Why a classic World War II story always matters.

Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny may be the greatest American novel of World War II. This 1951 study of men at war with a foreign foe and with each other spent 122 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and  received a Pulitzer Prize in 1952. Wouk adapted the novel, his third, into a hit play; The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial became a much-produced classic. The 1954 film based on the book starred Humphrey Bogart in his least typical and arguably greatest role as Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, the paranoid bully who captains a beleaguered destroyer-minesweeper. The Caine Mutiny earned seven Academy Award nominations. Since then, Wouk’s story has been retold countless times on stage, in film, and on television.

Wouk’s fictional revolt rings true because he was writing from intimate firsthand experience during World War II with the conditions, ships, and character types he portrays.

Wouk was an established writer by the time of Pearl Harbor. He enlisted immediately after that attack, attending midshipman school at Columbia University and communications school at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Wouk fought in the Pacific from early 1943 until the war ended, serving in eight invasions aboard the World War I–era destroyer-minesweepers Zane and Southard.

In September 1945, Wouk, by then the Southard’s executive officer, was in line to replace that ship’s captain when a typhoon wrecked the vessel off Okinawa. He never forgot that storm, or the rest of his war: the anxious superior who rolled toothpicks in his hand, the rancor between regular navy men and reservists, and the personalities that meshed and clashed in ships’ wardrooms. During a 1949 training cruise, Wouk, still a reservist, began blending memory and imagination into the novel that would make him famous.

I was 7 years old when my lifelong love affair with Wouk’s World War II story started. My father took me to see the movie. We had no TV, so this was the first film I ever saw, and I have vivid memories of that trip to the Capitol Theater in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. I was 12 when I read the book for the first of many times. In seventh grade I got into big trouble for bringing my copy to school. These were, after all, the 1950s, and The Caine Mutiny is on the salty side.

I found the story of the Caine and its men gripping— no doubt in part because in those years nearly every man I knew between 30 and 50 had served during the war, which still loomed large in America’s consciousness. Later, during my own service, I came to value The Caine Mutiny for the lessons it offers about the military and about life itself.

A dramatic account of wartime tension between regular navy officers and reservists as well as between cynical and principled self-interest, the novel unfolds from the perspective of Ensign Willis Seward Keith.

Smart, snide Willie, a wealthy Princeton grad, looks down on his roommates at midshipman school. They are poorer than he is, and not nearly as book-smart. But Willie, a rebel without a clue, is always a demerit or two from being expelled. He is saved only when the roommates he scorns, who are savvier about military life, help him out. In exchange, Willie tutors them. They all make it to commissioning day.

Assigned to the Caine in the Pacific Theater, Willie comes under the command of two regular navy lieutenant commanders—first, the seemingly lackadaisical William DeVries, who is succeeded by Queeg, a martinet who comes to the Caine after arduous years of antisubmarine combat in the Atlantic.

Wartime personnel demands have filled the Caine’s wardroom with reservists, as was true on most actual U.S. Navy vessels during the war. The Caine’s ensemble includes executive officer Lieutenant Steve Maryk and Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, the ship’s communications officer and Willie’s boss. Maryk is competent, dedicated, and respected by the crew, an honest Everyman hoping to go regular navy once the war ends. Maryk’s friend Keefer hates the navy—especially career officers, who look down on reservists much as their real-world counterparts often did during the war.

The urbane Keefer defines the navy as “a master plan created by geniuses for execution by idiots.”A would-be novelist, he constantly mocks Queeg, arguing in the wardroom that he is unfit for command. Keefer goads Maryk into keeping a “medical log” on Queeg’s oddities and coaches the executive officer on how to relieve a commanding officer in a crisis. As Maryk and company gradually come to align with Keefer, Queeg spirals into paranoia. When a typhoon almost sinks the Caine, the captain breaks down and goes catatonic. Maryk relieves Queeg and assumes command, leading to his court-martial for mutiny.

Back in port, defense counselor Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, another reservist, accepts Maryk as a client only after a dozen other navy lawyers refuse. In the trial’s climactic moment, Queeg takes the stand. Greenwald breaks him, forcing a display of the instability that led Maryk to relieve Queeg. The board acquits Maryk, but the label “mutineer” leaves a stain bound to kill his dream of a regular navy career.

Afterward, at a celebratory party, a drunk Greenwald indicts Keefer for undermining Queeg. Greenwald assails Maryk, Willie, and Keefer’s other accomplices for following along instead of helping their commander. He says he only defended Maryk because he knew the wrong man was on trial. Keefer, Greenwald says, should have been the one in front of the judge.

Despite my affection for this sea-faring story, I grew up to enlist in the U.S. Army. In 40 years of military service that included a direct commission to first lieutenant, I came to understand The Caine Mutiny as a set of lessons about leadership and loyalty, rooted in World War II but timeless, that applies up and down the chain of command.

As my career advanced, I frequently screened the movie for subordinates. Upon becoming a general officer, I often assigned the book as professional reading to promising field-grade officers.After retiring from the army, I had the opportunity to teach at Annapolis in 2012 as the Dr. Leo A. Shifrin Distinguished Chair in Military and Naval History. For my course “The Military Novel as Military History,” I chose The Caine Mutiny to cover World War II.

In teaching the novel at the academy, I felt I was bringing it home. Today the book is widely regarded as the best depiction of daily life aboard an American warship in World War II, though it initially drew mixed reactions from the service. The navy tried to pry “mutiny” out of the title, claiming correctly that nothing of the sort had happened aboard a U.S. Navy vessel during World War II, or any other conflict. While junior officers who had served in the war tended to identify with the book, some senior officers were reluctant to concede that a man as flawed as Queeg could rise to command at sea.

When it came to the Hollywood version of the story, the navy was ambivalent at best. After a long stall, the question of official support was about to reach the secretary of the navy when it was bucked to the chief of naval operations, Admiral William M. Fechteler, who during World War II had commanded the battleship Indiana and fought in 10 amphibious operations against Japan. Asked to assess The Caine Mutiny by a skeptical public affairs officer, Fechteler wondered aloud how Wouk, in a mere two years at sea as a reserve officer, had managed to observe “all the screwballs I have known in my 30 years in the navy.” Fechteler’s left-handed embrace melted resistance, and the navy provided extras, ships, and technical advice.

To get my students at Annapolis thinking and talking, I asked what they would do when—not if—they found themselves reporting to a Queeg, because in the military you will work under a Queeg. (Though it must be said that Queeg is hardly unique to the military. I know from my years at a Fortune 100 company that there are probably more Queegs on Wall Street than in the Pentagon.) My students were quick to grasp the character’s complexity, in particular the effect of combat duty on his nerves, and recognized that to a man his entire wardroom failed him, and themselves. Civilian readers might not make these connections so readily.

We then examined a bizarre pseudomutiny aboard the destroyer-escort USS Vance, deployed off Vietnam in early 1966. Lieutenant Commander Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter, the ship’s new captain, had Queeg-like ambitions for restoring discipline. The ship’s operations officer soon went into Keefer mode, mocking the captain’s eccentricities. He suggested an ensign keep a “Mad Marcus Log” of Arnheiter’s behavior, which stretched to 58 pages. Arnheiter did have a record of serious shortcomings, and complaints from a few junior officers were enough for his superiors to relieve him after only 99 days at the helm. However, the parallels between the real-life Vance and the fictional Caine are far too great to be coincidence. It is difficult not to feel that someone aboard the Vance knew The Caine Mutiny well, and used it as a script for removing Arnheiter.

The Arnheiter affair has everything to do with Wouk’s message, and my students and I scrutinized it. The compelling events aboard the Caine and the Vance revolved around junior officership under combat conditions and under the command of an officer who at best is less than competent. Command at sea is the most isolated of all military leadership positions, and in combat, complex problems become far more so. How are junior officers to respond? How do they support a commander they neither trust nor respect? How do they accomplish the ship’s mission? How do they take care of the crew? How do they live up to their oaths as officers? There are no textbook answers, only good reasons why it takes so long to train an officer.

One reward of teaching is what your students teach you. My future officers pinpointed elements in the book I had never considered, such as the contrast between the teamwork that benefited Willie at midshipman school and the lack of teamwork aboard the Caine under Queeg. Willie almost “bilged out” of midshipman school; his roommates, better attuned to military life, adapted to discipline. Willie breezed through coursework while they struggled. He pulled his roommates through academically, and they got him through militarily. The officers of the Caine enjoyed no such teamwork. Instead, as my midshipmen saw, in the scramble to avoid Queeg it was every officer for himself. I had never noticed that dichotomy— perhaps because, as a direct commission officer, I never attended officer candidate school or an academy. But my midshipmen, deep in the first phase of the navy career portrayed by Willie, lived by the maxim “cooperate and graduate.”

They also saw that despite a sardonic style, Queeg’s predecessor got more out of the Caine’s crew than any other destroyer-minesweeper captain in the fleet could have. They already knew military leadership is not a science but a highly individual art.

In the crucible of his World War II experience, Herman Wouk forged a morality play that deservedly tests the con- science of anyone, in or out of the military, who encounters it. Although you would never want to work for a Queeg, someday you will. How do you handle that? The Caine Mutiny is a wonderful study in how not to, and a reminder that whatever the right answer may be, it isn’t black and white.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.