More than 20 Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood senior leaders gathered Oct. 29 in Hoge Hall for a professional development event centered on the writings of the late Medal of Honor recipient Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy aviator and prisoner of war for more than seven years in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Participating in the event via video teleconference were Stockdale’s son, Jim, and Dr. Tom Gibbons, a retired colonel and the Associate Professor of Professional Military Education at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Stockdale’s writings on Stoicism — a philosophy of personal ethics, built on a system of logic and views on the natural world — are the basis for an elective course there that left an impression on Brig. Gen. James Bonner, MSCoE and Fort Leonard Wood commanding general, when he attended the school 10 years ago.
“We’ve taken this to every assignment I’ve had since 2010,” Bonner said when introducing the guest speakers.
As preparation for the event, each attendee was asked to read two chapters from one of Stockdale’s books, titled “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.” The chapters — “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior” and “The Tough Mind of Epictetus” — are based on talks given by Stockdale in 1993, and detail how he arrived at the ancient Greek philosophy as well as why it was a very useful mindset to have through years of torture and captivity in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison.
After reading the chapters, the senior leaders were asked to reflect on and write about what they read. Their writings were the basis for the discussion.
Col. Adam Hilburgh, 3rd Chemical Brigade commander, participated in the discussion and called it “powerful.”
“Any time in professional development when you have someone who’s an expert in that field come in to teach us something they’re passionate about and know about is incredibly powerful for us,” he said. “Also, the opportunity for us to read, to write, allows us to reflect and then discuss — it hits all parts of the adult-learning model.”
Stockdale’s son spoke on his father’s effective approach to connecting with his fellow prisoners as the senior-ranking captive.
“When a new guy would come in, and that new guy would’ve gone through about two weeks of beatings and torture and just a real shake down,” he said. “As soon as the guards had left, (the fellow prisoners would whisper under the doors) ‘Hey, new guy! Hey, new guy! Identify! Identify! Who were you with?’ Sometimes it would get confusing because, of course, American pilots were trained over time that they weren’t to respond to those kinds of solicitations — it might be the Vietnamese trying to trick them. So, they’d be very quiet.
“Dad got down next to the floor and said, ‘Hey, identify yourself. Here’s who I am: I’m Jim Stockdale and I’m probably the senior guy on this block. But you’ve got to identify yourself. You’re afraid — we’ve all been afraid. You’re embarrassed; you’ve been broken; you feel terrible; you feel awful. Let me tell you something, my friend: there are no virgins in here.’
“With that, they were able to draw the guy out. He was beat up; he was having a tough time. But they were able to bring him out through — and I want to emphasize this — affection, interaction. Dad used every mechanical means at his disposal to draw people out with sincere affection and interest in what they were doing and bringing those men together to help them survive.”
Stockdale explained in his writings how Stoicism helped him to realize physical pain is nothing of note when compared with the much worse feeling of shame that comes when someone betrays one’s self, one’s values or loved ones. One can only be the victim of his or her own self, not a victim of the interaction with outside forces. Acceptance of this is preparation for hardship and can bring a feeling of serenity.
According to Stockdale’s interpretation of Epictetus, the main philosopher from whom he drew his conclusions about Stoicism, there is a “moral economy” to be found in the universe — it lies within each person. Significant shame comes from destroying the good person within oneself, regardless of the opinions of others. To the Stoic, one cannot be the victim of anyone else, only victim to oneself.
Stockdale’s son said studying even just a little about Stoicism “will come in handy when you think about tough decisions.”
“A communist prison in the context of dad’s survival had very little to do with politics,” Stockdale’s son said. “They wanted (the prisoners) to do a bunch of things that military men would not do with any sincerity … to get a believable American to say in some sense that what they were doing was wrong — that they had voluntarily bombed pagodas, schools and churches and so on — it just was not going to happen.”
Stockdale accepted that when regarding oneself as part of the greater whole, it is inevitable that good and bad things happen. These external happenings are out of one’s control, but how one chooses to react to them is not. The only true good and evil in the world is within each individual, as everyone makes individual choices throughout their lives.
Many of the attendees said they learned a lot from reflecting on Stockdale’s writings. 14th Military Police Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Paul DeSanto said it was “one of the best professional development opportunities I’ve been to.”
“It was an honor to hear from Vice Adm. Stockdale’s son — to read about what his father went through and just to be able to take lessons and learn from a Vietnam prisoner of war,” he said. “I’ve been called Stoic before, not really realizing that there was actually something to it.”