Lessons from Admiral Stockdale
From his authorized biography:
Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, was born on December 23, 1923 in Abingon, Illinois. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1946, he attended flight training in Pensacola, FL and in 1954 was accepted to the Navy Test Pilot School where he quickly became a standout and served as an instructor for a brief time. Stockdale’s flying career took him west, and in 1962 he earned a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Stanford University. He was the first to amass more than one thousand hours in the F-8U Crusader, then the Navy’s hottest fighter, and by the early 1960’s Stockdale was at the very pinnacle of his profession when he commanded a Navy fighter squadron.
In August 1964, Stockdale played a key role in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which the Johnson Administration used to justify large-scale military action in Vietnam. Stockdale always maintained that he had not seen enemy vessels during the event, but the next morning, August 6, 1964, he was ordered to lead the first raid of the war on North Vietnamese oil refineries.
On September 9, 1965 at the age of 40, Stockdale, Commanding Officer, VF51 and Carrier Air Group Commander (CAG-16) was catapulted from the deck of the USS Oriskany for what would be the final mission. While returning from the target area, his A-4 Skyhawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Stockdale ejected, breaking a bone in his back. Upon landing in a small village he badly dislocated his knee, which subsequently went untreated and eventually left him with a fused knee joint and a very distinctive gait.
Stockdale wound up in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”, where he spent the next seven years as the highest ranking naval officer and leader of American resistance against Vietnamese attempts to use prisoners for propaganda purposes. Despite being kept in solitary confinement for four years, in leg irons for two years, physically tortured more than 15 times, denied medical care and malnourished, Stockdale organized a system of communication and developed a cohesive set of rules governing prisoner behavior. Codified in the acronym BACK U.S. (Unity over Self), these rules gave prisoners a sense of hope and empowerment, which many credited with giving them the strength to endure their lengthy ordeal. Drawing largely from principles of stoic philosophy, notably Epictetus’ The Enchiridion, Stockdale’s courage and decisive leadership was an inspiration to POWs.
The climax of the struggle of wills between American POWs and their captors came in the spring of 1969. Told he was to be taken “downtown” and paraded in front of foreign journalists, Stockdale slashed his scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face with a wooden stool knowing that his captors would not display a prisoner who was disfigured.
Later, after discovering that some prisoners had died during torture, he slashed his wrists to demonstrate to his captors that he preferred death to submission. This act so convinced the Vietnamese of his determination to die rather than to cooperate that the Communists ceased the torture of American prisoners and gradually improved their treatment of POWs. Upon his release from prison in 1973, Stockdale’s extraordinary heroism became widely known, and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Gerald Ford in 1976...
Highly recommended are the following three works by Stockdale:
Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior
Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot
In Love and War: The Story of a Family's Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years
Lessons on how to keep faith with your core principles in the face of imprisonment, loneliness, physical deprivation, and even torture are always relevant.
Especially so today, as our country prepares to inaugurate our first Marxist President.
Alea iacta est.