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September 1, 2002

 

 

James Stockdale - Who Am I?

Admiral James Stockdale with his Medal of Honor at his home in Coronado, Calif. James Stockdale The vice admiral was branded a fool after the 1992 vice-presidential debate. But this scholar and heroic former POW who suffered years of torture never needs to ask himself, Who am I? 

By JEFF GUINN STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

AP Photo By Denis Poroy

CORONADO, Calif. - Retired Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale, now 78, didn't enjoy the experience of running for vice president in 1992, which he says he did as a favor to third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot. Like millions of others, Stockdale especially recalls the televised vice-presidential debate that October, when he began his remarks with the rhetorical questions, "Who am I? Why am I here?," and then stumbled through the rest of the program.

"Afterward, lots of people decided I was an idiot," Stockdale recalls as he sips a cup of coffee in the dining room of his home in a San Diego suburb. "Things were said about me. Conclusions were drawn. I suppose some would have had their feelings hurt badly. But I had philosophy and experience to fall back on, so I went right on with my life. Other people can't hurt you inside, which is where it counts, if you don't let them."

That belief makes Stockdale the antithesis of almost everyone else who has inadvertently become well-known for a negative reason. He says he's surprised more people don't feel the same way.

"As we learn from the book of Job in the Bible, life isn't fair," Stockdale observes. "From that, from the philosophers I had read, like Camus, Pascal, Kant, Hume and my personal favorite, Epictetus, there's the message of relying on yourself, on your own sense of honor. `Stoicism' is the proper term. It gives me, as it would give anyone, perspective."

That, and seven years in a North Vietnamese prison, where extensive physical torture became a ritual, and where Stockdale gambled his own life to force better conditions for his fellow prisoners. His back was broken, one leg was shattered beyond repair, his shoulders were torn from their sockets, and his hearing was irreparably damaged. After his release, the citation read by President Ford as he presented Stockdale with the Medal of Honor also noted the "near mortal" wounds Stockdale inflicted on himself to prove to his captors that he wouldn't break no matter what they did.

Compared with that, being called names in 1992 was nothing. These days, though, Stockdale certainly wouldn't mind if his fellow citizens knew a little more about him than a few bumbling remarks in a TV debate he didn't even know about until three days before the cameras rolled.

Stockdale walks very slowly. His left leg hasn't bent at the knee since Sept. 9, 1965, when his plane was shot down during a bombing mission against a bridge near the North Vietnamese city of Thanh Hoa. His hearing is adequate when his hearing aid works properly. Age causes him to "lose a word sometimes," but his steely blue eyes still fix on visitors, and his scarred body is trim in a white knit shirt and khaki slacks.

Stockdale and his wife, Sybil, live in the same house they bought decades ago when Stockdale was stationed at the naval base in Coronado. It is decorated with a few mementos of Stockdale's military career and lots of family memorabilia. Mrs. Stockdale is ill and unavailable to be interviewed. All four Stockdale sons are schoolteachers; judging from framed photos, there are `many' Stockdale grandchildren.

Stockdale's Medal of Honor is in a box upstairs, not displayed in a prominent place for visitors to see.

"That would be like bragging," Stockdale says. "I wouldn't want to do that."

He's also initially reluctant to discuss his political fiasco with Perot. Stockdale's fascination has always been with things military, rather than political.

"The whole thing with Ross was an accident," he says. "I've put it behind me. My training was to make decisions, to do what was right rather than what was expedient. I never learned to talk in those cagey ways politicians have, seeming to say something without committing yourself to any real opinion. What I wanted to say in that debate was something like, `Here's who I am. Ask these other fellows, Quayle and Gore, to give you examples from their lives that demonstrate who they really are, instead of just repeating things other people told them they ought to say."

To understand how he was able to cope with the aftermath of the disastrous vice-presidential debate, Stockdale says it's important to understand `him.' And that understanding is found in memories of seven years' captivity in Hanoi's infamous Hoa Lo prison.

Jim Stockdale was born in 1923, the only child of a schoolteacher and the vice president of a china factory in Abingdon, Ill. His explanation of how he ended up at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., illustrates why Stockdale would never, ever have been able to function effectively in the 30-second sound bite world of politics. He takes 15 minutes to answer the question, beginning with a description of his father's struggle to educate himself, and then how his mother insisted he learn to play the piano well and he `did,' winning competitions against older kids because no one should ever try less than his best, that was his mother's most important rule - and on to how, admiring his parents as he did, he asked them what experiences had served them best, and his father claimed to have learned his most valuable life lessons during a hitch in the Navy.

"So it was natural for me to want to emulate that," Stockdale concludes, and is suddenly silent. He's answered the question as best he can, and is ready for the next one.

His uncle, Stockdale notes, was a World War I fighter pilot. Young Jim wanted to emulate him. Mom Stockdale wanted to know why her only child thought he could be a pilot, when there was so much risk involved.

"I told her I had good coordination, and that I felt I could make good, quick decisions," Stockdale says. "I didn't think of being a pilot as just flying around in the sky. I went in expecting I would end up fighting at some point. See, that was the attitude for young men back then - it's your privilege to enjoy freedom, so be prepared to fight for it."

He did, serving for his first three years after graduation aboard ships, then achieving his dream of becoming a fighter pilot like his uncle. There was a break in 1961-62 when the Navy sent him to Stanford University for graduate work, a traditional career step for officers the service has earmarked for its highest ranks and responsibilities. At Stanford, professor Philip Rhinelander introduced Stockdale to the works of many ancient philosophers, and his 28-year-old pupil gradually became mesmerized by what he read.

"Wisdom doesn't have any no-good-past-this-date, where it turns sour," Stockdale says. "I saw, with fellows like Epictetus, that you could apply ideas that were thousands of years old to modern problems. Mostly, I was gradually taken with the idea that we can't always control the circumstances we find ourselves in but we can always control how we respond to them."

Soon after Cmdr. Stockdale returned to active service, he found himself heading fighter squadrons in Vietnam. In August 1964, he led the first American airstrike into North Vietnam after Congress gave wider war powers to President Johnson. Stockdale scoffs today at persistent beliefs that these raids sought anything other than military targets - "On mine I know, because I was involved in putting them together." In September 1965, Stockdale was shot down over the North Vietnamese countryside while on a mission to destroy a key bridge.

"When I ejected, I came down in a rural area, a farm community," Stockdale recalls. "I felt so good because I wasn't hurt, but then I saw this guy wearing a pith helmet and a whistle. He blew the whistle and sicced this gang on me, and they beat me for about five minutes before he blew his whistle again. He came over and motioned for me to get up, but I couldn't because my left leg was poking out over `here'."

Stockdale's knee was virtually destroyed. He was on crutches for his first two years in prison, and after his eventual release, American doctors told him it was "too screwed up" to be even partially fixed through surgery. His back was injured, too. His captors hauled him up, put some rudimentary bandages on the wounds they'd just inflicted, and, for three days, drove their prisoner around in what the semiconscious Stockdale thought were circles. Finally, he was brought to Hoa Lo prison, the legendary "Hanoi Hilton."

"They hauled me in and dropped me in front of the commissar, who spoke pretty good English," Stockdale says. "He said, `OK, you're Stockdale. When do you think Jenkins will come in?' Jenkins was one of my fliers. They wanted to throw me for a loop by using his name. After a while, we POWs figured out the Viet Cong would go over to Hong Kong, buy the newspapers to get the names of those who'd been shot down and comments from those who weren't. So they'd read something about Jenkins and could drop his name on me. So simple, so foolproof. And that's the first I saw of how they were trying to play us."

Hoa Lo, Stockdale says, "was a political prison, not really a prisoner-of-war camp. They weren't just keeping us there until the war was over. They were trying to use us for their own purposes, which were making us confess to their ridiculous propaganda. They had a small stage built downtown, and when somebody gave in and would say what they wanted, they'd take him there and make a show of it. And every time that happened, it hurt America, hurt our country."

As senior officer among the POWs, Stockdale automatically became their leader. He was appalled by what he discovered.

"Some people who, prior to my arrival, had been senior, had not betrayed their trust as highest-ranking officers, but they had been too silent," Stockdale recalls. "They did not say to the others, `Do not in any way cooperate with our captors.' They simply sat and watched things happen. I announced I was now running things. I didn't get any dissent."

Since outright war had never been declared, it was not certain whether the Viet Cong were required to treat their prisoners according to the Geneva Convention - no torture, sufficient food, only requiring prisoners to recite name, rank and serial number.

The Viet Cong, Stockdale says, used torture and anything else they could think of to coerce POWs into "confessing" war crimes. His first message to his fellow prisoners was simple.

"I told them that we must take control over our own destinies," Stockdale says. "Just like Epictetus and others taught, though I didn't throw those names around. I said we had to accept the idea of being tortured, that the experience wouldn't be as bad, probably, as the fear of torture before it even happened. We had to show these people that we wouldn't be forced to do something we all knew was wrong."

As their leader, Stockdale says, he had to set an example. He was tortured many times - usually with "the ropes. That was where they'd tie our arms behind our backs and pull tight, pretty much dislocating the shoulders. Then they'd push your head down between your legs, by putting their foot on the back of your neck. The pressure would cut off circulation to the upper body. Sometimes, for variety, there were the leg irons, torture irons that twisted you. Of course, it hurt. Bones were sometimes broken. But the idea was not to do what they demanded no matter how much it hurt, because after a while they'd have to get the message that torturing us served no purpose. Only then would they stop doing it."

Early on, Stockdale was made a particular target of his captors. He was the POW leader; it was obvious he was counseling defiance. He was informed one day that he would be taken downtown to read a propaganda statement.

"A guard we called the Rat handed me a safety razor in my cell, so I could clean myself up and look presentable," Stockdale recalls, speaking as calmly as though he were describing a Sunday picnic with his family. "They were always careful not to torture us in ways that would look too obvious, like punishment to the face. They wanted it to seem like we were making these statements of our own free will, which of course would have been ludicrous. At any rate, I took that razor after he turned away and cut swaths down my head until I had the blood running down my shoulders."

Shocked, Stockdale's guards dragged him into an interrogation room. He would still be taken out to make a statement, they told him; they'd just staunch his head wounds and make him wear a hat. After checking to see there were no sharp objects in the room that Stockdale could use to cut himself further, they left to find the hat.

"While they were gone, I picked up a mahogany stool and bashed my own face with it," Stockdale says. "Both my eyes swelled up and closed. When they came back in with the hat, they couldn't believe it. They couldn't take me out in public now because anyone seeing it would think they'd beaten me to make me cooperate. One of 'em said to me, `What will we tell the commissar?' and I said, `You tell him the commander of the POWs decided not to go downtown.' "

As punishment, Stockdale spent much of the next two years in solitary confinement, usually in leg irons. He was tortured more than a dozen times. Undeterred, he communicated with other prisoners by tapping out code on cell walls with tin cups. Whenever he was allowed to talk directly with other Americans, he instructed them to resist any form of cooperation with the Viet Cong.

"We had a few who didn't see it that way, but most did," Stockdale says.

Always, he recommended that the POWs try to find something to laugh about.

"It wasn't like `Hogan's Heroes' or anything, but we did have our funny moments," he says. "One favorite time involved a guy named Jim Mulligan. We always suspected a lot of the guards didn't speak much English; they'd only pretend to understand it. The Rat was one of those. Now, what they'd do was to give us papers to read with some of their left-wing propaganda on it. You'd read it, they'd ask your opinion of it, and if you said it was crap - which it always was - then they might beat you. Well, the Rat gives Jim a paper with that crap written on it, Jim reads it, the Rat asks what he thinks and Jim says, `I think it's ridiculous.' So the Rat gets mad, don't remember if he hit him that time, but he yells about how Jim has no right to talk to a North Vietnamese officer like that. `Tell me again what you think,' the Rat yells, and Jim looks him in the eye and says, `I'm very sorry, I shouldn't have said it was ridiculous. I should have said it was sheer bull--.' And the Rat says to Jim, `That's better. Keep a civil tongue in your head.' Oh, we laughed about that."

In 1969, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh died. The guards at Hoa Lo had tears in their eyes as they interacted with the POWs. Torture sessions grew even more frequent. Again, Stockdale was a particular target.

"I considered myself the leader," he recalls. "I had to retaliate, had to show them we Americans were not going to be broken."

After a particularly nasty session, Stockdale was left alone in a cell that had a window. Struggling to his feet, staggering on his bad leg, he smashed the window and used a long shard of glass to slice his own arms. The object, he says, was to impress on his captors that no amount of suffering would make him cooperate.

"Eventually, I passed out in a pool of my own blood," he says. "I came to the next morning about 4 a.m. They brought in a cot, made me lay on it and put a guard with a rifle by the foot of the cot so I couldn't do anything else to myself."

Later that morning, the commissar came to inform Stockdale there would be an investigation of the American's actions. The POW commander was placed back in solitary confinement. A few months later, the prison had a new commissar. Incidents of torture ceased almost completely. Stockdale had finally made his point.

"They didn't give us as much crap after that," he says quietly, gazing out his window and perhaps seeing the Hoa Lo interrogation chamber instead of his flower-filled back yard. "We'd shut off the torture machine."

When the war finally ended in 1973, Stockdale and his fellow Hanoi Hilton POWs came home. He reunited with his wife, Sybil, and four sons. Though his name briefly made national headlines, few Americans wanted to think about Vietnam anymore, and public fascination with a heroic prisoner of war quickly faded. Stockdale had a brief tour of duty as a naval wing commander, but his left leg still couldn't bend, making it hard to clamber into a cockpit and practically impossible to bail out in case of emergency. So he became president of the Naval War College, then president of The Citadel, and finally signed on as an analyst at Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. He devoted himself to writing books, giving lectures and designing college courses about morality and war - the responsibilities of soldiers to their countries and to themselves.

Then, in 1992, Ross Perot called.

"I was in my office at Hoover one afternoon when the phone rang," Stockdale recalls. "He said, `Hey. Jim, this is Ross. You know, I made a fool of myself on Larry King's TV show the other day and said I'd run for president. To get on the ballot in about 25 states, I have to have a vice-presidential candidate. Would you let me use your name as a stand-in, just for a couple weeks until I can find a politician to run with me?' "

Stockdale knew Perot, though not well. He'd been impressed to learn of Perot's outspoken support for POWs during the Vietnam conflict and was thoroughly `un'impressed with most politicians he'd encountered.

"So I said `OK,' figuring it would only be for a few weeks and knowing I wouldn't actually have to give speeches or do any kind of campaigning," Stockdale says. "I liked the idea of Ross or any nontraditional guy upsetting the usual political balance. Some time goes by, and all of a sudden there are these notices about a TV debate between the vice-presidential candidates, and I'm listed as one of them. It's only a couple of days away. So I call Ross and say, `Hey, I'm off the hook on this debate thing, aren't I?' and he says, `Oh, the invitation came three weeks ago and we accepted for you. Weren't you told?' "

Dan Quayle and Al Gore had speechwriters and advisers to help them bone up on issues. They rehearsed sound-bite responses. Stockdale had no staff. His only speeches had been made at military conferences and in classrooms, where taking 45 minutes to offer thoroughly reasoned opinions was routine.

"I had never even had a political conversation with Ross Perot," Stockdale says. "So I couldn't talk about what he believed in. I guess I could have refused to go on that debate, but someone had accepted in my name and I felt that obligated me."

Beatings during his POW days had robbed Stockdale of much of his hearing. Just before the televised debate began, his hearing aid conked out. Sometimes, when he seemed to stumble answering questions, it was because he wasn't entirely certain what he had been asked.

"Even if I had heard everything, I had no practice giving glib, short answers like those other two," Stockdale says. "When I started with `Who am I? What am I doing here?' my thought was to explain the difference between me and professional politicians, that I had some real-life experience that they didn't. But I got cut off, and it sort of went downhill from there."

Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, who watched the debate, says "there's no doubt Admiral Stockdale gave the impression he was a gabby old man who didn't know what he was doing. That sounds harsh, I know, and it wasn't fair. But it was the result."

The next day, Medal of Honor recipient James B. Stockdale was a national laughingstock. But the comedians who mocked him in monologues had no idea he was laughing at himself.

"Afterward, some of the other boys at Hoover and I would go out to lunch, and we'd try to figure out what things I'd said that were the unintentional funniest," Stockdale says. "I guess the eventual winner was that one line of mine, `I think I'm out of ammunition here.' "

Perot eventually took 18 percent of the popular vote, the best showing by an independent party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose candidacy in 1912. Stockdale went back to the Hoover Institute. Though strangers might have made fun of him, he says, Hoover colleagues and old Navy friends never did. He lost no sleep regretting how he'd performed. Regret, he notes, is simply a waste of energy.

"If, sometimes, people would recognize me and poke fun, I would just remind myself that I controlled my own life," Stockdale says. "Character is permanent; events are transient. But I will say this - because I would have approached things pragmatically, because I would have favored substance over slickness, I think I would have made a pretty good vice president."

Stockdale has retired from the Hoover Institute. Back home in Coronado, he's not exactly a celebrity. His number's right there in the phone book.

"If anyone wants to talk to me, I'm here," he says. But very few strangers ever show up on his doorstep. Mostly, anyone knocking is an old military friend.

Though not a man given to cracking jokes, Stockdale's quirky sense of humor is evident in another way. Over the course of his career, he attended lots of events with presidents and afterward was sent the requisite signed photos of himself - with Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush (there are none from the elder Bush, but then, the Perot/Stockdale ticket opposed him during the 1992 campaign). All these photos are prominently displayed in a downstairs bathroom.

If there's a current frustration in Stockdale's life, it's that important world events are unfolding and he isn't helping his country.

"I've had experience in learning how those from foreign cultures may hate us, and some success in proving to them that their hate will not deter Americans," Stockdale says. "If I should be asked, by the current president or our military leaders, to offer some thoughts, some suggestions, I'd certainly do it. But I guess they're not going to ask."

As a visitor prepares to leave after hours of conversation, Stockdale considers a final question: In his own heart, how would he like to be remembered? How does he want people to think of him?

"I guess I'd like to be thought of as a guy who tried to help his country," Stockdale says after several moments. "Maybe as someone who never shirked battle, who realized it was an honor to be an American and tried to live up to the responsibilities of that honor at any personal cost."

That's who he was. That's what he was doing here.

 

2002, by Star Telegram
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