By lex, Wed – July 6, 2005
“Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale , a highly decorated Navy pilot who inspired fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam and later ran for vice president as H. Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, died on Tuesday in Coronado, Calif. He was 81.” – New York Times
When I was a young midshipman there came a time eventually when service selection – ships, subs or aircraft (I was never meant to be a Marine) – was no longer merely theoretical but was looming on the near horizon. It was no longer a matter of glibly saying, “After graduation, I’m going to flight school, and then select for fighters,” but committing to a path which, although brightly lit with clear milestones towards a successful destination, also had many potholes along the way. The choosing would open up one door and close off all the others – forward or out were the only two choices.
So before committing, I began to seriously examine whether I had the right stuff to be a naval aviator, to walk down that path and close all the other, less demanding doors. The avatar of heroism that both inspired me and caused me to search within myself to tally up my physical and psychic resources was James Bond Stockdale. He was, to all of us, nothing else but a hero. Why, even his name seemed almost graven out of stone, almost impossibly romantic.
He was not only a highly decorated combat leader in Vietnam, a man who threw himself into his role as a tactical aviator and leader, but who also threw himself against his enemy time and again and always at great personal risk. He had also, in a war in which the popular zeitgeist evolved to eventually allow for no claims of heroism by conventional acts of courage on the field, received universal acclaim for his endurance after he had been shot down and endured seven and a half years of the most brutal kind of mistreatment in captivity. In 1980 the cultural wounds of the Vietnam War were still fresh, but looking up to Stockdale’s example did not require you to reopen any of them.
As a senior officer in detention, the other prisoners looked up to him as an example of how to act, and he did not disappoint. He devised a tap code to enable each man to correspond with his neighbor, and thereby relieve the grinding pressure of solitary confinement, share the latest interrogation techniques, prepare themselves for their time of trial, exchange names and news for a later reckoning.
A student of the stoic philosopher Epictitus, Stockdale refused when interrogated to take the lower road, the path of least resistance, the path of even partial collaboration. Again and again his captors attempted fruitlessly to finally break his will, to turn this “war hero” into some sort of propaganda tool, knowing that their only hope for victory on the battlefield lay in sapping the will of the American people at home. They tortured him for tactical information too, of course, and of course he gave in, a little. Everyone eventually gives in. But the instant they took the pressure off and tried to turn him with faux kindnesses, the type of thing a tortured man too often blubbers over gratefully, he always bounced straight back up into a posture of stoic resistance. In doing so, he made the road so exhausting and harrowing for his torturers that they never threatened him to the final extreme – an extreme he in any case assured them by word and deed he would welcome gratefully.
Being told that he would be used in a propaganda film, Stockdale beat himself almost senseless in his cell with a stool, in order to deny his enemies the profitable use of his face on camera. Suffering a vicious beating for that in return, he broke shards of glass and cut himself, simulating a suicide attempt. When his appalled captors discovered him, bleeding and unconscious, they finally eased the pressure off him and all the rest of the American prisoners – having such a high profile captive die in their custody would not advance their cause in the court of world opinion. Later, when he retold this story in front of a hushed auditorium, one of the mids in the room raised his hand and asked, “Did you really mean to kill yourself, admiral?”
“Not really,” the diminutive officer, with his shock of earned white hair and unbelievable depths of physical and moral courage replied, “but I meant to make them honestly believe that I would.”
So he led men in combat, and he led men in captivity, and years later he would lead other young men to weigh themselves against his almost impossible example, while also telling us that: It was OK to get knocked down, the content of your character was measured in how quickly you sprang back up again. And that, above all, it was OK to do the best you could – some would fight harder, and some less hard. Some would do better, and some worse. All that your country can ask of you, and all that you will ever ask of yourself in the long days and nights after your time of trial is over, is whether you gave it your all, every last bit. If you can answer, “Yes I did – that was all I had,” then you had no judgement to fear from any man, and nothing to hate in yourself.