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The Caine Mutiny ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1952)

One hesitates to say this of a Jewish novelist--and I think it is fair to say that Wouk trades upon his religious background for his novels--but The Caine Mutiny has always struck me as somehow fascistic.  For most of the book (and movie) the story seems like a pretty straightforward riff on Mr. Roberts (read Orrin's review): in this case, of course, it's Captain Queeg (even the name seems intended to invoke memories of Moby Dick) who is mentally unbalanced and, unlike Captain Morton in  Mr. Roberts, his seeming derangement is genuinely dangerous because the boat he commands is a mine sweeper rather than a transport ship.  Wouk carefully lays the groundwork so that we understand and sympathize with the crew's eventual mutiny.  Then, presto-chango, he whips the rug from beneath our feet:

    "Course I'm warped," said Greenwald, "and I'm drunk, but it suddenly seems to me that if I wrote a
    war novel I'd try to make a hero out of Old Yellowstain." Jorgensen whooped loudly, but nobody
    else laughed, and the ensign subsided, goggling around. "No, I'm serious, I would. Tell you why,
    Tell you how I'm warped. I'm a Jew, guess most of you know that. Name's Greenwald, kind of look
    like one, and I sure am one, from way back. Jack Challee said I used smart Jew-lawyer
    tactics--course he took it back, apologized, after I told him a few things he didn't know-- Well,
    anyway...The reason I'd make Old Yellowstain a hero is on account of my mother, little
    gray-headed Jewish lady, fat, looks a lot like Mrs. Maryk here, meaning no offense."

    He actually said "offensh." His speech was halting and blurry. He was gripping the spilling glass
    tightly The scars On his hand made red rims around the bluish grafted skin.

    "Well, sure, you guys all have mothers, but they wouldn't be in the same bad shape mine would if
    we'd of lost this war, which of course we aren't, we've won the damn thing by now. See, the
    Germans aren't kidding about the Jew. They're cooking us down to soap over there. They think
    we're vermin and should be terminated and our corpses turned into something useful. Granting the
    premise--being warped, I don't, but granting the premise, soap is as good an idea as any. But I just
    can't cotton to the idea of my mom melted down into a bar of soap. I had an uncle and an aunt in
    Cracow, who are soap now, but that's different, I never saw my uncle and aunt, just saw letters in
    Jewish from them, ever since I was a kid, but I can't read Jewish. but never could read them. Jew,
    but I can't read Jewish."

    The faces looking up at him were becoming sober and puzzled. "I'm coming to Old Yellowstain.
    Coming to him. See, while I was studying law 'n old Keefer here was writing his play for the
    Theatre Guild, and Willie here was on the playing fields of Prinshton, all that time these birds we
    call regulars--these stuffy, stupid Prussians, in the Navy and the Army -were manning guns. Course
    they weren't doing it to save my mom from Hitler, they're doing it for dough, like everybody else
    does what they do. Question is, in the last analysis--last analysis--what do you do for dough? Old
    Yellowstain, for dough, was standing guard on this fat dumb and happy country of ours. Meantime
    me, I was advancing little free non-Prussian life for dough. Of course, we figured in those days,
    only fools go into armed service. Bad pay, no millionaire future, and You can't call your mind or
    body your own. Not for sensitive intellectuals. So when all hell broke loose and the Germans started
    running out of soap and figured, well it's time to come over and melt down old Mrs.
    Greenwald--who's gonna stop them? Not her boy Barney. Can't stop a Nazi with a lawbook. So I
    dropped the lawbooks and ran to learn how to fly. Stout fellow. Meantime, and it took a year and a
    half before I was any good, who was keeping Mama out of the soap dish? Captain Queeg.

    "Yes, even Queeg, poor sad guy, yes, and most of them not sad at all, fellows, a lot of them sharper
    boys than any of us, don't kid yourself, best men I've ever seen, you can't be good in the Army or
    Navy unless you're goddamn good. Though maybe not up on Proust 'n' Finnegan's Wake and all."

Suddenly, we are asked to accept the notion that Queeg is actually somehow the hero of the story.  He after all has made a career of the Navy, while most of the crew are mere dilettantes who only signed up to fight the War.  Willie Keith, in a letter home to his girlfriend, sums up what the whole episode has taught him:

    The idea is, once you get an incompetent ass of a skipper--and it's a chance of war--there's nothing
    to do but to serve him as though he were the wisest and the best, cover his mistakes, keep the ship
    going, and bear up.

This is truly astounding; from this kind of demand for blind obedience to authority it is a pretty short step to the pleas of Nazi war criminals that they were merely following orders.

With all due respect to the many wonderful men and women who serve our country during peacetime, it is, and always has been, the case that except in times of war, America allows it's Armed Services to rot on the vine.  They are typically, as now, underpaid, poorly equipped and inadequately trained.  It is almost inevitable that very few of the best and the brightest will be drawn to serve in such an unrewarding profession; we're extraordinarily lucky that so many able folk do serve despite all the drawbacks.  But it is not merely a "chance of war" that there will be some incompetent officers, it is an inescapable function of the low quality of the careerists.  This doesn't matter much in a country at peace; they just can't do that much damage.  But during wartime, they are a threat to themselves, to the men they command, and quite possibly to the entire war effort.  Regardless of the suspect motivations of some of the men of the Caine, the suggestion that Queeg should have been left in command borders on the ludicrous.

Ultimately, this is a chilling novel.  Even supposing that it's viewpoint represents what would be best for military disciple and the efficient functioning of a war effort, it is completely incompatible with the idea of a democracy and with the concept of personal responsibility.


Grade: (D+)


Herman Wouk Links:

    -REVIEW ESSAY: Marjorie Morningstar: The conservative novel that liberal feminists love (Alana Newhouse, Sept. 14, 2005, Slate)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Herman Wouk (1915-) (kirjasto)
    -WOUK, HERMAN. The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000
    -ESSAY: A Faithful Adaptation (Herman Wouk, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPTS: Excerpts from: THE CAINE MUTINY (a novel) THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL (a play) Herman Wouk
    -ESSAY: The Jew as Patriot: Herman Wouk and American Jewish Identity (Edward S. Shapiro, American Jewish History 84.4 (1996)
    -ESSAY: Wouk and remembrance (Elaine Margolin, Book)
    -EXCERPT: THE ORGANIZATION MAN, by William H. Whyte Chapter 19, Love That System
    -REVIEW: of INSIDE, OUTSIDE. By Herman Wouk (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of INSIDE, OUTSIDE By Herman Wouk  (James Michener, NY Times Book Review)


I think you're overdoin' it on the blind-obedience thing. Remember, the whole crew (except Maryk) had it in for Queeg almost from the beginning. He was continually ridiculed and undermined all the way. Given his obvious personality flaws, this lack of support drove him deeper into paranoia and isolation. Wouk's argument, through Willie, is that a military man is obliged to do the best he can with the commander he has, as opposed to making sport of that commander's weaknesses and foibles. A far cry from blind obedience, and twenty thousand leagues from "Judgment At Nuremburg." C'mon! This is a great war novel that manages to treat all its principal characters with compassion and respect.

- David Malbuff

- Feb-13-2007, 20:57


reading one of the comments i noted a fellow made reference to having served on the uscgc gresham in 1955. i also happened to have served on the uscgc greshem in 1955 and particularly on its escort of the trans pacific yacht race from long beach, ca. to honolulu starting july 4 of that year. i wonder if we served at the same time during that year and if you might provide me his name/address/e-mail. many thanks. gary h. boyd, scottsdale, arizona

- gary h boyd, yn3, uscg 1955

- Oct-28-2004, 19:44


Your review was kind of interesting. Of course Queeg had to be relieved during the typhoon otherwise, in the judgment of Maryk (no psychiatrist, but the best seaman on the ship) the Caine might well have gone down. And the novel does seem to endorse blind obedience to authority. Willy's musings about bearing up and supporting a stupid and neurotic captain are no answer at all. No amount of propping Queeg up would have prevented his handling of the ship during the typhoon.

I've always thought that Willie's saying that "it's a chance of war" referred to his and the crew's particular burden of having to serve under Queeg, not meant as a comment on a systemic default. Willie wasn't that smart.

The "bait and switch" technique that Wouk uses towards the end, I think, is one of the reasons why the novel remains fascinating. It leaves readers with an arguable proposition. If Queeg's ruin had been treated as justified, the novel would have been another humanistic tract, with a clear set of villains and heroes, similar to but better than the kind of story Tom Keefer might have written.

There's another reason too for its continued popularity -- if it is in fact still popular -- and that is its effective capturing of quotidian details of shipboard life. (The things the ship's laundry does to your uniforms, and so forth.) Wouk's got it down pat. Every time I read the book I'm Twilight Zoned back to 1955 when I was a sailor on the USCGC Gresham. At the same time, Wouk is unable to get inside the enlisted men. All of them are selfish, stupid, and constantly compared to animals. He has no idea what to do with them except to have them serve as pawns in the dynamics of the wardroom.

The movie, which I reviewed at, is a typical Hollywoodization of a good story, cheapening it and turning it into a cartoon.

- Robert Maxwell

- May-26-2004, 17:53