The death of Adm. James Stockdale on July 5 robs America of one of the best men of our time. A soldier and a patriot, Admiral Stockdale also possessed the kind of inquiring mind and thirst for virtue that is the mark of a true philosopher.
Born and raised in Illinois, Stockdale attended Monmouth College before receiving an appointment to the Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1946. As a Navy pilot, he flew virtually every kind of airplane they had in the 1950’s. Graduating from the Test Pilot School, he rose to become a squadron commander in Vietnam. Shot down in 1965 and suffering from a broken bone in his back, Stockdale was beaten mercilessly and imprisoned for seven years, four of them spent in solitary confinement, and was repeatedly tortured.
Upon his release, Stockdale received the Congressional Medal of Honor and campaigned tirelessly on behalf of POWs and their families. He served briefly as president of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. In solitary confinement, he had time to think about the ethics of the military profession, and the fruits of that thinking, combined with his careful reading of Stoic philosophers, resulted in several books of essays. In Love and War, his memoir of the Vietnam War years (cowritten with his wife, Sibyl), was widely read and turned into a creditable made-for-television film, improbably starring James Woods.
When I presumed to chaff him once about the lack of resemblance between the robust and virile Stockdale and the neurasthenic Woods, Jim told me that both he and Sibyl liked the film and thought Woods put in a splendid performance (which, in fact, he did). But that was just like Jim. He was as generous as he was skeptical and always more interested in the deeper truth than in the surface. For him, Ross Perot was not simply a funny little guy who had made big money from dubious government contracts but an American patriot willing to spend his money on expensive and fruitless efforts to recover American MIAs in Vietnam. When Perot asked to use his name, only temporarily, of course, as his vice presidential candidate, Jim naturally agreed, never expecting to find himself in a vice-presidential debate with Dan Quayle and Al Gore, neither of whom were fit to hold his bathrobe.
Jim’s manifest bewilderment at the situation in which he found himself led to his famous questions, “Who am I? Why am I here?” If any of the columnists and TV commentators who poked fun at Jim had ever read a book or thought a thought in the course of their foolish lives, they would have understood the questions. How did it happen that a serious man who served his country now finds himself in the public pillory reserved for the fools who seek political power? I later told the candidate that, for all the torment the campaign must have been, it was good for the public to have had a glimpse of an American with integrity.
I got to know Jim Stockdale first through his books, which I read and reviewed. More than once, he accepted my invitation to write for Chronicles, and he served for several years on the board of directors of The Rockford Institute. Although we met several times and corresponded, I cannot claim to have known him well, but I did get to know him well enough to admire the clarity of his mind and the force of his character.
Although kind and diplomatic in his dealings with people, Jim was under no illusions. He could size people up from across the room and could spot a fool at 20 yards. It would be unkind of me, after his death, to repeat some of his judgments, but I vividly recall our conversations about the Citadel. Jim had wanted to hire M.E. Bradford in the English department, and, during his trip to Charleston, I had taken Mel over to the Citadel. Although some faculty members were eager to hire Bradford, others were smart enough to realize how they would suffer by comparison. This was only one of many petty failures Stockdale faced as president. He suffered his biggest defeat in trying to reform what he regarded as the unfair and inhuman hazing system. The old boys simply would not allow any changes. When I asked him why he left so abruptly, he told me: “When you’ve been tortured by professionals, you do not have to put up with amateurs.”
Jim was very fond of Richard Nixon, because of President Nixon’s respect for America’s fighting men. It was Nixon’s bombing in the later stages of the war, he insisted, that forced the North Vietnamese to release the POWs. He once told me that Nixon’s respect for the uniform sometimes seemed excessive. Once, after a National Security meeting, the President came upon Brent Scowcroft, who had recently been promoted to general, picking up all the papers from the floor, which was the routine. Nixon scolded him, saying, “You shouldn’t be doing that, General,” and bent over and began scooping up the papers himself. This is a side of Nixon one rarely hears about.
Once, Jim and I were walking after lunch, on a cold and blustery day on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, when he felt the call of nature. I could not think of where we could go except perhaps to a café or to the Art Institute, where we might first have to pay an entry fee. Nonsense, said Jim crossing the street. We followed him into the Chicago Athletic Association, a private club. He nodded benignly to the doorman and directed us all to the men’s room. “I didn’t know you were a member,” I remarked as we walked out. “I’m not, but I was taken to lunch here years ago.” It is a very small thing, but at the time I was impressed by the way he took it for granted that an officer and gentleman is welcome anywhere.
Jim faced a number of moral crises. As a POW, his captors tortured him so hard that they broke his will, temporarily. Agreeing to denounce the United States in front of the TV cameras, he said he needed to get cleaned up. Once in the bathroom, he took the opportunity to mutilate his face to the point that he was useless for their propaganda. Perhaps an even graver crisis, one he thought about often over the years, was his experience at the Gulf of Tonkin. Although the Johnson administration used the so-called incident to justify war with North Vietnam, Jim, in charge of his squadron, knew that nothing had happened. As he said later, he flew so low that there was salt spray on his windshield, yet he saw nothing. It seemed an outrage that brave men should have to die in a war being waged by cowardly bureaucrats such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Admiral Stockdale spent his seven years of captivity worrying that the North Vietnamese, with the help of their antiwar friends in the United States, would put two and two together and force him to tell the truth. But communists are politicians, too, and they wanted only lies.
Jim Stockdale’s story belongs to the history of republican virtue, and it would take the talents of Livy to do justice to him. He was a brave man who served in a war he did not entirely believe in but refused to take the easy way out. Put in charge of investigating cases of officers who collaborated with the enemy, he might have been expected to have been severe. Stoic philosophy is also the most judgmental and black-and-white in its treatment of human frailties. Stockdale, however, looked at the reality. Some collaborators were simply weak or dishonest, but many were too naive to understand that POWs have a difficult game to play. They may be justified in giving up trivial information to keep from being tortured to the point that they will give up something vital. Whenever he spoke of these matters, he displayed deep compassion for most of the collaborators, reserving his anger only for those who gained personal privileges at the expense of their country’s interest and to the detriment of their fellow prisoners.
In a better age, this great warrior and patriot would be mourned publicly by the nation. In this age, he did not merit even a reference on the Drudge Report.