The findings regarding the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62)’s collision are disturbing. It was not the incredible tales of heroism, bravery, and sheer determination of the sailors to save their ship. The relief of the command’s leadership triad and multiple watch officers came as no surprise. It was a natural recourse because of the sheer neglect which led to the needless loss of life in the early morning hours of 17 June.
The disturbing issue in the findings is that the investigation completely misses the mark in addressing the deep-seated cause. The root problem is that the “Message to Garcia Mentality” is so deeply embedded in Navy culture that we are blind to it at the most dangerous levels of the Navy’s leadership.
“A Message to Garcia” was an essay written by Elbert Hubbard originally published in 1899. The story follows a young soldier, Lieutenant Andrew Rowan, who was given the relatively simple task of delivering an important message to Cuban General Calixto Garcia no matter the cost. After exposing himself to extremely reckless and dangerous situations, Rowan was able to accomplish the deed. The essay has become canonized in military culture and continues to be senselessly beaten into the plebes’ heads at the U.S. Naval Academy. A typical response from a seasoned junior officer to a newly reporting ensign asking a question typically will be, “message to Garcia.” The inexperienced officer immediately will shut down, shut up, and find another way to arrive at the answer no matter the cost.
The “Garcia Mentality” is the idea that it is a positive attribute to accomplish an assigned task no matter the risks involved. Unfortunately, this line of thinking permeates Navy culture to a point where we are blind to its dangers that have recently manifested in seven deaths, millions of dollars in repairs, a significant loss in our ballistic missile defense capabilities, and a reduction in our forward-deployed destroyer fleet during peacetime.
As a junior officer, having the “Garcia Mentality” is regarded as a boon because the senior officers will not have to spend as much of their time mentoring junior officers. Usually the reward is qualifying faster. Once a junior officer is qualified, the focus shifts to assisting the department head and figuring out a way to complete the assigned task without regard to the risks. These behaviors again are rewarded in the form of a better fitness report. As a department head, if you can get the task done you are rewarded with an executive officer (XO) tour followed by the opportunity to be a commanding officer (CO).
The most shocking part of our career progression as leaders is that there are generally only adverse consequences for saying no, except with the few progressive leaders. Unfortunately the “Garcia Mentality” doesn’t leave room to reward the dissenter who says, “Sir, I cannot get it done.” Many times those people who say speak the truth leave the Navy early and are not around to speak up at the highest levels of the Navy.
Few people at the most senior levels seeking promotion have the guts to say, “Admiral, the risks to my Sailors are too great; they need a break.” Instead, the conversation usually goes something such as, “Admiral, we will find a way to accomplish the national tasking.” The national tasking is assigned by the operational commanders, but they are immune from the risk that is ultimately passed down. The Navy, outside of a few isolated cases, generally does not have the capability to say no to superiors for fear of lost advancement opportunities.
Why is blame placed solely on the ships’ leadership involved while the “tenured” postcommand leaders remain immune and unaccountable even though they failed to recognize their ships are being overworked in peacetime? There is a degree of culpability in the inability to say no as a commander.
We are not only killing our sailors, but we are degrading our capabilities. The nation has lost millions worth of major defense assets.
In many civilian organizations, a major commander equivalent would be fired or removed by the board, but the Navy fires the middle managers. Meanwhile, the tenured postcommanders who helped create the environment that contributed to the accident sit safely behind an invisible wall of bullet-proof glass. The typical response is, “how can they be held accountable if they weren’t there?”
The recent relief of Commander, Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin, was unprecedented and did manage to crack the bullet proof glass because it served as proof that more senior leaders can be accountable. It also was an easy action for the Navy to take in order to divert the public criticism. The cogs were in place for an easy removal as Admiral Aucoin was set to retire in a matter of weeks and his replacement already was in place. Unfortunately this single action is not likely to break the “Garcia Mentality” because it is those commanders in the chain of command between the ships and Seventh Fleet, who know their ships best and are closest to the problem, who do not appear to be held accountable.
This systemic Navy cultural problem exists up and down the chain of command. Nowhere in the Fitzgerald’s findings was there mention of Seventh Fleet's extremely high operational tempo. Nowhere did it report the continual practice of yanking around Sailors’ lives by constantly changing schedules. Nowhere did it document that there is no long-term plan in Seventh Fleet’s area of operations. Yet all these conditions exist in a peacetime environment.
As the naval strategy in the Pacific flaps in the wind, our sailors and their families suffer. Their morale is driven into the ground. No amount of training, command triad involvement, or leadership can reverse the natural depression that sets in after a schedule is drastically changed time and time again. These are the environmental issues controlled by the higher echelons of Navy leadership, who continue to say, “Yes we can.” These leaders need to be screaming, “No, we can’t!”
The USS John S. McCain (DDG-56)’s collision may prove to be another data point that the “Garcia Mentality” leads innocent sailors to their deaths. When these findings are released, ask yourself, “Does the problem stem from Garcia’s message that has been ingrained in our operational commanders?”
How many collisions, groundings, and real man-overboards will it take to recognize there is a deep-rooted cultural problem.
When are we going to stamp out the “Garcia Mentality” and encourage leaders to say no? Even more importantly, when are those leaders who are unable to say no going to be held accountable? It’s time to realize we are in peacetime and give our sailors a break.
Lieutenant Schonberg graduated from the Naval Academy in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in History. Following graduation, he completed the nuclear power pipeline and served on the USS New Hampshire (SSN-778) from 2012 until 2016. He is currently stationed at Navy Public Affairs Support Element-West.