where increasingly the Mess is seen as a temporary accommodation during the working week, and that real life goes on at home.
While there are exceptions to the rule, Humphrey has noted that particularly in the last 10-15 years the Mess has played an ever less important part in the life of many military officers. The ease of returning home, the decline of the drinking culture and the fact that many people are just so busy now means that many of the standards and traditions that previously were taken for granted have fallen by the wayside. The dinner party lifestyle which occurred on the Patch, the regular mess dinners and the spontaneous unplanned run ashore seem to have slowly gone into decline. Much of the wider activity that made the military so much more than just a job is quietly disappearing and instead the Mess is becoming much more like a Travelodge – somewhere to eat, sleep and go to work and nothing more.
What has not helped is that for the last 20 years the Armed Forces have been exceptionally busy on real world operations and the not had the time for living the ‘Garrison Lifestyle’ as was the case during the 1980s. The end of HERRICK though is perhaps drawing into sharp relief that the future for the British Army is going to be a lot more about life in large garrisons around the UK, with very little in the way of ‘real soldiering’ going on. The reaction to this email shows perhaps how much the Army has changed from being a static force, to one that has spent nearly two decades on operations and not having time to worry about the seating order at a dinner party. The large bulk of junior – mid seniority officers will have not known any life other than one where operations were the key driver, and a steady round of OPTAG, deployment, POTL, recovery and repeat was the norm.
Where does this saga leave the Army? Firstly it is hard to see how it is anything other than a minor PR disaster for the Army – having an email leak in this way merely goes to highlight all the concerns that people have about the perception of an out of touch military still fighting the last war. The salient points that the General did make (e.g. the unnecessary use of capitals and long words and other defence writing points, plus working on increasing public exposure to what the Army does) have been missed, particularly by a media gleeful to have pure comedy gold on its hands. Secondly it weakens the case for the Army in SDSR in the mind of politicians who will remember incidents like this – the good work done on operations is easily undone by a new minister who remembers the story of the Army officer more worried about cutlery than combat. The other two Services will doubtless be rubbing their hands in glee as they see an easy way to portray an out of touch Army spectacularly shoot itself in the foot.
The reaction in the Army is also telling. It highlights the growing schism between junior officers who see the Army as a career, but one in which they have to balance off their home, work and personal lives with more senior officers who see the Army as a lifestyle and a calling. There is no denying that society has changed, and that the mental image of the mess from thirty years ago is probably not the mess that many young officers want to live in now. As the Army returns to barracks, one has to ask whether many of the current crop of younger officers would want to put up with this sort of imposition on their lives, or if its enough to make them leave and go elsewhere? There is a fine line to be struck between insisting on the highest standards and conduct, and adding unnecessary and at times possibly ludicrous conditions on how you should eat and behave. Finally the letter does suggest that some in the Army do not recognise that the role of the partner has changed, and that offering marriage guidance suggestions (no matter how humorously intended) to a generation where the wife (or husband) usually holds down a very successful career and probably earns more than their Army spouse is a very easy way to build resentment from both the Officer and their partner, and is one more reason to encourage people to consider leaving.
It is also probably not unfair to say that this sort of story may make potential recruits reconsider whether they event want to be in the Army full stop – if you were looking at careers, would you want to join an organisation that recognised your time was your own, or one that had senior people get het up over you eating a sandwich?
So, no matter that the memo was sent with the best of intents, it would seem to have backfired spectacularly and caused the Army one of its more easily avoidable PR disasters since the last Crimean War. It has reinforced the ‘General Melchett’ stereotypes so beloved of the media, and tarnished the reputation of an officer who has served with distinction for many years. In short, probably not the Army’s finest hour.