…"In the early 1960s, Stockdale was a hotshot fighter pilot on the fast track to stars. The Navy had slotted him for one of its most coveted assignments, command of a fighter squadron at sea. First, however, another plum: a master’s degree in international relations at Stanford University. Then, after carrier duty, three years at the Pentagon, to pay the government back for his graduate education.
Stanford was wonderful, but Stockdale was bored. One day, he encountered Philip Rhinelander, a former Navy officer, at that time chair of the Philosophy Department. Rhinelander talked him into auditing some philosophy lectures. Stockdale fell in love. Soon he was staying up all night reading philosophy, especially the great Stoics, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.
But his fascination also wearied him. It was: Hey, I’m Technological Man. I fly jets. I play golf. I drink martinis. I know how to work the system. What does this have to do with me?
He got his answer, he later wrote, the day in 1965 he was shot down, when he left behind the world of technology and entered the world of Epictetus. After a welcoming beating by a crowd of North Vietnamese and three days in the back of a truck, he arrived at the Hanoi Hilton with a broken back, one leg broken and a bullet in the other. He demanded medical attention and was told, “You have a medical problem and you have a political problem. In this country, we take care of political problems first.”
Stockdale quickly realized that he and his comrades were not POWs in the normal sense. They were political prisoners, to be exploited for their propaganda value and as bargaining chips; the communists called the Americans “our pearls.”
To break organized resistance and get “confessions,” the North Vietnamese used a variety of techniques, including isolation, forbidding the prisoners to communicate, and tortures carefully designed to risk neither death nor permanent disfigurement.
Slowly, Stockdale came to realize that their traditional and presumed sources of resistance - military law and codes, professionalism, American patriotism, machismo, religious faith - although valuable, weren’t enough.
In the torture room, the torturer wins. The Americans had to create something strong enough to enable them to resist together, which meant surrendering as little as possible. Stockdale found the way to do that in the ancient texts he’d studied. He became, he later wrote, “the lawgiver of an autonomous colony of Americans who happened to be located in a Hanoi prison.”
This colony created an entire civilization, based on two great Stoic premises. The first is that whatever else you surrender, never surrender your spirit: in Stoic terminology, your will. The second is that although you are an autonomous being no matter what your circumstances, what you do in the world still matters.
Over time, the prisoners learned to communicate by tapping in code on the walls, and “tap code” became an evolving language. They crafted a legal system, specifying how much torture to take before making concessions and requiring members to be absolutely honest about their failures. (There was another commandment: forgive.) They developed their own culture, compiled and memorized their own history, established their traditions.
They lost many battles, but they never gave the communists what they wanted most: a mass of isolated, desperate men, willing to obey their captors.
When Stockdale returned home, his son urged him to write about “where you’ve really been.” For over 20 years he did so, in a memoir co-authored with his wife, Sybil, “In Love and War,” and in two volumes of essays, “A Vietnam Experience” and “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.” They never received a fraction of the attention they deserved. Americans usually love a hero. Sadly, we were not prepared to heed a philosopher of courage and the uncomfortable lessons he might teach.
Admiral Stockdale loved to point out that he never did that Pentagon tour, and that his service record contained a notation that the government had derived no benefit from his graduate education.
Do read his books, America. Maybe that way, the government will get its money’s worth.