Call us all Ishmael.
At least those of us who have been unwittingly conscripted on what we thought was a voyage with purpose only to learn out of the sight of land that we were on a monomaniacal expedition of bloodlust revenge. Those who our Captain Ahab stowed below deck as his chosen harpooners: Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Condoleeza Rice, Fedallahs all, knew what they signed on for. We did not, yet our fates are locked together aboard this modern-day Pequod that is the American war on terror. As such, we do well to reflect on the story as it was told one hundred and fifty four years ago.
In Herman Melville’s epic compendium Moby Dick, Ahab nailed a golden doubloon to the main mast; a prize for whomever harpooned the white whale. Is that not in part what motivates our crew today, as well as the Pequod’s owners, Bildad, Peleg, Halliburton, and their likes? While “they were bent on profitable cruises,” our Ahab is “intent on an audacious, immitigable and supernatural revenge.” Are these together not how they exhort us, as Flasks in the pursuit boat, to break our backs and crack our oars, hearts alive with the prospect of bringing our mad captain his vainglorious trophy? And who does the tumultuous work among the sharks and the very deep itself? Certainly not those who urge such ferocity. The many who drop into the water are the hapless conscripts, Queequegs, Tashtegos and Dagoos, those who obey, tolerate and question not the direction or logic behind the decisions made from inside the secluded Captain’s quarters. Blinded by the invented honor of the blood oath that christened the freshly forged harpoon, they think not to reason why, but only to do or die. Meanwhile those aforementioned Flasks, free of the moral obligations that would make a rational person think twice of the entire project, merely view the blood-stained brine their boat floats in as a sign of success.
Yet there are Starbucks among the crew. Those who question the motivation, the reason and morality behind the decision to chase the white whale of terror, at any, nay, at all costs. Ever more, they come to resent the oath they took to pursue Moby Dick, but questioning the directives of a Captain on a ship is a dangerous prospect. While they increasingly consider the integrity of the enterprise (or lack thereof), their responsibility to the hierarchy of the ship renders their dissent ineffective. “He waxes brave, but nevertheless obeys,” and Ahab knows this. Then there are as many Stubbs aboard the ship, but their dissent is mute. Their refrain is hushed when they hear the ivory leg on the planks: “Ahab has that that’s bloody on his mind. But, mum; he comes this way.” Reason gives way to the perceived need for order, and they stifle their dissent in deference to command. Mutiny is never a serious prospect, but their consciences trouble them to consider it as they lay in the bulk of the vessel at night, frustrated that the “terrible old man” manages to sleep in the gale, steadfastly eyeing the purpose at hand, while they toss and turn with the ship. Those 5,500 Steelkilts in uniform who have acted out, who quit their pumps and harpoons in realization that it is not their business, know too well the consequences. Discipline aboard the ship is harsh, and rebellions are always met with the harshest discipline.
Where does this leave us, Ishmael? Though we cringe at the prospect of Ahab’s directive, we are on this “cannibal of a craft,” bound by the enforced hierarchy that governs it. Or are we? Will our relief come as Ishmael’s did, when the white whale destroys our ship and crew while we are left floating on the waves, clinging to a coffin meant for someone else? Or will it come from elsewhere? Will our Ahab listen to the many Gabriels of as many Jereboam’s warnings that the attempt to destroy the white whale will be his own as well as his entire ship’s and crew’s undoing? Or will a Starbuck or a Stubbs yet unheard rise up from within the ranks of the morbid chain of command to challenge the undertaking at hand? Melville’s outcome is a disastrous one, forewarned by the albatross “in tormented chase of that demon-phantom such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.” It is a warning well worth considering so that our fate is not a similar one aboard this modern-day Peqoud.
MICHAEL KIMAID teaches History and Geography at The Firelands College in Huron, Ohio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org