On Richard Phillips’ A Captain’s Duty (a Book Review)

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Most of you know the story.  In 2009, the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama was hijacked by four Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia.  Her captain, Richard Phillips, was taken hostage and was not freed until several days later when a Navy SEALs team shot and killed the pirates.  It became a national story almost immediately:  the first American vessel hijacked by Somali pirates, a miraculous and brave rescue by the U.S. military (always a hit with the news), and a new-found hero in the figure of Captain Phillips, who, we’re told, risked his own life to keep his crew safe.

A Captain’s Duty:  Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea is Captain Phillip’s personal account of the events.  Beginning days before the hijacking, Phillips lays out a populist account of the politics of coastal Somalia, life on merchant vessels, the history of the merchant
mariners, and the personal struggles he and his wife endured during and, to a lesser extent, after the hijacking.  As a work meant to educate and entertain, it is at times quite dull, and at other times quite fascinating, though not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect.

What I found most compelling about this book were its sections on life in pirate-heavy seas.  Many of the chapters are preceded by quotes highlighting previously successful hijackings, and the chapters themselves provide a fair amount of detail about the procedures for dealing with piracy and the knowledge sea captains like Phillips must acquire before and after they traverse the seas.  These sections were the most interesting in the book, as they highlighted the real problem piracy poses and provided Phillips’ personal perspective on the issue.  If anything, these sections do far more to describe who Phillips is than any of the chapters about the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama.  They likewise provide a somewhat populist view of the issues in the Somali region, which do certainly add sympathy to an already sympathetic figure.

However, these chapters are sometimes overloaded by excessive description.  The book was clearly written for a general audience, yet some sections of the book obsess over the minute details of ship life, most of which have no direct bearing on the events yet to unfold.  One section on the captain’s duty to inspect the ship could easily have been left as a short paragraph explaining what the inspection is for.  I’m sure someone who finds ship life idyllic — or, perhaps, romantic — will find value in these sections, but I personally felt they drew away from the more pressing concern:  piracy.  Truthfully, I was far more interested in how an actual ship captain views life in dangerous waters than in everyday ship life, as it is difficult to form an objective opinion on such matters from the safety of my computer chair.  Regardless, though there are some rather dull sections in the book, the overall thrust of the first few chapters is worth reading, if only for the reasons I have already stated.

Unfortunately, Phillips’ account of the actual hijacking strains credulity.  While one can forgive him for making assumptions about his attackers, mis-remembering details, or even conjuring some up in an apparent dream-like daze, his assessment of his own behavior from the beginning of the hijacking makes one wonder why the U.S. Navy was all that concerned about Somali pirates in the first place.  For example, Phillips reminds us more than once that the Somalis have been enormously successful at hijacking ships and earning ransom as a result.  At no point are we to believe these pirates are completely inept at what they do, even if they are poorly armed, trained, and supplied.  Phillips spends considerable time, as I’ve noted above, describing how Somalis perform hijackings, their success rate, the politics, and so on, painting a fairly clear picture of just who we’re about to deal with; that picture offers credence to the threat of hijacking.

But once the hijacking occurs, the Somalis are presented as dimwitted to the extreme, completely inept at just about everything; they are described like children who only just figured out how to turn on the boat.  They seem utterly perplexed by the boat’s machinery, despite clearly having at least a basic understanding of radar equipment.  Worse, throughout the ordeal, Phillips claims to have been in continuous contact with hidden members of the crew via a handheld radio he “snuck away.”  Only he repeatedly uses this radio right in front of the Somalis, or at least within sight, such that it’s really quite impossible to believe that they haven’t noticed.  This is made more unbelievable when we’re reminded that the Somalis are rather annoyed that Phillips doesn’t know where the rest of his crew is.  One problem:  clearly he does, and even if he didn’t, he’s clearly in contact with them.

This particular issue doesn’t get better over time.  Frequently, Phillips is shown giving away tactical information to the crew — numbers, weapons, positions, etc. — while looking straight in the eye of the hijackers.  It’s as if we’re supposed to believe these Somalis are not only really bad at what they do, but completely disinterested in the fact that their captive is sharing sensitive information with the very people they wish to find (or, in some cases, with the military itself, as Phillips communicates with the U.S.S. Bainbridge while trapped in the cramped lifeboat).  All of this is dropped from the film adaptation — probably for the exact reason that bothered me:  it just doesn’t make sense.

The book’s other flaws are in its contradictions.  For example, Phillips tells us that the Somalis let him swim in the ocean to cool off after kidnapping him and fleeing in the lifeboat.  But several chapters later, Phillips tells us the Somalis never let him out.  One of these two statements is true; they both can’t be.  These details draw into question other aspects of the narrative, such as Phillips’ claim that a Somali boat came to talk with the leader of the hijackers; the Navy, apparently, denies anything of the sort happened, which Phillips rejects for no reason other than because “he says so.”  If he were to at least admit that his account is perhaps colored by his experience, some of these details could be forgiven.

Basically, the deeper Phillips takes us into his experiences as a kidnap victim, the less credible his account becomes.  Detached from the experience, he is able to paint a thorough picture of conditions at sea, but in trying to apply the same rigor to the moment of trauma, he invariably paints himself into a corner from which he cannot escape.  This is, quite frankly, an unbelievable book which would fail even as a work of fiction.

In all fairness, I can understand why the book fails as much as it does.  Trauma has a way of fragmenting memory, which might explain why Don Delillo’s mostly disliked post-9/11 novel, Falling Man, is largely told in fragments.  Phillips tries to account for these fragmented memories by injecting an illusory voice of authenticity, but instead fictionalizes his own account.  On that front alone, there might be some value, as those interested in studying trauma may find something of value in a book which, in my mind, falls apart precisely because it is an attempt to remove the personal account from the effects of the event.  For me, however, I found myself unwilling to cede narrative ground for a book which exceeds the boundary of its genre simply by failing to adhere to the genre’s basic necessities.  At the very least, non-fiction demands the illusion of truth.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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