A Stoic Philosopher in a Hanoi Prison

How Stoicism Saved a Prisoner of War

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James B. Stockdale was a vice admiral and aviator who served for 37 years in the United States Navy, spending the majority of his time as a fighter pilot on aircraft carriers. Shot down on his third combat tour over North Vietnam, Stockdale was the senior-most navy prisoner of war in Hanoi, where he spent over seven years - four of them in solitary confinement and two in leg irons - before being released. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, along with 26 other combat decorations, and retired as an educator and author.

Preparation and experience work most of the time - but not all of the time

Stockdale had no reason to think that the day’s mission was to be anything unique.

The flight in September 1965 was part of his third combat tour of North Vietnam, serving as Wing Commander of the aircraft carrier Oriskany. Despite his misgivings about the purpose of him being in Vietnam, he was a competent and skilled career fighter pilot. Nothing suggested he shouldn’t expect to make it back home that day - let alone that decade.

But sometimes life deals you a lousy hand, and it dealt Stockdale quite an unhappy one.

While trying to aid trapped American soldiers on the ground, he was suddenly falling out of the sky and hurtling towards a small Vietnamese village. His plane was on fire, the control system shot out by North Vietnamese who had used the grounded soldiers as bait, and he didn’t have much choice beyond punching out of the plane.

After ejection, I had about 30 seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And, so help me, I whispered to myself: "Five years down there, at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus."

Just like that, Stockdale’s day had gone from routine to disastrous - but why was the first thing to jump into his mind the ancient philosopher, Epictetus?

It is never too late to learn something that can be meaningful, sometimes so meaningful that it saves your life

Five years previously, Stockdale had enrolled in the International Relations graduate program at Standford University. Twenty years in the Navy had given him the background needed to be a strategic planner in the Pentagon. But something wasn’t right - his heart wasn’t in it.

He eventually landed in Stanford’s Philosophy department where he was introduced to Epictetus, amongst others. He took the study of philosophy to heart, and his decades of real-life military experience focused his attention on the “noble philosophy that has proven to be more practicable than a modern cynic would expect” - Stoicism.

His bedside table on the aircraft carrier was no longer stacked with busy work to impress his superiors, but the “Discourses, Xenophon's Memorabilia, recollections of Socrates, and of course, The Iliad and The Odyssey.

I came to the philosophic life as a 38-year-old Navy pilot in graduate school at Stanford University. I had been in the Navy for 20 years and scarcely ever out of a cockpit… Then I cruised into Stanford's philosophy corner one winter morning and met Philip Rhinelander, dean of humanities and sciences… Within 15 minutes, we had agreed that I would enter his two-term course in the middle. To make up for my lack of background, I would meet him for an hour a week for a private tutorial in the study of his campus home.

Phil Rhinelander opened my eyes. In that study, it all happened for me - my inspiration, my dedication to the philosophic life. From then on, I was out of international relations and into philosophy… On my last session, he reached high on his wall of books and brought down a copy of the Enchiridion. He said, "I think you’ll be interested in this."

Success is never certain, but suffering is - it is best to prepare for it

But what was it about Epictetus and Stoicism that hit so close to home for Stockdale? Why did he think it more practical than other schools of thought?

Epictetus is known amongst Stoic philosophers for his blunt advice - he referred to the lecture room not only as a place of learning, but as a hospital where you leave in pain but are better prepared for the future.

One of Epictetus’s key messages is that the only thing guaranteed humans is that they will suffer. By being prepared to appropriately handle suffering, we will also be better prepared to humbly handle and appreciate any success. For a military man who had seen the brutality of war first hand for decades, you can imagine why such an acceptance of human frailty would be attractive.

But further still, Epictetus lays the source of all that suffering on the suffering individual themselves. A disciplined mind, for the Stoics, along with taking personal responsibility for your orientation towards your situation, is the key to being able to get out of bed in the morning. In this way, you have control over yourself and your suffering without letting the world dictate it for you, regardless of the circumstances.

Epictetus explained that his curriculum was not about "revenues or income, or peace or war, but about happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, slavery and freedom." His model graduate was not a person "able to speak fluently about philosophic principles as an idle babbler, but about things that will do you good if your child dies, or your brother dies, or if you must die or be tortured. ...Let others practice lawsuits, others study problems, others syllogisms; here you practice how to die, how to be enchained, how to be racked, how to be exiled."

A man is responsible for his own "judgments, even in dreams, in drunkenness, and in melancholy madness." Each individual brings about his own good and his own evil, his good fortune, his ill fortune, his happiness, and his wretchedness. It is unthinkable that one man's error could cause another's suffering; suffering, like everything else in stoicism, was all internal - remorse at destroying yourself.

Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the "victim" of another. You can only be a "victim" of yourself. It's all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master?" He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart. ...What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity. ...show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I'll show you a Stoic."

Your status and security in life can change in an instant, so do not define yourself by what you are

Back in September 1965, Stockdale can feel the bullets whistling past his head and into the parachute canopy above him.

Closer to the ground now he hears the shouting of villagers and can see the angry eyes, fists raised, looking up at him. His parachute catches on a tree near the main street, and but he hits the ground in relatively good shape.

That outcome wasn’t acceptable to the unhappy villagers - so a group of ten or fifteen of them gang tackled Stockdale and beat him for over three minutes. He was saved by a policeman’s whistle, but a few broken bones and badly twisted and shattered leg were harbingers of what was to be the next seven years of his life.

As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, I'm just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life. It's not at all up to me. Of course, I'm going right now from being the Wing Commander, in charge of a thousand people (pilots, crewmen, maintenance men), responsible for nearly a hundred airplanes, and beneficiary of goodness knows all sorts of symbolic status and goodwill, to being an object of contempt. "Criminal," I'll be known as.

And more than that even, you're going to face fragilities you never before let yourself believe could be true. [ See * at end of post, removed description of “taking the ropes” in case it is your preference to skip reading it] … that you can be made to blurt out answers, probably correct answers, to questions about anything they know you know. I'm not going to pull you through that explanation again. I'll just call it "taking the ropes."

No, "station in life" can be changed from that of a dignified and competent gentleman of culture to that of a panic-stricken, sobbing, self-loathing wreck, maybe a permanent wreck if you have no will, in less than an hour. So what? So after you work a lifetime to get yourself all set up, and then delude Yourself into thinking that YOU have some kind of ownership claim on Your station in life, you're riding for a fall. You're asking for disappointment. To avoid that, stop kidding yourself, just do the best you can on a common-sense basis to make your station in life what you want it to be, but never get hooked on it. Make sure in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference. Not with contempt, only with indifference.

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Shame at not living up to your own ideals is worse than a terrible situation itself

Torture was now a part of Stockdale’s daily life - as it was for any of the prisoners of war in North Vietnam. And that started with the first introduction to the Hanoi prisoner of war camp - you were broken down and isolated. The only way out of this pain was the betrayal of ideals you previously held - giving up military secrets, aiding in propaganda by admitting wrongdoing. Your reward for giving your captors what they wanted was to be isolated further for two months “to contemplated your crimes.”

According to Stockdale, what was actually contemplated by these men was “his betrayal of himself and everything that he stood for.”

Once released into the general population, this feeling of shame caused men to recoil from other prisoners, thinking themselves uniquely fragile. However, once they realized that everyone in the camp had gone through - and said - the same things, there was a turning point. They gained strength and together the men were able to make the best of an impossibly terrible situation.

The keyword for all of us at first was fragility. Each of us, before we were ever in shouting distance of another American, was made to "take the ropes." That was a real shock to our systems - and as with all shocks, its impact on our inner selves was a lot more impressive and lasting and important than to our limbs and torsos. These were the sessions where we were taken down to submission and made to blurt out distasteful confessions of guilt and American complicity into antique tape recorders, and then to be put in what I call "cold soak," six or eight weeks of total isolation to "contemplate our crimes."

What we actually contemplated was what even the most self-satisfied American saw as his betrayal of himself and everything he stood for. It was there that I learned what "Stoic harm" meant. A shoulder broken, a bone in my back broken, and a leg broken twice were peanuts by comparison. Epictetus said: "Look not for any greater harm than this: destroying the trustworthy, self-respecting, well-behaved man within you."

When put into a regular cell block, hardly an American came out of that without responding something like this when first whispered to by a fellow prisoner next door: "You don't want to talk to me; I am a traitor." And because we were equally fragile, it seemed to catch on that we all replied something like this: "Listen, pal, there are no virgins in here. You should have heard the kind of statement I made. Snap out of it. We're all in this together. What's your name? Tell me about yourself. "To hear that was, for most new prisoners just out of initial shakedown and cold soak, a turning point in their lives.

You can always be in control of you, in any situation

Stockdale was the senior-most officer in the prison, and as such, he was in command of what was essentially an American military colony on Vietnamese soil. In this position, he was able to multiply what he had learned from Epictetus across the entire American prisoner of war population. He knew that allowing men to be isolated without a sense of purpose would result in them all breaking down - feeling shame that they did not live up to their own definition of themselves was worse than a broken body.

We are in a spot like we've never been in before. But we deserve to maintain our self-respect, to have the feeling we are fighting back. We can't refuse to do every degrading thing they demand of us, but it's up to you, boss, to pick out things we must all refuse to do, unless and until they put us through the ropes again. We deserve to sleep at night. We at least deserve to have the satisfaction that we are hewing to our leader's orders. Give us the list: What are we to take torture for?

And Stockdale followed his own advice - he took “the ropes” fifteen times, had his shoulder broken, his back broken, and his same leg twice broken.

The only way to survive without feeling debilitating shame - shame that was worse than the torture itself - was to have control over what you did and what you said.

This was a first step in claiming what was rightfully ours. Epictetus said: "The judge will do some things to you which are thought to be terrifying; but how can he stop you from taking the punishment he threatened?"

That's my kind of Stoicism. You have a right to make them hurt you, and they don't like to do it. The prison commissar told my fellow prisoner Ev Alvarez when he was released: "You Americans were nothing like the French; we could count on them to be reasonable."

An individual pursuing that which is meaningful can find a reason to face any adversity

Epictetus turned out to be right. All told, it was only a temporary setback from things that were important to me, and being cast in the role as the sovereign head of an American expatriate colony which was destined to remain autonomous, out of communication with Washington, for years on end, was very important to me. I was determined to "play well the given part."

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

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Take care and have a great rest of the week,

— EJ

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*- [After mere minutes, in a flurry of action while being knocked down and then sat up to be bound with tourniquet-tight ropes, with care, by a professional, hands cuffed behind, jack-knifed forward, head pushed down between your ankles held secure in lugs attached to a heavy iron bar, that with the onrush of anxiety, knowing your upper-body blood circulation has been stopped, and feeling the evergrowing pain and the ever-closing-in of claustrophobia as the man standing on your back gives your head one last shove down with his heel and you start to gasp and vomit…]

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