Want to Lose Your Self-Respect? Emulate Lt. keefer of the USS Caine

June 6th, 2011
Jim Thomas

Philosopher Nathaniel Brandon wrote that “…self respect is one asset no one can afford to lose.” And the writer, Kingsley Amis added, “Surrendered even for the best of reasons, it’s gone for certain and forever.”

An exemplary portrayal of self-respect abandoned is found in Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Caine Mutiny. (Later, a superb movie starring Fred MacMurray as Keefer and Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg).

Lt. Keefer, third- in- command on the Caine, portrays a type that is alive and well. We find them in every sphere and sector of modern life—the individual who refuses to stand up and be counted when it counts.

In this World War II sea story, Captain Queeg takes command of an old destroyer-minesweeper operating in the Pacific Theater. After a series of bungled incidents aboard ship, Keefer concludes Queeg is either crazy or incompetent. He becomes outspoken among other officers and persuasive in sparking the revolt. Finally, in the crisis of a wild typhoon off the Philippines in December 1944, with the ship in mortal danger, and Queeg unable to function, executive officer Maryk relieves Queeg of command.

With Maryk at the helm, the Caine stabilizes and survives a typhoon. However, he is charged with mutiny and court martialed.

During court martial proceedings, Keefer is called as a witness for the prosecution. There he refuses to testify consistently with his numerous declarations of Queeg’s incompetency. In addition, he declines to support Maryk’s action that saved the ship. In essence, Keefer failed to affirm the very ideas he espoused so vigorously in private.

Maryk is acquitted. At the victory celebration, defense counsel charges Keefer with wanting to get Queeg all along “…while keeping your own skirts white and starchy.” Keefer can muster no response.

A colleague who sometimes disagreed with him said of Earl Warren, Governor of California and Chief Justice of the U.S Supreme Court, that “Warren stood up and was counted on every great issue of his age.”

The greatest single motivation for performance with integrity in the intent to maintain one’s self-respect. And, self-respect demands that we know what we stand for, that we are willing to stand for it, so others will know, too.

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