One might think that this episode is about retribution. A Nazi submarine captain is punished for sinking a civilian British ship, the Queen of Glasgow, which has separated from its convoy. But there’s more to it than that.
The punishment is that the Captain, Karl Lanzer, (played ironically by a Palestinian-born Jew!) finds himself as a passenger on that very ship when it is attacked. He finds this baffling, not because it is logically impossible, but because he appears not to know who he is and why he is where he is. The other passengers are puzzled to, both by his behavior and by his German accent and birthplace. (He seems to remember that he was born in Frankfurt and also that he hasn’t been in England very long.) The ship will be attacked, and as the moment of attack comes closer, Lanzer begins to grasp the inevitable tragic outcome.
The point is not that Lanzer is punished, but that the form of his punishment is to occupy the place of those who suffer at his hand. As punishment or retribution, this has no effect. The deed is done. The ship is sunk. People suffer and die. And of course, it is impossible for Lanzer to be both a U-boat commander and a civilian passenger on a ship at the same time.
What is possible is for Lanzer, the commander, to imagine what it would have been like to be a passenger on the Queen of Glasgow, and to imagine it over and over again, and its clear that once the possibility of such imagining is introduced to him by a U-boat sailor who questions the attack, this is exactly what happens. And it is in this exercise of the imagination that the act of attacking the ship is revealed as morally wrong, even as an act of war. It is this shift of perspective, from aggressor to victim, which provides clarity about the moral status of the act.
Babbitt, Susan, 1993, Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination, Boulder: Westview.