James Stockdale

JAMES STOCKDALE….I was catching up on with the New York Times Magazine last night, and the current issue offers brief biographies of some of the high-profile figures who passed away in 2005. The piece on James Stockdale stood out.

For political observers, Stockdale is a Trivial Pursuit answer, or maybe an amusing lesson on how not to engage in a nationally televised vice presidential debate. As Ross Perot’s ill-suited running mate in 1992, Stockdale was cast in a role for which he was unprepared.

Stockdale, however, shouldn’t be remembered for his short-lived political career. For those who don’t know about Stockdale’s Vietnam experience, the NYT profile highlights a man of extraordinary courage, gifted intellect, and almost super-human strength.

Cmdr. James Stockdale parachuted out of his nose-diving Skyhawk over the North Vietnamese jungle in September 1965, the war was still young. Little was known about the fate that awaited American prisoners of war. It didn’t take Stockdale long to gain a clearer sense. After a few months in solitary confinement in Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, he was introduced to “the ropes,” a torture technique in which a prisoner was seated on the floor – legs extended, arms bound behind him – as a guard stood on his back and drove his face down until his nose was mashed into the brick floor between his legs. The North Vietnamese knew they were overmatched militarily, but they figured they could at least win the propaganda war by brutalizing American P.O.W.’s until they denounced their government and “confessed” that they had bombed schoolchildren and villagers.

For his part, Stockdale intended to return home with his honor intact. One afternoon, he was given a razor and led to the bathroom – a sure sign that he was being readied for a propaganda film. Instead of shaving, Stockdale gave himself a reverse Mohawk, tearing up his scalp in the process. More determined than ever now, his captors locked him in the interrogation room for a few minutes while they fetched a hat for him. Stockdale glanced around, looking for an appropriate weapon. He considered a rusty bucket and a windowpane before settling on a 50-pound stool, and proceeded to beat himself about the face. Then, realizing that his eyes were not yet swollen shut, he beat himself some more. By the time the guards had returned, blood was running down the front of his shirt. For the next several weeks, Stockdale kept himself unpresentable by surreptitiously bashing his face with his fists. The North Vietnamese never did manage to film him.

Even as a tortured detainee — Stockdale lived in his cell with an untreated broken leg — he organized fellow prisoners into a resistance movement. Stockdale helped keep a sense of sanity by relying on lessons of Aristotle, whose lessons taught him that even the imprisoned have free will, and Epictetus, whose lessons on perception shaping experiences helped Stockdale endure years of brutal abuse.

After his release, Stockdale became president of the Citadel, a civilian military college in South Carolina, but only lasted a year. Stockdale apparently wanted to curb the school’s violent hazing culture, his board blocked his efforts, so he quit. As he later told a friend, “When you’ve been tortured by professionals, you do not have to put up with amateurs.”

Many of us recall Phil Hartmann doing a funny Stockdale impersonation on Saturday Night Live after the debate in which Stockdale rhetorically asked, “Who am I? Why am I here?” If that’s the only thing people remember of Stockdale, we’re missing a remarkable story about an extraordinary individual.