TCS Daily


A Belated Tribute -- and Apology -- to Admiral James Stockdale

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - July 21, 2005 12:00 AM

I have a distinct memory of watching the 1992 Vice Presidential debate between then-Vice President Dan Quayle, Senator Al Gore and a person I had never heard of until that year; Admiral James Stockdale. Both Quayle and Gore gave polished opening statements. In contrast, Admiral Stockdale opened by saying "Who am I? Why am I here?"

The comment -- along with Stockdale's seemingly Grumpy-Old-Man countenance, his tendency to pace behind his podium and his refusal to use up his allotted time in debate ("I'm out of ammo!" he declared cheerfully after discussing his position on abortion rights for a few seconds) -- caused me to laugh at him. Quite clearly, this was a man out of his depth, not prepared for the rough-and-tumble of the political stage. And when Stockdale was parodied by comedian Phil Hartman as the out of touch old fogey he appeared to be, people like me chuckled appreciatively.

Oh, I knew that Stockdale was some kind of war hero -- though the details of his heroism escaped me. And I knew that he had some passing interest in philosophy. Nowadays, that kind of knowledge might intrigue me enough to make me dig deeper in a story and find out what I and others might be ignoring. But in 1992, I didn't dig deep enough to find out what kind of man Admiral James Stockdale was. That caused me to dismiss him -- a dismissal that will forever embarrass me.

Admiral Stockdale was a war hero. But to leave things at that would be like saying that Michael Jordan was a good basketball player. Stockdale's heroism was awe-inspiring. He was a Vietnam veteran, a Navy pilot whose plane was shot down, resulting in a broken bone in his back and imprisonment in the "Hanoi Hilton" for seven years. As a prisoner, Stockdale was subjected to vicious and savage beatings and torture of the most obscene kind. It was torture that would have broken a lesser man.

But it did not break James Stockdale.

Stockdale saw his imprisonment as a chance to make the North Vietnamese sorry they ever captured him. He frustrated and defied them at every turn and encouraged other captors to do the same. He invented a code with which to communicate with other American prisoners and ensured that a chain of command existed among the prisoners in order to assist them in resisting the efforts of the enemy to break them or to extract information from them. In every respect, Admiral Stockdale behaved in accordance with the Code of Conduct for captured American service personnel. In exemplary fashion, he resisted every effort by the enemy to make his capture and imprisonment work to their advantage.

Admiral Stockdale was brave. But he was no fool. He knew that despite his fierce will to resist, there was always a possibility in the hellish environment in which he was imprisoned that he might eventually break and do things that were anathema to his own personal code as well as to the Code of Conduct -- if only to receive better treatment at the hands of his captors. And at one point, Admiral Stockdale was almost tempted to do just that. One of the favorite tactics of the North Vietnamese was to put captured American service personnel on television to provide "testimonials" and "confessions" detailing the sins and crimes of the United States in going to war in the first place. Admiral Stockdale was tortured so severely that he agreed to go on television and denounce his country.

But Stockdale also had the presence of mind to recover his will to resist. Going to the bathroom alone to shave before his "confession," he took his razor blade and began to slice up his own face and head. When a North Vietnamese guard came to check on him, he found Stockdale lying in a pool of his own blood. The North Vietnamese then tried to revive him and clean him up, but made the mistake of leaving him alone again. Stockdale used the time to find a sitting stool with which to beat and disfigure his own face so that he would be unpresentable on television, or so that if he were presented, viewers would think that it was the North Vietnamese who beat and disfigured him (a belief that Admiral Stockdale -- being bound and determined to resist and discomfit the enemy in any way possible -- might very well have wanted to foster). Later on, Admiral Stockdale actually slit his own wrists to show his captors the lengths to which he would go to keep himself from being used as a propaganda tool. His example inspired other POW's to resist their captors and eventually led to better conditions for the POW's. For his courage and his resistance, Admiral Stockdale received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When asked how he was able to resist his captors for the seven years he was held in the Hanoi Hilton, Admiral Stockdale cited as inspiration the works of the Stoic philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. So well-versed was Stockdale in the works of the Stoics that he went on to teach Stoic philosophy as a fellow of The Hoover Institution. It was his philosophical bent that helped him survive the depredations of captivity, as writer Jeff Bliss points out. It was that philosophical bent that caused him to ask "Who am I? Why am I here?" at the Vice Presidential debates -- debates he found out only a week before their occurrence that he would be participating in (Ross Perot's campaign hadn't bothered to tell him that they had received and accepted an invitation to participate in the debate on his behalf weeks earlier). Stockdale's question was mistaken as the puzzled musings of a lost and confused man. In reality, it was an admirable application of Marcus Aurelius's lesson about "first principles." While Dan Quayle and Al Gore were busy explaining what made them good political leaders, Stockdale tried to explain what kind of man he was. It is an indictment of us as a society that we were unprepared to listen when he tried to speak to us. It certainly was an indictment of me that I so readily dismissed him.

We certainly need more men like Phil Hartman to keep us laughing. But over and above anything, we need men like James Stockdale to keep us free.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor.

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