A Message to Garcia

In your early weeks aboard ship you may have heard the phrase “Message to Garcia” in response to some request for guidance or information. If you’re one of the many unlucky ensigns who had never heard this phrase before, it probably didn’t take long to ascertain that it means, more or less, “Go [figure it out] yourself.” If you were curious who the hell Garcia is and what he has to do with the location of the Main Air Ejector Gland Exhaust Condensers, this post is for you.

First of all, I would like to dispel the myth that Message to Garcia is a Naval Academy thing. It is a Business thing, based on an essay which was popular in American business culture in the early 20th century. It remains popular in military culture to this day. It is taught at many military schools, the Naval Academy being among them, and is probably one of the more useful (and often abused) lessons to be gleaned from that institution.

For historical context, here is what Wikipedia says:

rowanWith tensions growing between the United States and Spain (which then ruled Cuba), President William McKinley saw value in establishing contact with the Cuban rebels, who could prove a valuable ally in case of war with Spain. McKinley asked Colonel Arthur L. Wagner to suggest an officer to make contact with Calixto García, one of the leaders of the rebels. Wagner suggested Andrew Rowan, a Captain by this time, who traveled to Cuba via Jamaica. Rowan met Garcia in the Oriente Mountains and established a rapport. Rowan garnered information from Garcia, who was eager to cooperate with the Americans in fighting the Spanish.

As for the essay, it was written in 1899 by a magazine publicist as an untitled editorial. It caught fire with the business community and was reprinted as a stand-alone pamphlet, selling over 40 million copies.  It’s about two pages long and worth taking five minutes to read. It has little to do with either Captain Rowan or General Garcia, and far more to do with the author’s frustration with incompetent employees. The central message can be summarized in the closing paragraph:

My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the “boss” is away, as well as when he is home. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks will be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town, and village – in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such; he is needed, and needed badly—the man who can carry a message to Garcia.

There are many take-aways from the essay. They include loyalty to the organization, taking initiative, supporting your boss, smartly executing orders, and never bitching. As applied, though, the phrase “Message to Garcia” is almost always limited to the “without asking any idiotic questions” context, and I think this is a fundamental abuse of the lesson.

It is certainly the case that young officers in quals should seek their own answers where possible– an answer found in The Reference is always superior to hearsay. That said, next time you (senior JOs) feel inclined to brush off an inquisitive non-qual, please ask yourself a couple of questions:

“Could I save this guy hours of sifting through manuals with a 30-second point in the right direction?”

(Wasted man-hours are wasted man-hours. If he blows two hours trying to figure out what reference contains the ship’s turn radius, that’s two more hours that he’s not supporting your watchbill.)

“Is this something that needs to be taught rather than read in a reference?”

(If so, he’s just going to have to ask someone else, and you have just passed the buck)

When it comes to tasking, I think it’s never a sin to seek more guidance, provided that you will do your best to move forward with the task when guidance isn’t immediately forthcoming. If you’re the one giving the tasking, the more effort that you can put into defining the task, the more comfortably you can walk away and let the man work. If you find yourself annoyed with “idiotic questions,” bear in mind that these questions are saving you from the pain and heartache of a delayed/reworked product down the line. A little rudder far from the rocks is much better than a hard rudder close to the rocks.

7 thoughts on “A Message to Garcia

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  4. Elbert Hubbard was someone who never let truth get in the way of a good story. Nearly every word Hubbard wrote about Andrew Rowan and a so-called message to Garcia was a lie. The rest of his essay about the worthlessness of most American workers was exaggeration at best. I would like to refer readers to my book, Cast in Deathless Bronze: Andrew Rowan, The Spanish-American War, and the Origins of American Empire (West Virginia University Press, 978-1943665-13-3).

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