“A Message to García”: Elbert Hubbard’s Paean to Perseverance
The best-known image of America’s 1898 war with Spain is that of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback charging with his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba. While the Rough Riders fired the first shot in the war and were the first to raise the U.S. flag in Cuba, their exploits were greatly mythologized. Another legend born during the war was Elbert Hubbard’s short story “A Message to García.” Published as a book in 1898, 40 million copies had been printed by 1913. Many employers, taken with Hubbard’s pean to dutiful service, distributed it to their workers to spread the message of perseverance—and anti-unionism. Hubbard’s story described the activities of U.S. Army Lieutenant Andrew S. Rowan, dispatched on a secret mission to Cuban General Calixto García to arrange for military cooperation between Cuban and American armies. Hubbard’s mythmaking distorted the story of the war by erasing the contribution of the Cubans from the history of their own war for independence. By 1898, Cubans had already been waging an armed struggle for independence from Spain for three years.
In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at Perihelion. When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the insurgents. García was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba—no one knew where. No mail nor 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 will find García for you, if anybody can.”
Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to García. 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 García, are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail.
The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to García; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless 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, concentrate their energies; do the thing—“Carry a message to García!”
General García is dead now, but there are other Garcías.
No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man—the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it. Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook, or threat, he forces or bribes other men to assist him; or, mayhap, God in His goodness performs a miracle and sends him an Angel of Light for an assistant.
You, reader, 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?
On your life, 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?
Where is the encyclopedia?
Was I hired for that?
Don’t you mean Bismarck?
What’s the matter with Charlie doing it?
Is he dead?
Is there any hurry?
Shan’t I bring you the book and let you look it up yourself?
What do you want to know for?
And I will lay you ten to one that after you have answered the questions, and explained how to find the information, and why you want it, the clerk will go off and get one of the other clerks to help him try to find García and then come back and tell you there is no such man. Of course I may lose my bet, but according to the law of average, I will not.
Now if you are wise you will not bother to explain to your “assistant” that Correggio is indexed under the C’s, not in the K’s, but you will smile sweetly and say, “Never mind,” and go look it up yourself.
And this incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of the will, this unwillingness to cheerfully catch hold and lift are the things that put pure socialism so far into the future. If men will not act for themselves, what will they do when the benefit of their effort is for all? A first mate with knotted club seems necessary; and the dread of getting “the bounce” Saturday night holds many worker to his place.
Advertise for a stenographer, and nine out of ten who apply can neither spell nor punctuate—and do not think it necessary to .
Can such a one write a letter to García?
“You see that bookkeeper,” said the foreman to me in a large factory.
“Yes, what about him?”
“Well, he’s a fine accountant, but if I’d send him uptown on an errand, he might accomplish the errand all right, and, on the other hand, might stop at four saloons on the way, and when he got to Main Street would forget what he had been sent for.”
Can such a man be entrusted to carry a message to García?
We have recently been hearing much maudlin sympathy expressed for the “downtrodden denizen of the sweatshop” and the “homeless wanderer 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 frowsy 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 a 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, and others are being taken on. No matter how good times are, this sorting continues, only if times are hard and work is scarce, the sorting is done finer—but out and forever out, the incompetent and unworthy go. It is the survival of the fittest. Self-interest prompts every employer to keep the best—those who can carry a message to García.
I know one man of really brilliant parts 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 insane 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 García, his answer would probably be, “Take it yourself, and be damned!”
Tonight this man walks the streets looking for work, the wind whistling through his threadbare coat. No one who knows him dare employ him, for he is a regular firebrand of discontent. He is impervious to reason, and the only thing that can impress him is the toe of a thick-soled No. 9 boot.
Of course, I know that one so morally deformed 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 dowdy indifference, slipshod imbecility, and the heartless ingratitude which, but for their enterprise, would be both hungry and homeless.
Have I put the matter too strongly? Possibly I have; but when all the world has gone a-slumming I wish to speak a word of sympathy for the man who succeeds—the man who, against great odds, has directed the efforts of others, and, having succeeded, finds there’s nothing in it; nothing but bare board and clothes.
I have carried a dinner pail and worked for day’s wages, and I have also been an employer of labor, and I know there is something to be said on both sides. There is no excellence, per se, in poverty; rags are no recommendation; and all employers are not rapacious and high-handed, any more than all poor men are virtuous.
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 García, 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 a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall 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 García.
Source: Elbert Hubbard, A Message to García (1899). Reprinted in Annals of America, Vol. 12, 1895–1904, Populism, Imperialism, and Reform, (Encyclopedia Britannica,1976), 309–311.
A Message to Garcia, written by Elbert Hubbard, has held a place on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List (CPRL) since its inception as the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program.1 Originally recommended for sergeants (the junior rank addressed in the original ALMAR), warrant officer 1, and first lieutenant, then later for private, private first class, and lance corporal2 (where it was categorized as a “memoir”), the book currently occupies the category of Commandant’s Choice,3 making it required reading for Marines of all ranks, a distinction it shares with the likes of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1997) and Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 6-11, Leading Marines (Washington, DC: HQMC, 2002). The official site of the CPRL—The buLibrary of the Marine Corps Research Guides Portal4—gives the following summary of A Message to Garcia:
[The] Story of an American soldier charged with delivering a critical message to a leader of Cuban rebel forces during the Spanish American War. He delivers the urgent missive with no questions asked, no complaining, and no hedging. The enduring and almost unbelievably simple message of the essay is this: When asked to perform a task, don’t ask How...? or Why...? or Wouldn’t it be better if...? Just do it.
This unquestioning moral is particularly interesting for leaders who are reading the book, as it raises questions itself. Namely, “Why didn’t the soldier ask how or why?” and “What can I do to replicate that kind of unquestioning confidence in my subordinates?” Sadly, the text of the book itself stops short of answering these questions, reading:
Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How ‘the fellow by name of Rowan’ took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin 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 having delivered his letter to Garcia, are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point 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?’
At this point, history is sidelined and the text transitions to a rant on “Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work …” in early 20th century America. Hubbard expects the same from his employees and his readers alike. Do not ask “how” or “why.”
Allow me to take this opportunity to bring the hero of the story back into his rightful historical context. “Rowan” was U.S. Army 1LT Andrew Summers Rowan, born 23 April 1857. Rowan graduated from West Point with the class of 1881 and served at a series of frontier posts in the western United States through the end of that decade. He then reported to the Division of Military Information for service in 1890–91. 1891 and 1892 saw Rowan performing as an assistant astronomer on an intercontinental survey through Central and South America, returning by an overland route via Mexico.5 In 1896, Rowan co-wrote The island of Cuba; a descriptive and historical account of the ‘Great Antilla’ before executing orders to serve as the military attaché to the Republic of Chile in 1897. It is through these details that we begin to understand why Rowan’s name was suggested when President William McKinley mentioned the need for an individual to contact Garcia. Rowan was accustomed to hard frontier living, experienced in expedition, spoke Spanish, and had written a book on Cuba. Far from Hubbard’s boozy accountant on an errand, Rowan, like Presley O’Bannon’s commander, William Eaton nearly a century before, was a passionate expert with years of professional experience.
Biographical context aside, history is challenged further by Rowan’s own account, How I Carried the Message to Garcia, published in 1922. In it, Rowan tells of being summoned to lunch by COL Arthur Wagner, then head of the Bureau of Military Intelligence. Wagner tasks Rowan with researching the next ship to Jamaica, and on Rowan’s return provides him with the rest of the order: “‘Young man,’ he continued, ‘you have been selected by the President to communicate with—or rather, to carry a message to—General Garcia, who will be found somewhere in the eastern part of Cuba … Means will be found … to identify you in Jamaica, where there is a Cuban junta. The rest depends on you … Quarter-master-General Humphreys will see that you are put ashore at Kingston.” Wagner provided Rowan with an impressively “mission type” order for a 19th century military officer. Another, albeit trivial, bit of folly in Hubbard’s book concerns the timeline itself, with Hubbard alleging “… in four days landed by night … and in three weeks came out on the other side of the island.” Again Rowan’s account contradicts, stating his embarkation by train on 9 April from Washington, DC and his receiving of orders forward into Cuba on 23 April after spending two weeks in Jamaica. On the extraction, Rowan’s first quoted date is 7 May (“sighting the Curley Keys”) already back at sea just two weeks after departing Jamaica.
The final nail in Hubbard’s retelling is his illustration of a letter from the President sealed into an oil skin pouch and strapped over our hero’s heart. There was no physical letter. Rowan takes care to explain in his memoir that COL Wagner, aware of the risk to life and strategy that accompanies captured dispatches, forbid any “Written communication, further than is necessary to identify you …”
Now, let’s speak briefly about Rowan’s trip into and through Cuba, again using How I Carried the Message to Garcia as source documentation. By Hubbard’s omissions, the reader would be led to believe that all logistical considerations were left up to Rowan himself and he travelled alone. On the contrary, Rowan’s account of the trip gives significant evidence that he entrusted himself to the Cuban Junta in Jamaica for transport, effectively making himself cargo on the Junta’s ratline. While Rowan does state that he had a role in the planning process with the head of the Junta and his aides, he then mitigates that same role with statements like, “But the strangeness of it all! The order in which everything appeared to be arranged!” in regard to his two-relay carriage transport to a boat on the coast of Jamaica and, “By this time a number of ragged Cubans had assembled at our landing place. Where they came from or how they knew that our party was a friendly one, were problems too deep for me” regarding his initial minutes on Cuban soil.
But what if we treat the text as a work of fiction, taking Hubbard’s Rowan at face value? Even then, the very moral of the story (“When asked to perform a task, don’t ask How...? or Why...? or Wouldn’t it be better if…? Just do it.”) is problematic.
As Andy R. Lee wrote in the July 2008 Gazette article, “Message to Garcia in the Last 50 Yards,”
There are crucial times when asking for clarification or refinement in guidance is not practical and using one’s own personal judgment and just completing the mission makes sense and is critical for victory. This has been perfectly executed time and again on the battlefield. Usually it is at a critical juncture, well understood as ‘the last 50 yards’ of the attack. Time is of the essence, and at the tactical level, command and control is broken down to the squad, fire team, or even individual level. Swift, powerful action is what will decide the outcome. Leaders engaged in combat in the last 50 yards must take whatever commander’s intent they have and execute it to the best of their abilities. There is no time for questions; it is a time for action.
Hubbard’s point of carrying the message is well suited for this situation, but all of the planning and preparation leading up to the last 50 yards can be done better under a more efficient leadership philosophy. It is self-defeating not to give subordinates all of the information and assumptions available when issuing tasks and missions. Upon receipt of the task or mission, it is also our job as leaders to verify with higher commanders and, if necessary, refine our ideas of commander’s intent. This is nothing new and is a part of our Marine Corps Planning Process. (See Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 5-1 (MCWP 5-1).)
In these last 50 yards, a well-trained Marine should have few questions. Hundreds of hours of training (during which direct questions are met with lucid answers) and realistic rehearsals should leave him confident in the purpose of the mission, the efficacy of swift movement, and the lethality of his team’s tactics. When the last 50 yards have been covered and time is no longer sensitive, a professionally conducted debrief and after-action report provide the subordinate Marine the opportunity to tactfully question the details of an order. We demand feedback from that Marine on what he saw and how things could be improved. Having a Marine ask “Gunny, why did we do X rather than Y?” isn’t insubordinate conduct; it’s courageous, intellectually curious, and gives leaders an opportunity to explain the decision-making process to aspiring professionals or to humbly admit mistakes.
Lee’s latter paragraph nimbly dismantles a bet Hubbard places:
You are sitting now in your office—six clerks are within your call. Summon any one and make this request: ‘Please look in the encyclopedia and make a brief memorandum for me concerning the life of Corregio.’ Will the clerk quietly say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and go do the task? On your life, he will not.
By Hubbard’s stance, you should not provide the spelling, a biographical note to ensure the correct Corregio is found, or the timeline in which you want the task completed. Likewise, Hubbard sees questions like, “Don’t you mean Bismark?” and “What’s the matter with Charlie doing it?” as insulting or undermining rather than facing the reality that sometimes we do mean Bismark, and sometimes we have left Charlie underworked. It’s in this arena of daily low-risk tasks that we should teach our Marines to ask the right questions, tactfully, articulately, and constructively, rather than banning them outright at the cost of efficiency.
As leaders of Marines in the 21st century, we are in a unique position to leverage the education, versatility, and intellect of our subordinates. Rather than shunning questions, we must teach Marines how and when to ask questions and embrace questions through the training and mentoring process in order to eventually deploy Marines who are confident in their leaders, their tactics, and their mission. I posit that A Message to Garcia runs contrary to those goals and should be removed from the CPRL, either without replacement, or to be replaced by How I Carried the Message to Garcia, the true, firsthand account of Andrew Summers Rowan’s expedition into Cuba.
SEE THE CMC'S READING LIST