Magazine article Insight on the News

Old Warrior of Civic Virtue Gets Caught in Middle

Magazine article Insight on the News

Old Warrior of Civic Virtue Gets Caught in Middle

Article excerpt

One morning 10 years ago, I was dozing at my desk at a Washington think tank, the Wall Street Journal held up before me as camouflage. I came across an article by some guy named Stockdale. I read it, noted his location in California, grabbed the phone and a few minutes later said something like: "I'm flying out to meet you. When can you see me?" Thus began a relationship that lasted most of the 1980s, the years when Jim was discovering the larger meanings of his own experience.

That relationship began anew the evening of the vice presidential debate, as I watched an old warrior, flanked by two slick baby boomer pols, flummox about. It was terrible to see - not least of all because I knew that Jim's real message, his truth could never be heard, let alone prevail, in that taw-dry forum.

America knows Jim Stockdale primarily as a "senior Vietnam prisoner of war" who won the Medal of Honor for "organizing resistance" among the other POWs. But Jim once described himself, more accurately, as "the lawgiver of an autonomous colony of Americans who happened to be located in a Hanoi prison." During those years of almost unimaginable heroism, he was not simply adhering to the dictates of his profession, or his conscience. He was the founding father of one of the most remarkable civilizations of the 20th century.

Rather early in their captivity, Jim and the other residents of the Hanoi Hilton discovered two things. First, they were not prisoners in the usual sense - a nuisance to their captors, bodies to be fed, housed, guarded. They were a vital potential asset. If the prisoners, most of them officers and many career military, could be coerced into making antiwar and anti-U.S. statements, Hanoi could score significant propaganda victories. (Jim was especially vulnerable. He'd flown in both Tonkin Gulf incidents and knew that his government had lied about the second. He kept his secret.) The North Vietnamese, in order to compel "antiimperialist" statements, used endless interrogation, isolation and systematic torture. And, during the war's critical years, they forbade the prisoners, in their one-man cells, to communicate with each other; attempts at conversation brought painful reprisal. The only means of communication available to the prisoners was tapping on the walls in code when no guards were visible.

Second, the prisoners learned that in the torture chamber, the torturer wins. Neither discipline nor patriotism nor machismo nor ideals nor faith was adequate in the ropes. …

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