‘Message to Garcia’ had a message, but it is no longer a ‘Garcia’ world out there
"Message to Garcia" is no longer on the Commandant’s Reading List.
By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
Message to Garcia is no longer on the Commandant’s Reading List. General Neller chose others for his personal recommendation section, as covered by Hope Hodge Seck of Military.com. He favored some newer titles, focusing on cyber threats and the future of war. Phil Klay’s Redeployment made the list.
Message to Garcia is a short, simple story about initiative and obedience. I first ran into it posted to the wall of my barracks at the School of Infantry. I had a First Sergeant who told me he read it once a year. When I entered the Marine Corps, I needed Message to Garcia. The rites of initiation into the brotherhood of arms requires powerful stories for young men and women to latch onto and believe. I needed to be thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. Why else would I do such foolhardy things, like wake up to take post at two in the morning, watching for imaginary threats in the hills of Camp Pendleton? How else could I complete twenty kilometer hikes, with an obscenely heavy pack on my back, if not for pride and fellowship, and to safeguard the fierce legacy of the Marine Corps?
I used it as a tool. As a new corporal, I assigned a book report on it to one of my juniors. Ironically, he didn’t complete the assignment, claiming he didn’t have access to a printer, missing the point and confirming my view that he needed to read it.
But it is no longer a Garcia world out there. My travels to Cuba, Bahrain, and Afghanistan complicated and defied my simple stories. Message to Garcia couldn’t explain our frustrating failures in the complex world of counter-insurgency operations. Layers upon layers of tribe, ethnicity, religion, and regionalism swirled around every patrol, undercutting our every effort at sense-making and efficacy. It was not for lack of effort that we failed. For my money, it wasn’t about restrictive ROE’s, or the American public’s lack of stomach, or even concern for the conflict either. Just as cheap roadside bombs tore into the soft underbellies of our armored vehicles, challenges to our simple stories exposed weak points in our understanding.
I returned home hunting new stories, those of Clausewitz and Galula, John Nagl, Gian Gentile, Stanley Hauwerwas, and Andrew Bacevich. Complex thinkers are needed to solve complex, wicked dilemmas. I read the work of other veterans: Colby Buzzell, Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher. Gallagher talks about telling war stories in the opening to Youngblood. His narrator says he won’t tell his stories straight anymore. He’ll tell them long, and tell them crooked, and when the listener is confused, he’ll think, good, finally someone who understands. This is a far cry, and a bitter reaction against the straightforward tale of Rowan.
General Neller has made the choice to move on from simple stories as well. He is correct to do so, in my view. The military is undergoing change, as it does after every conflict. Seeking to keep lessons learned and earned with blood and sweat, while innovating around the problems that after fifteen years we still haven’t solved.
But when we lose Message to Garcia, I wonder if we are losing something else: the chance to teach that punk nineteen-year-old kid how to function within a brotherhood of arms. Basic work ethic, and pride in your craft. For all my hand wringing for issues outside of my lane, the Marine Corps did succeed in transforming me into something resembling a professional soldier; I kept my weapon clean, with just the right amount of lubrication, carefully applied, my hands moved thoughtlessly to clear double feeds, I bounded in coordinated perfection on line with my squad.
So, farewell to Message to Garcia. Unthinking seniors will have to come up other ways to get the enlisted to complete tasks mindlessly. But I’ll keep Garcia on my shelf. I’m not sure I’m done with him just yet.
Peter Lucier is a Marine veteran (2008-2013) and a student at Montana State University. He co-holds the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons