A man who refused to acquiesce to a better tyranny

Posted: Jul 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must. - Thucydides


First came the memorial service for James Bond Stockdale on July 16 aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan near San Diego - followed Saturday by services and burial at the Naval Academy.

Some, for whom Stockdale was perhaps the decisive individual in their lives, were present at both occasions.

To the mere everyday rest of us, Stockdale may be best remembered for asking fuddy-duddily in a vice-presidential debate in 1992, as the running mate of Ross Perot, "Why am I here?" But more than 500 veterans of the POW camps of communist Vietnam revered Stockdale for making possible their survival of the ordeal of their lives.

The American POW experience in North Korea had been shameful. Discipline collapsed, as did communication and command. The communists drove wedges among the prisoners and destroyed them. Prisoner stole from prisoner; many tattled on others. POW collaboration with the communists was rife. Depression frequently set in, and brains were softened up for easy washing. So deep was the despair into which some POWs descended that they curled up in a corner, went to sleep - and died.

American military authorities learned much from Korea. The POW experience in North Vietnam was different. In 1973 the vast majority of those captured after shoot-down came home - principally through the agencies of Jim Stockdale.

At the time of his shoot-down Stockdale was 41. He remained the senior officer at least among the Navy pilots, who outnumbered their Air Force counterparts. They called him CAG - an honored Navy acronym for Carrier Air Group commander. CAG Stockdale was the top-ranking officer among the Navy pilots in the North Vietnamese prison camps.

He proved no ordinary leader. A pilot of supreme talent and tenacity, he earned 26 combat decorations, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, four Silver Stars and - for his leadership and defiance in the Hanoi camps - the Medal of Honor.

Not only was CAG Stockdale a warrior, he was brilliant. He credited graduate work at Stanford with political philosopher Philip Rhinelander for giving him the grounding to create a new civilization in the camps. Stockdale fashioned a bunch of wild, too-often self-centered jet jockeys into a tightly knit band of brothers.

He did it not by force but largely by example and maintaining communication with all the POWs through the tap system - a five-across, five-down alphabet grid recalled by one POW from his Boy Scout days. For brevity the tap system, or tap code, came complete with military-style acronyms, such as GBU for "God bless you." Four of Stockdale's seven years in Hanoi were spent in solitary confinement, including two of those solitary years in leg-irons.

"'God,' 'duty,' 'honor' and 'integrity' were not philosophic abstractions," he wrote later. "The ideas I had studied became principles to live by."

Stockdale embraced Thucydides' "suffer what you must." But most of all he embraced the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, a crippled former slave who said: "Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens."

Empowered by Epictetus through Stockdale, the POWs endured unspeakable torture, deprivation and sometimes death. Stockdale himself smashed his face with a mahogany stool and slashed his wrists with shards of glass to prevent the Communists from using him for propaganda. Most of the POWs ultimately came home.

As John McCain said Saturday of Stockdale: "He inspired us to do things that we otherwise never could have done. He was our beacon and our strength." Stockdale once framed the ordeal this way: 'The commissar and his barbaric lackeys should have shut us out 10-0, but I think the final score was, as someone put it, Lions 2, Christians 8.'"

About 40 POWs attended the final Stockdale tribute - they and nearly a dozen Medal of Honor winners, who served as honorary pallbearers.

The service had it all for the 81-year-old vice admiral who led the POWs: soaring rhetoric, cadenced steps, cannon booms, precision fusillades, a low-level flyover by F-18s, an admiral in dress whites on bended knee before Stockdale's devoted widow saying, "Please accept this flag from a grateful nation," and finally a long languorous Taps.

On hallowed ground in a cultural hour of spiritual penury and solemn lunacies, Taps for CAG - a man who refused to acquiesce to a better tyranny. And among those for whom the defense of liberty is no momentary enthusiasm, former POWs who - without CAG Stockdale's exemplary discipline and his suffering for them, never would have made it to his funeral - tearful murmurs of GBU.