CHAPTER EIGHT: Mister Vice
We have a tradition in the American military called the dining-in, where the officers in a unit (generally a battalion or brigade) put on their dress uniforms and come together for a banquet without their wives or anyone else from outside the unit in attendance. They eat a meal, engage in ceremonial toasts, and basically get hammered. The idea is to strengthen the bonds between men who are otherwise governed by a strict rank structure by dropping everyone’s collective guard for a night and acting like the idiots all men truly are underneath their uniforms.
For it to work, pretty much anything (within limits) must go at a dining-in. It’s the one event on a unit’s calendar when the lowest ranking lieutenant is allowed to give anyone, even the brigade commander, a ration of idiotic grief—and it would be bad form for the recipient to get angry about it. What goes on in the dining-in stays there. That’s the ethic.
Like many of our military traditions, we inherited the dining-in from the British regimental mess system, although they probably didn’t invent it. Likely, its origins date back to the Romans and the Norseman, both of whom invaded England and influenced the Brits for good and bad.
To succeed in battle, warriors must be highly disciplined and operate within a rigorous chain of command. But that wears on a man’s soul after a while, so it’s a good idea to release that pressure with a periodic night of idiocy. That’s true whether you are armed with sword and pike or an M16 because nothing changes under the sun. A warrior must let his hair down from time to time or bad things will happen to him or his unit, or both.
Every unit has its own traditions, so my dining-in experiences are not identical to men when who served elsewhere. But there are few things that are ubiquitous. There is always a president, a higher-ranking guy in the unit who shoulders overall responsibility for the conduct of the event. There is a grog, which is a noxious alcoholic concoction from which the members of the mess are compelled to drink because of uniform and conduct “infractions”. There are toasts to the chain of command and fallen comrades. And there is Mister Vice.
Mister Vice’s job during a dining-in is hard to define but indispensable. He has some ceremonial functions, like ringing the dinner chimes when it is time to sit down to eat and sampling the meat to determine whether it is “fit for human consumption”. He is also responsible for keeping the event on schedule, which gets more difficult as everyone gets crazier.
But his main job, the one that (depending on how well he does it) makes the difference between a successful dining-in and one that just checks the block, is to be an asshole. Mister Vice is supposed to be an asshole, but not the kind that nobody wants to be around because he is a pointless irritant motivated by his own selfish reasons. Mister Vice is another kind of asshole, a guy who dispenses irritation with a point and purpose that is necessary to any gathering of men.
How a good Mister Vice does that is far more art than science, but there are some characteristics that all the successful ones have in common. He must be a tremendously observant guy with a sharp wit and acerbic sense of humor. He must possess an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane uniform and conduct regulations, violations of which he must be capable of spotting at great distance. He must also be self-disciplined enough to remain marginally more sober than everyone else so that he can stay one step ahead of them as the night progresses. And, most importantly, he must truly love both his unit and the men he has been tasked to serve as Mister Vice. Absent that last characteristic, he’ll devolve into the wrong kind of asshole, the pointless irritant.
Given those qualifications, finding a good Mister Vice can be tough. I’ve attended a dining-in or two that didn’t have the right guy, not because he was the wrong kind of asshole, but because he wasn’t willing to be an asshole at all. Instead, he would try to nice-guy his way through it and that doesn’t work.
For the dining-in to work, the members must respect the manly aggression of Mister Vice. Without that respect, they will just get drunk without engaging in the idiotic banter that triggers the pressure release valve for the unit. They’ll only do that if Mister Vice sets the example. Otherwise, they will fear retribution from the chain of command, regardless of the stated ethic. Mister Vice frees them from that by demonstrating his own fearless dedication to the unit’s vitality. He crowns himself chief of the idiots and is unconcerned about who sees him do it. He is a man whose Three Dots must be in full and powerful display.
The essence of Mister Vice-ness, that of being the chief idiot and a fearless asshole with a point, extends far beyond the dining-in. It also serves to keep the unit’s leadership from making bad group-think decisions in their day jobs. That’s where a good Mister Vice, hearing everybody agree with a dubious course of action to avoid being an irritant, says “OK, I’ll be the asshole, why are we doing this? What exactly are we trying to accomplish and are we sure that this is the best way to do it?”
Because he’s a fearless asshole with a point, Mr. Vice is willing to be an irritant to keep his unit from doing something stupid.
The dictionary defines an irritant as any substance that causes slight inflammation or other discomfort to the body. Some irritants are pointless and painful (like an ingrown toenail), but others (like a sunburn) act as a warning to the brain that the body is being exposed to something dangerous and harmful. A sunburn makes a person uncomfortable and inflamed for a couple of days, but the memory of that pain is a necessary reminder to be careful of the sun because it could ultimately kill you if you get too much of it. A sunburn is effective because it is an irritation that protects the body. Otherwise, it would be pointless.
A military unit, or any group, is like a body in the sense that it is comprised of many parts. Just as a body can be irritated, groups can be as well. Sometimes that irritation (like an ingrown toenail) is pointless and painful because it is instigated by the wrong kind of asshole, the guy who is doing it for his own self-interested reasons. That kind of man doesn’t care about the vitality of the group. He is a splitter, a man who would rather see the group cease to exist if he doesn’t get his own way.
But that’s not what Mister Vice does. When necessary, he irritates the group for its collective betterment, not his own. He is willing to be a sunburn today to prevent a deadly cancer tomorrow. Without a Mister Vice, a group will continue to overexpose itself to something harmful to its ultimate demise. Along the way, the men in the group who are unwilling to be irritating will turn their heads away from the advancing damage and pretend that they don’t see it, because that would disturb their personal comfort. Unlike Mister Vice, who believes deeply in the vitality of the group, these men lack the Three Dots of courage, strength, and commitment. They are Fat Teds who believe in nothing but themselves.
The Minivan Centurion is a man willing to be Mister Vice, if need be, but only if need be. It’s not a role any sane man would seek out because it’s personally painful to be an asshole with a point. It will get you cursed by the splitters. Far easier to turn one’s head away like a Fat Ted, but that is not something the Minivan Centurion is free to do.
He was raised from mud for something far different.