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- A Stoic Philosopher in a Hanoi Prison
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
An individual pursuing that which is meaningful can find a reason to face any adversity
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But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting
*- [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…]