23 July 2010

The Message to Lt. Col. Garcia

This happened a few months ago, while the brigade headquarters was temporarily operating out of Camp Dodge, Iowa ...

One of my TOC buddies called. I had made the mistake of taken a late lunch--said I'd be back at 1430 hours. Apparently, the brigade's deputy commander (D.C.O.) had walked into the Tactical Operations Center 5 minutes after I'd left at 1330, and requested that all battalion commanders report to him immediately. Face-to-face.

It was now 1425 hours.

When I got back, I asked what was up. "The DCO needs the cell phone numbers for all the battalion commanders," was the answer. My radio-telephone operator training kicked in.

"OK, but what does he want to DO with those numbers?" I asked.

"He wants all the battalion commanders to report to him as soon as possible."

"Is that 'drop everything right now' ASAP, or 'as soon as you've completed whatever mission you're on' ASAP?"

"'Drop everything' ASAP."

We proceeded to e-mail a couple of commanders--they were Blackberry users and we knew that was faster and more reliable than calling them. We called one commander's cell phone number, and got his daughter. "My dad gave me his old cell phone when the Army gave him one," she said. "Sorry to bother you," I said, "but could we have your Dad's new phone number?"

Thinking fast in problem-solving workaround mode, I feel like I'm in that Clint Eastwood movie--the one where they called in naval gunnery using a long-distance credit card. Adapt, improvise, overcome.

When I contact him, I relayed the message, making sure to add that the message was being delivered to all commanders. After all, I didn't want him thinking he was in trouble. And, because I said that, he made another connection for me.

"I've got another commander sitting right next to me here in training," he said. "Want me to bring him along?"

As staff specialists in the brigade headquarters--in logistics, operations, intelligence, communications--we're always trying to educate our "customers" to give us their requirements, not their requests. A logistician might only give you two trucks if you ask for them specifically, but if you tell him you what you want to move and how much of it you have, he'll be able to give you options. Options you might not even know about.

That's because he's the expert, not you.

Same dynamic applies to communications.

An informal motto in the U.S. Army Signal Corps is "get the message through." Don't tell us how to deliver it. Don't fall into the trap of worrying about the medium--whether e-mail, texting, phone call, or asking a commander to grab his peer and get it in gear--just give us the message.

We'll do the rest.

(By the way, in The Signaleer's archives, you'll find the Signal Soldier's Creed. Check it out! And the obtuse title of this post echoes "A Message to Garcia," another great moment in had-to-be-in-the-Signal-Corps literature.)


  1. The author, Elbert Hubbard, was on the Lusitania when she went down. A friend who was a survivor wrote this about that day:

    I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.
    Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms—the fashion in which they always walked the deck—and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, 'Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.'
    They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, 'What are you going to do?' and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, 'There does not seem to be anything to do.'
    The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.
    It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.

    I could only hope to be that brave when the time comes…but right now I think I would fight to the end to make sure my wife was saved, and me, too, if possible. I guess you have to be there to make the decision. It just seems that he gave up too easily.

    Sorry for so long a comment.

  2. You told a good tale, with a good message. However, after reading "A Message to Garcia"(for the first time, I thank you for that) I find a little disagreement between your moral and the moral of that story. The moral of that story was to receive your orders and then find a way to accomplish them, without questioning the orders or their requirements.

    If, when told "The DCO needs the cell phone numbers for all the battalion commanders,” you hadn’t asked a pertinent question, your story would have been different. If the person relaying the message had provided to you all of the information you needed to do the job, info he clearly had been provided, your example would have been more in line with the Elbert Hubbard essay.

    As you said, those giving orders should “give us their requirements, not their requests. “ These requirements need to be clear, concise and complete.

    One of my favorite authors, Robert Heinlein, says he learned to write by taking a class on giving orders that was part of the curriculum at the US Naval Academy. He learned from that class how to give an order that could not be misconstrued. He also learned, I believe, how to give his readers all of the information they needed to follow and appreciate his story and nothing more (even though he started writing in the days when he was paid by the word.)

    This post was another good read and most thought provoking; I thank you sir.

  3. @ Coffeypot: You thoughtful old salt, you! Just when I think I've figured you out, you pull something else out of your seabag of tricks! I'll have to admit that, while I've always had a soft spot for Hubbard (I like to write; I like history; my wife and I also collect Mission-style furniture), I'm not sure that I'd ever before heard/read the narrative from the Lusitania!

    So thank you, thank you, thank you for the "long comment." I'm man enough to admit that it made me tear-up a little. A beautiful story!

    @ Harold Smith: Thanks for the kind words, and the insightful analysis. I'll admit that I'd originally held off posting this one, perhaps because I suspected there was an internal flaw in my logic (or presentation or it), perhaps because I didn't think that others would be as interested in a "Message to Garcia" theme. I'm very glad I was wrong regarding the latter!

    Regarding the former: I find it interesting that the Hubbard essay apparently became interpreted as it did, by early 20th century business leaders who used it as an example of a subordinate doing everything in his power to blindly achieve a simple and succinct order. I've always thought the more central message was: Empower your employees, give them simple guidance, and give them the freedom to achieve the goal.

    In other words: Tell them to skin the proverbial cat, not how.

    Given the right time and place, I'll have to go back and ask the DCO (who is now the 2-34 BCT commander) if he remembers what his original instruction was. Given his style, I suspect that it was "get me the commanders and sergeants major," and that the "DCO needs everyone's cell phone numbers" was actually a self-inflicted misinterpretation on behalf of my buddies in the TOC.

    A random tangent, but it'll connect: I just saw a PBS documentary about the RAF's "Ferry Command" yesterday, titled "Flying the Secret Sky." These were a mix of civilian and military pilots who in WWII shuttled both aircraft and VIPs around the globe. One story involved the transport of Churchill to Egypt via an unarmed Liberator II, callsign "Commando." The pilot was ordered to not reveal his flight plan to anyone, even the officer giving him the assignment. Sort of a "Get Churchill to Garcia" moment, no?

    I was very into Heinlein myself, back in the day. Somewhere in my vast basement collection of Stuff I Can Never Throw Out, there's a treasured book that's merely a collection of quotations from his "Lazarus Long" character. I seem to recall that I found it more entertaining and applicable than Sun Tzu!

    So, bottom line, I'm going to have to do some research regarding his academy experience, in order to flesh out my "Message to Garcia" thinking. Thanks for the tip, and for such an engaging, thought-provoking conversation!

  4. -- ..---...--.-...--

    Our "leaders" in my old guard unit had a habit of relying on our private cell phones to contact all the sub-leaders for drills and at AT. One of our NCOs got home and had gone so far over his minutes using his private cell phone that his phone bill was three times what it normally was.
    As a Plt Sgt, I refused to give my private cell phone number to our dumbass leaders---because I knew they'd use their Army issued phones to call me very 5 minutes during AT.

    I told them: "Plan ahaed and pretend like it's the 1980's and we ain't got no stinken' cell phones."

    Too many people don't plan ahead and depend on friggen cell phones to fix everything.

    Oh...and my "issued" cell phone in Bosnia and Iraq never worked once I left the main AO.

  5. @ CI-Roller Dude: Roger all that! I grew up in an Army in which we figured that a big Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) would take out all the electronics on the battlefield, that the Bad Guys could directionally find you within 5 seconds of you keying the mike, and that all civilian-type communications devices were inherently unsecure and evil.

    I spent years pushing the "Talk like you fight, fight like you talk" variation of the old "Train like you fight" mantra. "If you aren't going to have the device downrange, don't get used to using it."

    By contrast, some of our leaders today might have a hard time thinking without their Nat'l Guard-issued "Crackberry" devices.

    Still, I recognize that there are no easy answers regarding how best to communicate with soldiers. (Although I have learned to "read" individual commander / sergeant major likes and dislikes--one might never return a phone call, while another might not like e-mail/text.)

    I'm reminded of a 1990-something Wired magazine article that I've got stashed somewhere about the Israel Defense Force banning personal cell phones. They ended up allowing them again, after they figured out that cell phones were more effective on urban patrols than their combat radios.

    And, during the 2009 Inauguration, our own Red Bull soldiers learned that it was better to text each street corner patrol than it was to use their mil-issue handhelds.

    It's a brave new world of "shoot, move, and communicate," I guess! We almost have too many options ...

  6. Sherpa,
    some of today's leaders couldn't wipe their ass without calling somebody on the friggen' cell phone.
    "Supply, this is Tango Hotel Tango three niner, we're out of Tango Pappa. Need re=supply right away. Over"


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