Tuesday, 05 July, 2005

James B. Stockdale, R.I.P

I learned late today that Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, Medal of Honor Winner, former prisoner of war, and vice presidential candidate passed away.  Probably best remembered for his less than stellar performance in the 1992 vice presidential debates, most people don't realize how many men credit him with getting them through their time in North Vietnamese POW camps.  Admiral Stockdale probably wasn't a very good politician, as he wasn't cut out to be a public figure.  He was a great Naval officer, though, and an honest to God hero in the eyes of many men.

I read an article by Admiral Stockdale when I was a senior at the Marine Military Academy.  In it, he recounted his seven-plus year experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and how he survived by embracing the teachings of Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher.  I carted that article around for years, re-reading it from time to time when I'd run across it among my things.  My copy of the article is long gone, but the simple lesson that it taught remains:  accept with good humor those things that you cannot change, and take full responsibility for those things in your life that you can control.  I know that's a rather simplistic view of the Stoic philosophy, but it's worked for me in the 25 years since I first learned of Stoicism.  A few minutes with Google revealed the name of the article:  "The World of Epictetus," written by James B. Stockdale in the April 1978 issue of The Atlantic.  I wonder if I can get a reprint or a back issue.

Whether or not you embrace Stoicism, you should read what Admiral Stockdale has to say about it as the model philosophy for military officers.  A good starting place would be his two lectures to the Marine Amphibious Warfare School:  The Stoic Warrior's Triad (PDF), and Master of My Fate.

Note 2006/06/04: Originially I had linked a U.S. Naval Academy site that was offering PDFs or a free printed booklet, but USNA has removed or restricted those pages.