Captains Uncourageous


“The captain always goes down with the ship.” This old seafarer’s adage, which has come to have the force of a moral principle, was violated in tragic fashion in South Korea this past week. As investigators and divers try to determine exactly what caused the Sewol to sink, and families and friends mourn the loss of hundreds of souls, the rest of us may benefit by pausing to ask what may be learned from this disaster.

On Wednesday morning, April 16, 2014, the Sewol, a commercial ferry, neared the final stage of a routine journey from the northern port at Incheon toward the popular tourist island, Jeju, carrying four hundred and seventy-six passengers and crew. Most aboard were students from a high school in Ansan (near Seoul), enjoying their second year class trip to Jeju, a common ritual for Korean high schoolers. For reasons as yet unclear, the ship suddenly began to list. Within minutes, the crew had made a distress call to Jeju, where transcripts show authorities instructed the ship’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, to prepare for evacuation immediately. Instead of heeding this rational advice, Captain Lee and his crew told the passengers to remain in their cabins and don life jackets as they tried to right the ship.

For at least thirty minutes after the original distress call, as it became increasingly obvious the ship was capsizing, the crew continued to instruct everyone to remain below, effectively trapping them until gravity and water pressure sealed their fate. More than three hundred and seventy people, most of them students, went down with the ship.

Thus far, we are speaking of fatal incompetence. One crew member among the survivors says he has no memory of ever having trained for an evacuation. Consider that: a ferry with a capacity of nine hundred passengers was being operated by a crew that had not learned how to evacuate the ship; a crew that told people in a sinking ship to remain below until the path from the cabins to the main deck became untraversable due to the severity of the list; a crew that did not release its lifeboats even for the passengers who did have the foresight to disobey instructions and jump overboard; a crew among whom a surviving member has since said there was no time, in that hour of trying to save the ship, to read an emergency manual and find out what to do.

But practical incompetence is one thing; moral incompetence is quite another. I have recounted the testimony of a couple of the Sewol‘s surviving crew members. That last sentence ought to send a shiver up your spine. At least two hundred and seventy people died at sea, in part as a result of actions taken, and instructions given, by Captain Lee and his crew. Nevertheless, Captain Lee and a substantial number of that crew are alive and on land today—they were, by all reports, among the first to jump ship, and the first to be rescued by fishermen and coast guard boats arriving at the scene.

“The captain always goes down with the ship.” In practical terms, this adage is a simple embodiment of a trait that ought to be just as simple, but which has been rendered complex to the point of obscurity by modern sophistry, relativism, and moral infantilism, namely honor. This is plain for anyone to understand: The captain is responsible for his ship and its passengers. He is obliged, by the responsibility he has voluntarily assumed, to share the fate of those under his care. If he has any reason to believe human beings remain in jeopardy on his vessel, he must continue to take action aimed at their survival, before pursuing his own. In this case, Captain Lee not only had reason to believe people remained in jeopardy, but he also knew that he had a large hand in placing them in jeopardy.

Still, his fear for his own physical well-being obliterated any sense of responsibility for the hundreds of students trapped in the ship under his command, any fear of the shame he would bring on himself and his family by abandoning those students, and, ultimately, any higher concern for his own dignity. Some culpability may also be assigned to the crew members who obeyed his call to abandon ship with him; if ever there was a moment that warranted mutiny, this was it. (Meanwhile, the school’s vice-principal, who was rescued from the ship, but who can hardly be held responsible for the fate of his students under the circumstances, has committed suicide, leaving a note which includes this: “Burn my body and scatter my ashes at the site of the sunken ferry. Perhaps I can become a teacher for the missing students in my next life.”)

Am I being unfairly merciless toward Captain Lee and his crew? Am I without pity for a man who was weak—fatally weak—in a moment of crisis he never anticipated?

Not at all; I do pity him. As my Korean friends and students spoke in a semi-shocked state about the missing teenagers during those first days, I confess my focus was on the captain. I had heard the early rumors that he was alive in the hospital, and that he had initially denied his identity and claimed ignorance of what had happened on his ship. I hoped they were false rumors, for if they were true, then this man’s life was, for all intents and purposes, as surely over as if he had gone down with those three hundred victims. More decisively over, perhaps, for dying on board would only have entailed the loss of his breath, whereas now he has lost far more. Consider, by analogy, a man who races to escape from his burning house, leaving his wife and children inside in order to save himself. That man, too, is a captain who failed to go down with his ship.

Lee’s fate—chosen, and all the more pitiable for that—reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, perhaps the last word on the fate of manhood in the modern world, the story of a crewman who spends a lifetime trying to bury the shame of following his captain in abandoning ship. It reminded me of various other men’s failings in the face of stark choices, great and small, between chosen responsibilities on the one hand, and petty self-concern, greed, or vanity on the other. It also reminded me of my own failures of judgment, and got me wondering whether I would respond to such a crisis more honorably than Captain Lee and his crew.

And this, I suspect, leads us somewhere valuable. Contemporary man, lost in his peculiar combination of self-righteous sentimentality (“The children!”) and the mindless pursuit of gratification, invariably responds to stories like that of Captain Lee with an all too convenient “forgiveness,” thereby absolving himself in advance of any blame or shame that might descend upon his own choices and motives. After all, as we are quick to reassure one another, we can never know how we would respond in the same situation unless we are in it. That may be true, but it is beside the point.

If we are unable or unwilling to see and confront the extreme lack of character—the dishonor—in Captain Lee’s behavior, on the grounds that “we weren’t in his shoes,” then we are only increasing the chances that our own response, should we ever find ourselves in similar shoes, will be as weak as his. If we rationalize his action, we are implicitly rationalizing our own. That, in fact, is likely the main reason we excuse shameful actions so easily today: We are hoping to excuse ourselves from scrutiny (including and especially self-scrutiny) regarding our own failures of character. Moral relativism and psychological drivel about “drives” are the sophistries of weak men—and they are intended to be exactly that, by those who propagate them, because these sophistries also produce weak men, serving the interests of a vicious ruling class quite well.

This self-absolution that passes itself off as “empathy” is one of our late modern diseases, and goes a long way to explaining our easy tolerance of increasingly generalized amorality, both in private conduct and, ultimately, in the criminal enterprise we dignify today with the name “politics.”

Despotism of both the “hard” and “soft” varieties requires and thrives on men’s willingness to accept, and ultimately to engage in, characterless behavior.

In hard despotism, this need is most vital among the ruler’s immediate advisers and lackeys; they must be prepared to put his unjust whims into practice.

Soft despotism, our modern progressive creature, actually relies on, and therefore takes steps to foster, characterlessness on a much more universal scale. Socialism, welfare statism, crony capitalism, and so on (the variations of what I refer to generically as the parasitocracy) would be unsustainable and even inconceivable without a population that had, en masse, relinquished at least a goodly portion of its spiritual substance, i.e., of the sense of honor, the pride, the capacity for shame—call it what you will—that gives birth to maxims like “The captain always goes down with the ship.”

In our modern ships of state, we are all, always, expected to excuse and rationalize shamelessness and thuggery of all sorts, as long as these are pursued under the auspices of state authority, and in the name of “social justice,” “security,” “fairness,” or “correcting systemic or historic inequalities.” We allow children to be raised and indoctrinated under the supervision of state “experts,” without anyone ever asking too forcefully just wherein their “expertise” lies, and why parents should be compelled to submit their children to it without recourse. We allow state apparatchiks, with or without medical degrees, to make decisions about the life and death of our own loved ones, on the grounds that it would be “unfair” to do otherwise. We restrict, restrain, and hold one another for ransom indirectly, through the barrel of the state’s gun, and yet sleep well at night—unless we feel that we are not getting our fair share of the loot, or our fair turn at pointing the gun.

And that’s just us, the lowly passengers. What of our captains of the ship of state, with their mutual back-scratching clubs and their continual ratchet toward ever-increasing limitations on individual freedom? What of our captains of industry with their hands in every authoritarian cookie jar, looking for goodies to protect their wealth and status (“too big to fail”), while ponying up to the political and academic establishment to furnish the legislative and ideological road blocks designed to thwart potential challengers? And what of today’s educated class of thinkers and scholars, the traditional navigators of the ship, now mere sophists brandishing theory and “science” as a cudgel to beat back the last holdouts for rationality, virtue, and common sense?

Most of our captains abandoned ship a long time ago. They remain among us not as protectors, guides, or servants, but as predators waiting to pick at what is left of us when and where they can. And we tolerate their dishonorable behavior the same way we tolerate one another’s, with excuses, rationalizations, and relativism.

Think back to Benghazi, a classic modern case of a captain and his crew abandoning ship with passengers trapped on board. Captain Lee of the Sewol was indeed just an ordinary man, though one lacking the character his passengers and their families had the right to expect of him. Captain Obama, by contrast, was the nominal “leader of the free world,” and did not even face any personal risk in choosing his dishonor. And yet what were the consequences? Investigations, hearings, softball interviews—where is the cold disgust that ought to greet Barack Obama and his Benghazi first mate Hillary Clinton any time they have the gall to show their mugs in public? Captain Lee will never again have command of so much as a tugboat, and appears in public wearing a hood to hide his disgrace. (Hence he deserves our pity.) Captain Obama remains the darling of the American press, and was re-elected two months after his most exposed moment of consciencelessness, while Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to become the titular head of the most powerful ruling faction on the planet in 2016. (Hence they deserve none.)

“The captain always goes down with the ship.” The metaphorical potential here would be almost overripe, were not the literal reality still so painfully fresh on the vine. For today, hundreds of passengers, most of them youngsters who were looking forward to a few days of fun, float lifeless in their cabins, probably still wearing the life jackets that, according to analysts and common sense, might have allowed almost every one of them to survive, were it not for the misjudgment and the poor character of the Sewol‘s captain and crew.

That literal fact must be fully digested—not out of any lack of empathy with a man who failed his life’s great test, and who now faces likely imprisonment and years of hellish regret, but as a painful and hopefully ennobling reminder of what is at stake in our own lives and societies every day. We are each captains in our own little corners of life, and we are presented with continual temptations to abandon our command in a capsizing progressive world. No one is perfect, and no one needs to be. But we do have an obligation—to our souls first of all—to respond like dignified adults, without cowardly excuses or sophistries.

(Originally published in April 2014)

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