Teacher and Hero

Saturday, July 30, 2005

I should have heeded the lessons. James B. Stockdale, the man many remember—thanks to a number of misleading portrayals in the media—as H. Ross Perot’s hapless vice-presidential sidekick, died on July 5. And I was angry. Not because he had passed from this life. For several years, he had been caught in the grip of Alzheimer’s. Although we mourned his passing, there was a sense of relief knowing he would no longer suffer at the hands of this invisible captor and torturer.

Instead, my anger was the result of the short shrift Admiral Stockdale got from writers and editors who were content to render history so weakly. Here was a true hero for our time. He was a man who had sacrificed his well-being and proven his willingness to give his life so that his comrades and country would be better for it. When Perot—who had helped him, his fellow POWs, and their families during the bleakest points of their lives—called on him to help fulfill his political aspirations, Stockdale repaid the debt by putting his reputation on the line.

For all this, I thought the Medal of Honor recipient, best-selling author, university president, scholar, and vice-presidential candidate would rate more than a modest obituary relegated deep inside a daily newspaper. Although a survey of papers from across the nation shows many similar wire-service versions that included mentions of his POW experiences, I had assumed his place in history would warrant greater attention and detail. I was wrong, and I was mad.

Yet I am guessing that if Stockdale had been standing next to me, he would have suggested I revisit the lessons of Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. Also known as The Manual, the ancient text provided strength and inspiration to him during his brutal seven-and-a-half-year imprisonment (four in solitary confinement; two in leg irons), interrogations, and torture sessions at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors.

I first heard about The Enchiridion in a speech Stockdale gave at a commencement ceremony. Extolling the virtues of a liberal education, he discussed how the lessons he learned—including those from the famed classical text—were the very ones that brought order, discipline, hope, and acceptance while he was locked away in the horrific confines of Hoa Lo prison (better known as the “Hanoi Hilton”).

By relying on principles handed down by philosophers such as Epictetus and Seneca, he said he was able to take an untenable situation and make it livable. Stockdale found a stoic calm in the midst of this man-made hell because he was able to create a civilization by establishing communication codes and a code of conduct for his fellow POWs. For his efforts as the leader of the prisoners’ resistance efforts, his captors mercilessly tortured him again and again. And although they were able to break his body, they were not able to break his spirit.

At times, it must have seemed that Epictetus was speaking directly to his very conditions. Stockdale had injured his leg on ejecting from his crashing aircraft, and the North Vietnamese interrogators zeroed in on those wounds when it came time to deal out coercive pain. The ongoing damage resulted in bouts of unholy agony, fused his knee together, and put a permanent hitch in his gait. Rather than sink into a downward spiral of self-pity, resentment, and anger, however, he called on the philosopher’s words: “Lameness is an impediment to the leg but not the will.”

Under lesser conditions, we bend to impediments every day. I am sure that Stockdale would be the first to say that he was not a superman who had risen above the human condition or was impervious to error. But he strove to learn from his experiences so that he might effect change—for the better—as he went along.

The first lesson of The Enchiridion provided one of many pillars of strength for him, whether he was being brought to his knees by torturers or mocked by the pseudo-intelligentsia for his performance during the vice-presidential debates. Epictetus explained that some things are in our control and others are not. If something was out of your control, “be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”

Stockdale’s ability to discern these things was the hallmark of his character. Time and again, he was faced with adversities that might have broken any one of us in a similar instance. But he was able to call on the wisdom and lessons of the past and rise above those conditions.

As familiar as I was with Stockdale’s life story and personal philosophy, I was not able to do what he had done under tougher circumstances, for the anger I expressed in the wake of his passing and the lackluster coverage of his life story were not the fitting tribute he deserved. The lessons Stockdale learned and passed on are not mysterious, difficult to find, or hard to remember. Living them out—in bad or good times—is the test.

It was a test James B. Stockdale passed with flying colors.