By Chet Yarbrough
By Herman Wouk
Narrated by Kevin Pariseau
“The Caine Mutiny” is a story about being a Navy ship commander during WWII.
Herman Wouk (now 98 years old) is certainly qualified to have written the book. He served in the Navy during WWII. Wouk was a military officer on a mine sweeper, like the Caine, in the Pacific Theater.
The main characters are Captain Queeg, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, Officer Willis “Willie” Keith, and Lieutenant Thomas Keefer. Captain Queeg is an officer with eight years in the navy that is given command of the Caine during the war. Maryk is the mutinous Executive Officer that takes command of the ship from Captain Queeg in the middle of a typhoon during a naval maneuver. Maryk is a reserve officer with less than two years naval experience. He has the intent of making the navy his career. Keith is a wealthy dilettante that joins the regular Navy to grow up; to become a mature human being. Keefer is an intellectual, seeking life experience while trying to become a published novelist. Both Keith and Keefer side with Maryk in his mutinous action during the typhoon but have self-doubts at their court-martial. All three mutineers acquire a nuanced understanding of command after the Court Martials’ conclusion.
Captain Queeg is shown by Wouk to be an erratic captain. Wouk shows that Queeg is unable to discipline his fear in a crisis. Queeg lacks self-confidence when confronted with life threats. That lack of self-confidence exhibits for Queeg in one of two ways. Queeg either shuts down and does nothing or becomes focused on the minutia of discipline rather than the pursuit of knowledge for right action. In a typhoon that threatens the Caine’s survival, Captain Queeg is removed from command by his Executive Officer, Lieutenant Stephen Maryrk. Maryk cites Navy regulations that say a commander can be removed from command if he is judged mentally incompetent.
The crux of the Caine story is how the military can have a system of command review without breaking military discipline. Subordinates cannot arbitrarily fail to follow orders because they think a captain is wrong. How does the military maintain a cohesive fighting force without discipline? Military discipline is at the heart of Wouk’s story.
Wouk masterfully develops Captain Queeg’s intelligent but flawed personality. Queeg uses his intelligence to hide cowardice, feelings of inferiority, and fear of failure by focusing on discipline when right action, particularly in a crisis, is the primary need of command. The irony of Queeg’s focus on discipline in crisis is that discipline is an essential characteristic of a well run Navy.
The fine point that Wouk makes in “The Caine Mutiny” is that discipline is inclusive (not exclusive) of right action. A Captain of a ship must be self-confident enough to accept responsibility for command. Neither a Captain’s fear nor favor of subordinates should interfere with command decisions that are the prerogative of captaincy. Discipline is a tool of intelligent action. Discipline is not a substitute for intelligent action. A good Captain seeks knowledge from every source available to make right decisions in all circumstances. Captains are human and make mistakes but their role is to command right action to the best of their ability.
The key to right action lies not in discipline but in knowledge and experience. The Navy culls poor Captains through education and “trial by fire”. When a leader acts in ignorance, subordinates have recourse to redress and/or resistance. This is not to absolve a subordinate from discipline when a subordinate is proven wrong but it does offer a criterion for saying “no” when right action is violated. This is a slippery slope to the extent that right action is not a clearly defined guide for human behavior.
The Captain of the Enola Gay is alleged to have had no compunction about dropping the atom bomb on Japan; neither did President Truman. Lieutenant Calley chose to murder innocents at My Lai. All could have said no.
The consequence of a “no” may have been court-martial and imprisonment for the Captain of the Enola Gay. The consequence to Truman could have been national and international condemnation. The consequence to Lieutenant Calley could have been court-martial with a sentence of imprisonment, or death.
Maryk exercised his right to make a free choice when he took command from Queeg. He bares the consequence of his right to choose in “The Caine Mutiny”. All human beings have the inherent right of free choice in all times and in all circumstances; the only difference is in the consequence of one’s “freedom to choose”. Consequences range from life to death with defined variations.
Without spoiling the fine ending of “The Caine Mutiny”, a listener or reader of the novel will have a higher regard for Navy Captains and crews and the American system of military command.