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Reflections on an Uncommon Man – Stockdale, the Gulf Disaster and Stoicism

Admiral James B Stockdale

Vivare Militare! – To live is to be a soldier! –Catch phrase of the Roman Stoics

Frank McLynn’s book Marcus Aurelius mentions Admiral James Stockdale several times, discussing the role of Stoicism in Aurelius’ career and as the ideal philosophy for the soldier. McLynn isn’t enamored by Stoicism, but certainly he’s right in that it fits. Mind over matter, kid – you don’t mind, it don’t matter!

Admiral James Stockdale was a Navy Pilot, commanding the Air Wing on the USS Oriskany and on September 9, 1965 he had a really bad day, flying his F4 into a mass of flak at tree top level and at 500 knots.

Things did not go well, obviously, and he ejected into hell – over 7 years of torture, coercion, solitary confinement, and generally not having a real HOOAH day. As the senior Naval Officer in captivity, Stockdale was armed with character, integrity, the Code of Conduct and a background as a self-taught philosopher.

Stockdale had been at Stanford doing graduate work in defense and foreign affairs, and bored with the work, he wandered into the philosophy department; seeing a ramrod straight gray-haired white guy looking around, one of the professors stopped him and politely asked him what the hell he was looking for – not in those words or that tone, but in effect asking the toughest question one can ask and that demands a straight answer.

Who are you, and what do you want? We spend our lifes answering that question.

Stockdale describes his response as basically very simple: I’m a Naval Officer, a graduate student and supposedly an educated man, but I’ve never taken any courses in philosophy.

The professor he was talking to, Philip Rhinelander, had been a Naval Officer in World War II so there was a click there – Rhinelander was about to start the second semester of his graduate course on Ethics, and invited Stockdale to come in to the course, and agreed to also cover the first semester as a tutorial. Stockdale learned a lot, of course; but, at one of their final classes, Rhinelander gave him a copy of Epictetus’s Enchiridion, and an intellectual dialogue between a millennia dead Greek crippled ex-Roman slave and a 20th century man began that would last the rest of Stockdale’s life, and possibly that will inspire people for decades to come.

Most veterans, most people on active duty, and definitely most Americans do not know any Medal of Honor winners. I was fortunate enough to have several in the course of my career, often unknowing. I was sitting in the G3 of the 9th Infantry Division in 1990, doing my Operations Sergeant Major thing as we were drawing the division down. A civilian walked in, and asked if there was any body in the Division’s Association Office. The office had been closed, I explained, and asked if I could help him. He explained that he had served in the division, and that he had wanted to pick up some coins.

I said that I thought most of them had been taken over to the post museum for sale, but asked him to give me a minute – I had been given a handful and had them along with a package of Association patches in my desk, some posters and so on. I had lots of that stuff and figured he’d appreciate it. I boxed it up, and carried it out to his car. He thanked me, wished me well and drove off. Glancing at his car, I noticed the Medal of Honor license plate.

On another occasion, I had been in the local mall while I was assigned to a RC Brigade, the 420th Engineer Brigade in Bryan-College Station, Texas. I was just wandering around waiting for my wife, when I noticed two older gentlemen talking. I continued to walk and then the coin dropped – both of them were wearing Medal of Honor association jackets. I was stunned – two of America’s heroes and no one was noticing. I should have spoken to them, but what did I have to say, except thank you…and, I was awestruck.

We should be. Most of the Medal of Honor winners have done something incredible, in a moment. Stockdale refers to it as a “melting experience,” when you are confronted with something incredible, and who you are and who you will be is determined in how you respond. All that you are, all that you have, all that you believe melt away, and there are only two things – you and the reality you confront. You must grow or fail and in the case of the Medal of Honor winners and many other veterans as well as those on active duty or their family members, grow or die.

In Admiral James B. Stockdale’s case, it was not a moment. It was over seven years. That kind of heroism amazes me – heroism without respite. Stockdale’s books are available and particularly at this time of year, we owe it to ourselves to read them.

Stockdale says in his Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot that if you consider the various Medal of Honor winners, the common theme is that they were good men who decided that “This is wrong and I’m not going to permit it!” He doesn’t see himself as a hero although he’s conscious of both his bravery and his failures – but, he describes his experiences as a continuous process of saying no to fear, no to degradation, no to pain and no to humiliation. You can hurt me, but you can’t make me care.

The Admiral describes in his short essay, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior a situation where his interrogators had caught him with a note from another prisoner. They locked him him up in isolation in preparation for torture; Stockdale refers to it as “being in trouble;” he knew he could contain material if the interrogators didn’t know he had it, but that he would break and that since they knew what they wanted from him specifically, they’d get it. “We had lost a few in big purges – I think in torture overshoots – and I was getting tired of it. It was the fall of 1969, and I had been in this role for four years and saw nothing left for me to do but check out.” He attempted suicide but the Vietnamese found him and treated him. But, they stopped torturing prisoners in Hanoi, that night.

While I suspect that some may see this as a reach, I believe that Admiral Stockdale’s melting experience really translates well to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. In this case, the administration has failed to fix what’s wrong with the Department of the Interior; we knew about the crony-capitalist, near kleptocratic nature of the nexus of Big Oil and Government for decades. The abuses in the Bush administration appear to have continued, and we know a great deal about what happened – British Petroleum said “Trust us!” and DOI said, “Sure, partner.” Now we’re over 35 days into an on-going disaster, and there’s no reason to trust anyone. The administration needs to get its act together.

What has been missing in the mind of this old First Sergeant is the good man who is willing to say “This is wrong and I’m not going to allow it on my watch and I don’t give a damn about the consequences!” (To be continued…)


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