Most of the mariners (12) sailing aboard the Maersk Alabama when it was attacked in 2009 were members of the Seafarers International Union. Regardless of any storytelling liberties taken by Hollywood, we welcome the opening of “Captain Phillips” because it calls attention to an often overlooked but vital American industry.
Ironically, the film opens at a time when Washington is on the verge of doing what the pirates couldn’t do: taking the Maersk Alabama – and many other American-flag ships – out of service. In addition to fighting off maritime pirates, our industry collectively is being attacked by foreign-flag interests and others who either don’t understand or don’t care about the extremely important role played by the U.S. Merchant Marine in America’s national and economic security throughout our history.
Dubbed the nation’s “fourth arm of defense” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. Merchant Marine consists of civilian seafarers who sail aboard many different kinds of vessels. Some of those ships sail in commercial trades, and others specifically serve as U.S. military support ships. All of the crews are available to mobilize in support of military operations (such as Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, where in both cases the U.S. Merchant Marine transported more than 90 percent of the war cargo into theatre) and humanitarian efforts (such as the relief mission in Haiti and the one following Superstorm Sandy).
American military leaders have stated they couldn’t ensure that our troops will get the materiel they need without U.S. mariners. They’ve also repeatedly pointed out that it would cost the government billions of dollars to replace the ships, infrastructure and manpower that they now receive via the U.S. Merchant Marine (including commercial U.S.-flag ship operators) for a relatively tiny fraction of that cost. And that’s to say nothing of the obvious pitfalls of putting our troops in a position where they’d rely on foreign-flag, foreign-crewed ships to deliver their cargo.
“Captain Phillips” of course is a human-interest story rather than a movie specifically about the U.S. Merchant Marine, but we hope it increases the public’s awareness of the industry – one that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support throughout our nation’s history but is currently fighting for survival.
In a further irony, the Alabama was carrying Food Aid cargo when it was attacked. The Food Aid program – a time-tested success that has fed hundreds of millions of people around the world while maintaining around 55,000 American jobs – is under severe attack.
Finally, we also hope the movie raises awareness of maritime piracy itself. The SIU has fought against piracy for decades; we recommend visiting www.saveourseafarers.org for more information.
As we said in April 2009, Captain Phillips, his fellow officers and the SIU crew members of the Maersk Alabama deserve credit for handling a life-and-death situation. The Navy SEALS who ended the standoff also have our gratitude.