“The important thing is not what they have made of you, but what you have made of what they have made of you.” –Sartre
Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale (ret.) died June 5, 2005. His navy career spanned thirty-seven years. He was a fighter pilot, a test pilot, and had commands at sea and ashore. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam. He was president of both The Naval War College and The Citadel. He was a warrior, a leader and an educator, but it was his ordeal as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam that defined him. His writings and lectures on the moral philosophy that bore the Americans during their savage imprisonment are a legacy to be cherished and studied.
In 1965, Commander Jim Stockdale was shot down while leading a bombing raid over North Vietnam. He survived, was captured, and spent the next eight years in a Communist prison, where he was the senior American present. The Communists treated Americans as political prisoners, and sought to extort false confessions, and make them “atone” for their “crimes” by making anti-American propaganda statements to the international press. They endured unspeakable conditions. The Communists made every effort to break the will of the Americans. They might have succeeded, had it not been for Stockdale’s leadership.
Early on, Stockdale realized that they were in an impossible situation. The US Military Code of Conduct required that American prisoners of war give name, rank, serial number and date of birth to interrogators, and nothing else. This played into the Communists’ technique of using torture and isolation to destabilize the Americans to break their will.
When tortured, a prisoner’s arms were bound from behind with rope tourniquets, which were tightened until the blood was cut off. His arms were yanked backwards until they nearly dislocated (and, sometimes did), while his head was jammed down between his legs as the extortionist stood on his back, causing him to panic from suffocation, claustrophobia, and pain. Fifteen minutes of this treatment could squash any man, crumpling him into a sobbing, submissive, compliant wreck, vomiting and unable to control his bowels. The torture did not stop until the prisoner spilled his guts, or died. This was called “taking the ropes.”
After torture and confession, the prisoner was isolated from the others, often for months. During this solitary confinement, the shame of having betrayed his countrymen consumed him, destroying his self-esteem and, ultimately, his will to resist. Eventually, the fear of being called to take the ropes for some minor infraction, combined with his deepening shame, set the prisoner up to collaborate in exchange for the hope of amnesty.
While enduring this despicable regimen, Stockdale devised some basic ethical guideposts to enable the Americans to resist, fight back as a group, and build individual resolve.
He implemented a wall tap communication system to subvert the camp’s rule of silence between prisoners. Everyone stayed in touch and shared what he was going through—even those in isolation. By sharing their experiences, the men could keep their sanity, knowing they had done nothing worse than anyone else. When a recent arrival was tortured and confessed, his typical reaction was, “You don’t want to talk to me, I’m a traitor.” The immediate response from the older guys was, “Hey, don’t beat yourself up! We’ve all done that and worse.”
Risking his own career, Stockdale abrogated The Code of Conduct. In its place, he ordered that information be given, but not freely. “Make them torture you, first,” He said. “How much should we take,” they asked? Stockdale agonized, and said, “Make them give you significant pain, then tell us what you told them.”
It was a brilliant decision. It allowed a man to be a combatant again. Self-worth was restored. Morale soared. It forged the Americans into a cohesive unit. The Communists were furious because the Americans resisted as one. They couldn’t winnow out the weak. “You Americans are nothing like the French were,” the frustrated camp commander muttered, “We could count on them to be reasonable.”
Stockdale suffered the most torture and privation of all. Time and again, others were tortured and forced to confirm he was their leader. For this, and other phony infractions, Stockdale was tortured over twenty times and spent over four years in solitary. Two of those years were spent in leg irons, often sitting in his own excrement for days. His leg, broken when he first landed, was never properly treated. He suffered pain from it every day for eight years. He stoically accepted it all without yielding, and the men loved him for it.
Stockdale thought always about unity over self. “No amnesty—either we all leave or we all stay.” “Don’t ask for anything, don’t accept anything–unless it is for everyone.” “Negotiate for all, or not at all.”
The men responded with love for him and care for each other. A new man once tapped, “What should I value in here to keep myself going?” Stockdale tapped back, “The guy in the next cell. Treasure him. He is precious. Love him. He is your only link to our civilization in here.” Much later, Stockdale wrote, “From this eight year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea…That idea is that you are your brother’s keeper.”
In this way, the warriors… “Built a civilization of Americans behind walls that had the courage to rule itself responsibly without contact with the parent country for eight years.”
In this way, a gritty American helped 500 of his countrymen prevail and come home. On a crisp February morning in 1973, the first of those warriors stepped off the plane at Travis Air Force Base, just north of San Francisco.
It was glorious to see, if your heart were iron
And you could keep from grieving at all the pain
God bless you, Jim Stockdale.
Moral Philosopher, Alan Watts, observes that we worry about whether we have enough and are secure enough to be happy. Paradoxically, the greatest opportunity for happiness lies in being selfless. Jim Stockdale did more than survive his terrible ordeal. In thinking about and caring about others more than he thought about and cared about himself, he achieved serenity and peace of mind. When he came home, and for the rest of his life, he would say that the best part of his life was his imprisonment in Viet Nam.
If you chase after money and security,
Your heart will never unclench.