Fair Winds and Following Seas

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The United States Navy lost a great leader; the Hoover Institution and Stanford University both lost a loved and respected scholar of long association; and the world lost a truly great man with the passing of Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale on July 5, 2005.

Although I never had the honor of meeting him, I feel—as I believe all naval officers today do—that I knew him closely. Each of us has, in a way, grown up at his knee. From the earliest stages of our training, and throughout our careers, his example and his writings have formed a substantial part of our education on military ethics and virtue—and for good reason. It is hard not to be simultaneously humbled, challenged, and encouraged by his tale.

Admiral Stockdale served our nation as an active-duty naval officer, a fighter pilot operating from aircraft carriers, for 37 years. He spent more than seven of those years in captivity as the senior U.S. officer held by the North Vietnamese at the infamous Hoa Lo (“Hanoi Hilton”) prison. At the time of his capture—after being shot down on a strike mission—he was the commander of Attack Air Wing 16 onboard the USS Oriskany (CVA 34), the father of four children, and already a distinguished officer of 19 years’ service. During his captivity he faced 15 extended, intense torture sessions and more than four years in cramped solitary confinement for defying his captors’ will and encouraging his subordinates to follow suit. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and 26 other combat decorations, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Star medals, and two Purple Hearts.

He always accredited his survival, and his success as a prison leader, not to his military training but rather to his religious faith and what he learned in graduate school at Stanford. He spent two years at “the Farm” (1960–1962, three years before his capture) to get a degree in international relations. During that time he inadvertently discovered the world of philosophy under the tutelage of Professor Philip Rhinelander and became a life-long Stoic. Particularly taken by the teaching of Epictetus, he carried The Enchiridion and Discourses with him back to sea. He frequently reminisced that his first coherent thoughts after ejecting from his damaged aircraft, descending toward enemy territory under parachute, were “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” Over the next seven and a half years he tested the integrity of Stoic philosophy in the most demanding crucible of human experience imaginable and found it worthy.

During his 15 years as a Hoover fellow and a lecturer in Stanford’s philosophy department, he wrote (and spoke) prolifically, including the book In Love and War (written with his wife, Sybil) and two collections of essays: A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection and Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. His thoughts and his writing converged on the unifying theme of human choice and dignity under the most extreme circumstances. Always at home in academia, he was perhaps at his best where he was most at home: speaking candidly to military audiences about his experiences and the lessons life had taught him.

Epictetus, addressing the merits of Stoicism, said, “What is the fruit of all these doctrines? Tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom.” Admiral Stockdale’s fearlessness is well established; as he joins the eternal pantheon of history’s great naval heroes, his shipmates left behind wish him tranquility and freedom.