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.