James Bond Stockdale was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the peak of the Vietnam War.
His life reminds me of the James Bond of fiction, but has much more meaningful lessons to teach. (For more on that see Could This Be The Real James Bond?)
What were the thought processes of someone who spent almost 8 years in prison, including 4 years in solitary confinement and was tortured over 20 times? He lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date and no certainty as to whether he would even see his family again.
How was he able to not just survive, but actually grow through such terrible circumstances? Stockdale wrote about this in his book, “A Vietnam Experience: 10 Years of Reflection.”
In 1960, at the age of 37, as a high ranking naval officer Stockdale was called to enrol in a master’s degree programme in International Relations at Stanford University. While there he also took a philosophy course called “The Philosophy of Good and Evil”. For this he was required to read classic works by authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Koestler and Dostoevsky.
On the last day of the course his professor gave him a gift. It was a manual for the combat officer called Enchiridion by the first century Greek philosopher Epictetus. Never heard of it? Nor have I and nor had Stockdale at the time.
He was initially puzzled as to why he should be given such a book and how the teachings of a classical stoic philosopher could apply to him as a fighter pilot. However, he chose to trust the wisdom of his professor and kept a copy of the manual by his bedside at each of his duty stations and on every ship he sailed.
He immersed himself into what he read and set about putting into practice its messages about the importance of character. He studied subjects that included discipline, self-control, endurance and perseverance, virtue and moral character, courage, toughness tempered by compassion, pursuit of one’s goals, attempts to be the very best, and dignity in the face of deprivation and suffering.
It was on 9 September 1965 Stockdale’s plane was shot down over Vietnam and all his learning was put to the test.
He struck the ground with enough force to fracture a bone in his back and severely damage his leg.
Even though he could not stand on his leg for years he drew inspiration from the words of Epicteus: “Lameness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will.”
Epictetus taught that one can never be the victim of another, only the victim of himself.
Here is how Stockdale described his experience:
“When I ejected from that airplane in 1965, I left my world of technology and entered into the world of Epictetus. I was alone and crippled; self-reliance was the basis for daily life. The system of values I carried with me into this realm was to be tested by my captors. The payoff was my self-respect. I would keep it or it would be torn from me and used as a leverage against my sense of purpose and stability.”
Stockdale was put in solitary confinement for 4 years because his North Vietnamese captors knew he was a commanding officer and wanted to prevent him from giving orders to the other prisoners. However, he was able to communicate between shared walls with a tap code that they invented.
As the commanding officer for those imprisoned Stockdale and his fellow prisoners were called to follow the Military Code of Conduct to only divulge their name, rank, serial number date of birth. They were called to resist their captors and to make every effort to escape.
However, as the prisoners began being tortured, it became apparent that this strategy was not sufficient. There was heated debate amongst them on the occasions when they could freely communicate with each other. Stockdale had to carefully weigh opposing views and gradually developed a set of rules for the prisoners that incorporated the basic values of Stoicisim. The aim was to give them a united purpose and motivation as prisoners while empowering them to not give in to despair.
The main focus of Stoic philosophy is developing personal control, reducing vulnerability and living by a set of time-honoured standards that promote dignity, even under the harshest of conditions. To develop personal control it is vital to distinguish that which is within your control from that which is beyond it.
While I do not personally follow stoic philosophy, I am intrigued by the experience of Stockdale. In a future blog post we will look at life lessons we can take from his experiences.
You may also find of interest:
What lessons do you take from the life of James Bond Stockdale?