In my four years as a midshipman, I endured monthly harassments that they call the Forrestal Lecture Series. First, unlike any other dinner, you must wear the Service Dress uniform, which entails pressing a suitcoat, rigging the ribbons and warfare pins, then lining up for yet another inspection. Then, you head down to King Hall and suffer through a family style dinner that is best described as a futile attempt at five-star European cuisine on $1.90 per head. Usually, it means "hunk of roast beef" or "mushroom medallions with chicken-nugget-veal". Either way, it's so disgusting that immediately after the lecture, the Brigade rushes back to the evening sandwich deli at Dahlgren Hall to buy something palatable.
The coup de grâce is the lecture itself. Usually, it's an encounter with a National Security Advisor, a NBA basketball star, the Secretary of Defense, a famous oceanographer or maybe a U.S. Senator. Unfortunately, most deliver canned speeches or have no public speaking ability. Compounding the problem is that the homework doesn't go away because we have to attend the lecture, which usually runs over by a half an hour because the administration has seeded questions amongst the Brigade for a scripted "question and answer" session.
I'll admit I was an ungrateful little midshipman, complaining because I had the privilege of bumping shoulders with those who wrote the history of our generation. Forgive me though, it was all the perspective I had at that time.
I encountered Vice Admiral Stockdale twice, and as many biographies will state, he was no public speaker. In fact, I must admit that I was nonplussed by him after hearing him lecture during my Plebe Summer. I was tired, and honestly, I had shut him out before he even began. By some undeserved luck, however, I met him a second time. Between the two times our paths had crossed, I had read each of his books. Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot for ethics class, A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection for leadership class, In Love and War during a long cruise in the Sea of Japan separated from my girlfriend without "family-grams" because we were EMCON listening to Radio Pyongyang.
When I met Vice Admiral Stockdale a second time, it was for dinner with other members of the Brigade Staff for dinner prior to a Forrestal Lecture. To give you an idea of his stature in the pantheon of heroes within the Academy, he wasn't speaking, but he was still the distinguished guest for dinner. Ironically, I was sitting in for dinner that evening because the Brigade Commander was out at an interview at Stockdale's institute of philosophy at Stanford University. As one of his lieutenants, he had left me his seat as a perk.
Until you read Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, you don't realize just how much of a stoic
Vice Admiral Stockdale was. But speaking with him gave me a pretty good impression. Despite seven and a half years of imprisonment, he looks pretty good in his official Navy portrait. Meeting him, you realize the artist took numerous liberties. When I met him, his shoulders shrugged from multiple dislocations. His hearing was shot. He walked with a limp from shattered legs and kneecaps. And of course, there was the scarring over his face.
You see, once his captors realized who he was, they attempted to parade him in town for a propaganda film. Vice Admiral Stockdale recognized this, and so once they sent him into a filthy bathroom to clean up and take a shave prior to the filming, he used the blade to slice his face and head up so badly he nearly died. When the guard returned to see what was taking so long, they found him lying in a pool of his own blood. The guards scrambled to clean him up then left the prisoner alone in a room while they looked for a hat. Seeing the room was empty save a stool, he broke a leg off, and beat himself back to the brink of death, permanently disfiguring himself and breaking his jaw. Once the head guard discovered what had happened, he told his messenger to explain to the prison commandant that "the commander of the POWs has decided not to go downtown". Later, he discovered that other prisoners had been tortured to death because of his actions. In response, he slit his wrists to demonstrate he'd die before he stopped resistance to protect his fellow prisoners.
Years later, John McCain would write in his book Faith of My Fathers that following the example of Stockdale and other high-ranking POWs was easy, but distinguishing yourself with uncommon acts of sacrifice was nearly impossible: "if you wanted to get into trouble with those fellows, there was a line a mile long". Seeing that Stockdale practiced what he preached, the other POWs strove to withstand more torture, pass more hidden messages and show more spite to their captors by refusing to show broken spirits. For his determined leadership that almost cost him his life, he was authorized the Medal of Honor.
So forty years after he was shot down, I asked him "what was going through your mind when you decided to do what you did?" He replied that it was rage that his captors would try to take his dignity and parade him to perpetuate a lie. Most of all, like Epictetus two thousand years prior, he realized that life wasn't fair. He couldn't control his circumstances or what the guards did to him. But he could control his response to the torture. Only by refusing to capitulate could he stop the torture because eventually the guards would realize that it had no effect. If Vice Admiral Stockdale was going to die, he was going to die with honor and dignity intact. No guard could prevent that.
Vice Admiral Stockdale almost became Vice President Stockdale, if you believe that Ross Perot had a chance at being elected president. Most people look at the moment in the debate where he apparently bumbled over his introduction and say "that's where he lost". The reality is that he had lost the election when he refused to sacrifice his personal dignity to become electable. His famous line "Who am I? What am I doing here?" was intended to be a question for the American public to answer. He had intended to show the viewers that he was different because of his experiences, morals, and ethics. Instead, he came across as someone who couldn't reduce himself to a thirty second soundbite.
Some look back and say Vice Admiral Stockdale lost that election. He would insist otherwise. What began as a personal favor for a friend who had done so much to bring POWs home from Vietnam ended with his disenchantment with politics in general. But even to the end, he seemed proud that he had never reduced himself to a pithy message handed to him by his political handler.
Vice Admiral Stockdale died last week, on July 5, 2005 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's Disease. He was 81. He left behind his wife Sybil, four children and eight grandchildren. He will be buried at the United States Naval Academy later this month.