Thoughts on An American Hero – Admiral James Stockdale

Ninety eight years ago, an American hero by the name of James Bond Stockdale was born in Abingdon, Illinois. While most Americans are more familiar with the story of John McCain, Commander Stockdale was also a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over 7.5 years. During his time as a POW, Stockdale was considered a resistance leader. His punishment was eventually to be sent to the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed Alcatraz. He was kept in a windowless, concrete 3ft by 9 ft cell, with a light always left on and locked in leg irons each night.

James Stockdale was released on February 12, 1973 and eventually rosing to the rank of Admiral and serving as the president of the Naval War College. Decades before the renewed interest in Stoicism, Admiral Stockdale taught Stoicism and eventually published a book on the practical use of stoicism to survive his ordeals. His focus was on Epictetus:

“That alone is in our power, which is our own work; and in this class are our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. On the contrary, what is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul.”

In addition to being a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford in the 1980’s, he also served as chair for White House Fellows during that time period. He even had a movie made of his life.  As someone who came to age in the late 1980’s and began avidly following politics, I wish I knew his story at that time. But I didn’t.  So my first introduction to Admiral Stockdale occurred in 1992 when he appeared as the VP running mate for Ross Perot during a televised national debate. From his opening statement of “Who am I? Why am I here?” through asking for clarification of questions and the contrast between more polished and slicker opponents (Al Gore and by then a seasoned Dan Quayle), to say Admiral Stockdale looked out of his league would be charitable.

Afterwards the jokes wrote themselves, where he was viciously parodied on Saturday Night Live and written off by the media. For a long time, to many Americans, despite his heroism, courage, sharp wit and intellect, his ill-fated debate performance is all they would know of the man. As Dennis Miller quipped, “He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.”

True to his understanding and living a stoic lifestyle, Stockdale took the event in stride and continued teaching and lecturing, as well as advocating for John McCain in his first attempt to run for president in 2000. Admiral Stockdale passed away in 2005 and in 2008 a statue of him was placed at Luca Hall at the US Naval Academy.

Ironically, I liked to believe in today’s hyper-driven, media saturated environment, it would not have taken another decade for a fuller knowledge of his career and life to start to trickle out to an audience that probably no longer cared or paid attention. That maybe he and his defenders would have had the ability to explain the technical challenges of the debate. Maybe the narrative would have shifted to his humor of having to gracefully put up with two politicians more focused on scoring political points than how they would act as leaders.

But I think that Admiral Stockdale, employing his stoic philosophy would not have worried too much about how events could have played out differently. A man who could have survived 7 harrowing years as a prisoner of war would understand that, “the universe is change, life is opinion.”1 Today thanks to many who knew and hold dear the full story of Admiral Stockdale’s life, the story of his life is told first as an American hero with an asterisk about his VP candidacy, not the other way around.

Christopher James 12/22/21 – Thanks to Sedona for a publishing platform.

Suggested Readings

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot – James B. Stockdale

The Daily Stoic – Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

A Handbook for the New Stoics – Massimo Pigliucci

1 – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.3.4b (from November 9 in The Daily Stoic)

(Books ordered through the links provide a small donation to Sedona Shepherd Sanctuary)