Long a staple of military professional reading lists, “A Message to Garcia,” written by Elbert Hubbard continues to be considered among the most important literary works on leadership—and followership. It held a place of prominence on the Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list from the first list in 1989 all the way through 2015. We have both personally witnessed it being praised in various military education and professional development venues. And our experiences raised serious questions about the work’s enduring value. The lesson intended to be derived from the story is unclear, and its applicability to the modern military professional is far from certain. Despite being written over a century ago for a world that no longer exists, “A Message to Garcia” is still frequently referenced as a seminal text for young officers and NCOs. It’s time to retire it from that vaunted position in the professional development canon.
The tale of young Lt. Andrew Rowan completing a relatively straightforward mission during the opening phase of the Spanish-American War is an oversimplified and antiquated addition to professional reading. In fact, the style of leadership and decision-making it espouses is downright dangerous for today’s military leaders.
The 1,500-word essay was written in the Industrial Age, and in the context of Industrial Age warfare, but the nature of our world and how we wage armed conflict has changed dramatically. The Industrial Age gave way to the post-Industrial era, a time when technological advances such as additive printing and artificial intelligence are being integrated into society at a dizzying rate. Warfare has expanded into new domains, such as cyberspace, that were hardly contested or non-existent in previous conflicts. Any junior military leader today can tell you that the digital age and complex geopolitical environment of the twenty-first century are not conducive to Hubbard’s simplistic leadership philosophy. According to Hubbard, there is no expectation of fighting Charles Krulak’s “three block war” or having to understand newly emergent domains, and there is no room for the “strategic corporal” or disruptive thinkers. For Rowan, it’s do, not ask: over the top, into the breach, and accomplish the mission.
Hubbard’s notion of the importance of initiative and determination are not wrong; these are traits that are absolutely necessary for military leaders of the past, present, and future. But his essay worships these traits to a point where they supersede everything else:
It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies; do the thing.
In this damning line, Hubbard conveys little regard or use for professional reading or critical thinking, which are both critical aspects of professional military education. Rowan blindly accepts his mission without asking any questions (or conducting a back brief), and recklessly continues without assessing the risk of losing his life and consequently failing to complete the mission. To Hubbard, the mission is all that matters. Rowan completed his mission by delivering the message to Garcia, but did he seek the assistance of a criminal group to guide him through the jungle? Were civilians bribed, coerced, or even threatened in order for Rowan to succeed in his mission? Could Rowan’s conduct (or misconduct) fuel a successful enemy information campaign, squandering any gains of delivering a message to Garcia? For Hubbard, these subsidiary considerations, and their second- and third-order effects, have no consequences; a servant is all that is required.
The British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson also wrote of such unflinching obedience to orders in his tragic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Many of our mentors admit to being praised for “being like Rowan” at some point in their military careers, despite being an inadequate leadership style for modern warfare. This comparison commends decisiveness, but does so at the cost of essential leadership values such as critical and disruptive thinking. Being like Rowan goes against the Army’s own philosophy of Mission Command, which seeks to “empower adaptive and agile leaders” through a clear understanding of the rationale and intent that underlie their assigned tasks.
Today’s challenges faced by the military are complex and multifaceted. The environment is ambiguous, and while war has immutable continuities, warfare today is nowhere near as straightforward as that of the Industrial Age. To be successful, military leaders in the post-Industrial Age require critical thinking, an understanding of the mission at hand, and a willingness to provide further clarification when necessary. An understanding of physical, cognitive, information, and cyber domains—and their convergence—is also necessary, often down to the squad level. While initiative and self-determination are extremely valuable traits, the problems facing military professionals are not as simple as sending a message to Garcia.
So what should a Lt. Rowan of the post-Industrial Age look like? Motivated and self-determined for sure, but also a lifelong learner willing to accept calculated risk after thoroughly understanding the mission and purpose. Our post-Industrial Age Rowan will seek to understand the mission—an imperative for Mission Command—and the complex operational environment, through a variety of mediums (not just military ones). He will place the mission first, even if that means sacrificing his reputation and challenging his superiors’ instructions (or lack thereof).
“A Message to Garcia” had its long moment in the sun, but its place now is behind museum glass where it can no longer do any harm. Rowan’s determination and initiative still bear value, but Hubbard’s worship of fealty without critical thinking will get soldiers killed. The essay may never be fully removed from professional military education, so one can only hope that junior officers understand its selective application in the context of modern warfare and seek more relevant sources of learning elsewhere.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.
Adam Maisel is a Military Intelligence Officer in the Army Reserve and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel. Adam also serves as a civilian military intelligence adviser to US, NATO and allied forces.
Will DuVal is a Military Intelligence Officer in the Army Reserve and recent graduate of Santa Clara University. Will currently serves in an Information Operations unit and has worked with the Truman National Security Project, US Mission to NATO, and Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.
On February 22, 1899, the publisher of a small-town newspaper was discussing with a friend who the real hero of the Spanish-American War was. He wrote down his thoughts in an hour and put them in a leftover spot in his newspaper. Soon orders came for more copies, and eventually 40 million reprints of that article were distributed around the world. This is a powerful testimony to the worldwide recognition of the importance of diligence.
When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the insurgence. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain vastness of Cuba—no one knew where. No mail or telegraph message could reach him. The President must secure his cooperation, and quickly. What to do?!
Someone said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan who will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.” Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia.
How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the island, having traversed a hostile country on foot and delivered his letter to Garcia—are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail.
The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” There is a man whose form should be cast in bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land.
It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, to concentrate their energies: do the thing—“carry a message to Garcia.”
General Garcia is dead now, but there are other “Garcias.” No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed has not been appalled by the inability or unwillingness of workers to concentrate on a task and do it.
Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and halfhearted work seem to be the rule. Put this matter to a test: You are sitting now in your office—six clerks are within call. Summon any one and make this request: “Please look in the encyclopedia and make a brief memorandum for me concerning the life of Correggio.”
Will the clerk quietly say, “Yes, sir,” and go do the task? He will not.
He will look at you out of a fishy eye and ask one or more of the following questions: Who was he? Which encyclopedia? Was I hired for this? Don’t you mean Bismark? What’s the matter with Charlie doing it? Is there any hurry? Should I bring the book and let you look it up? What do you want to know for?
After you have answered his questions and explained how to find the information and why you want it, the clerk will no doubt go off and get one of the other clerks to help him try to find “Garcia”—and then come back and tell you there’s no such man.
This incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of the will, this unwillingness to cheerfully catch hold and lift—these are the things that drive employers to despair.
We have recently been hearing much maudlin sympathy expressed for the “downtrodden denizens of the sweat-shop” and the “homeless wanderers in searching for honest employment” and with it all often go many hard words for the men in power.
Nothing is said about the employer who grows old before his time in a vain attempt to get frowzy ne’er-do-wells to do intelligent work, and his long, patient striving with “help” that does nothing but loaf when his back is turned.
In every store and factory there is a constant weeding-out process going on. The employer is constantly sending away “help” that have shown their incapacity to further the interests of the business.
I know one really brilliant man who has not the ability to manage a business of his own and yet who is absolutely worthless to anyone else, because he carries with him constantly the suspicion that his employer is oppressing or intending to oppress him. He cannot give orders, and he will not receive them.
Should a message be given him to take to Garcia, his answer would probably be, “Take it yourself.” Tonight, this man walks the streets looking for work. No one who knows him dares hire him.
Of course I know that he is no less to be pitied than a physical cripple, but in our pitying, let us drop a tear, too, for the men who are striving to carry on a great enterprise, whose working hours are not limited by the whistle, and whose hair is fast turning white through the struggle to hold in line indifference and the heartless ingratitude which, but for their enterprise, would be both hungry and homeless.
My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the boss is away, as well as when he is at home, and the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes it without asking any idiotic questions, and delivers it.
The world cries out for such. He is needed, and needed badly—the man who can carry a message to Garcia.