January 17, 2023

James Bond Stockdale: A True American Hero

Admiral Stockdale could have been angry and resentful at his predicament. He was not.

By Mark W. Fowler

“Adversity doth best induce virtue … while luxury doth best induce vice." —Frances Bacon

"Hero” is a term often misused by the yak-yak liberal media to designate individual(s) who come to the attention of society for some stand that they may have taken on a hot-button topic. Equity advocates, reparations advocates, race hustlers, and tax reformers are designated as “heroes” for no more effort than shouting loudly about the au courant themes the progressives embrace, often while making handsome sums of money doing so.

Meet Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, an intellectual, fighter pilot, test pilot, lecturer, and winner of two Distinguished Service crosses, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and the Medal of Honor. His heroism was not an adrenaline-filled rush into an enemy position or some quickly executed feat of derring-do. He won it for making himself a symbol of resistance to his North Vietnam captors, regardless of personal consequences, over the course of seven years. Rather than obtain relief from torture, he “deliberately inflicted a near mortal wound to himself to convince his captors of his willingness to die rather than capitulate by providing the North Vietnamese propaganda material. … Convinced of his indomitable spirit, his captors abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all the prisoners of war” (Congressional Medal of Honor citation).

Those sterile words fail to convey the magnitude of his suffering. He was tortured, had broken bones, was starved, bound in leg irons for two years, beaten, and psychologically abused. He endured captivity for seven years during which he spent considerable time in solitary confinement. As the senior American officer of the prisoners, he did all he could to maintain the spirits of his co-prisoners. Think of his dilemma: In physical pain; never knowing when he would be tortured, when he might be released, when he might succumb to this mistreatment; feeling the continual discomfort of malnutrition; being poorly clothed with unpleasant living quarters; suffering under the relentless pressure to surrender to the wishes of his captors and give the Vietnamese some information or statement they might use as propaganda. And yet he endured seven years of this. How?

When he was shot down in September 1965, he realized he was leaving the world of a fighter pilot and entering the world of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher. He had no control over the malignance of his captors, of his living conditions, of his freedom, of anything save one thing — his reaction to the circumstance in which he found himself. He learned that he must ignore both fear and hope. For he realized that he could endure the torture he received once he controlled his apprehension over being tortured. He learned that false hope of rescue next week, or next month, or next year could soon give way to despair as he watched those who held such feelings die of disappointment. Relying on his knowledge of Stoic philosophy and particularly that of Epictetus, he survived. He developed with the other prisoners a tap code to be used to communicate with his fellow captives to keep their spirits up, all the while knowing that discovery would lead to punishment. He came to realize that the most valuable thing in that world was the life and health of his fellow captives. And so he dedicated himself to the task of maintaining morale. For seven long years.

In war, soldiers do not fight so much for God or country or some creed as they fight for one another, because to run away is to imperil their colleagues with whom they trained and fought. In captivity, the struggle to survive is intertwined with the struggle to help others survive. He defied his captors, often inflicting wounds so that he could not be used on television for propaganda purposes. By doing these things, he was not overcome with grief, despair, or frustration, all of which he experienced at one time or another. What he did was exercise his will to hold fear, hope, and despair in abeyance while he did his best to live honorably under the circumstances he was in.

There are notes of Stoicism in Christian thought. In Matthew 6, Jesus reminded us that we could not add one hour (or one cubit to our stature) by worrying. This is Stoic philosophy. St. Paul in the fourth chapter of Philippians noted he had learned to be content in whatever circumstances he found himself in. And Paul was beaten, imprisoned, and stoned for spreading the Gospel.

Life is unfair. It was ever thus. Whatever moral arguments can be made for slavery reparations, or for striving for equity, or for addressing systemic mistreatment of one group by another can never overcome the simple moral lesson of doing one’s best with the hand you have been dealt. This is not to endorse mistreatment by any means, but is to acknowledge that accumulating grievances and adopting the status of victimhood serves no real human interest. It does foster resentment and anger. Admiral Stockdale could have been angry and resentful at his predicament. He was not. He refused to give in to his base instincts but cultivated his character through the exercise of his will. This is what our society should embrace. It is what teachers should teach. We will always need courage, character, and perseverance. We do not need grievance-mongering.

Mark Fowler is a board-certified physician and former attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]

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