James Bond Stockdale
Admiral Stockdale was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and was held prisoner in Hanoi for seven-and-a-half years. In this article he explains how critical personal integrity turned out to be for survival under prison conditions that included years of solitary confinement and incessant brutal torture. His view is that moral weakness leads to personal ruin, and that we can provide an education that will help individuals to avoid tragic failures of character. He attributes his own survival success to a good classical education and an understanding of history, to the Book of Job and to the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus. Having understood that "life is not fair" he was able to answer satisfactorily the question "why me?" without feeling he was being singled out to be punished for misdeeds. His story highlights for all of us the importance of understanding moral philosophy.
In 1965 I was a forty-one-year-old commander, the senior pilot of Air Wing 16, flying combat missions in the area just south of Hanoi from the aircraft carrier Oriskany. By September of that year I had grown quite accustomed to briefing dozens of pilots and leading them on daily air strikes; I had flown nearly 200 missions myself and knew the countryside of North Vietnam like the back of my hand. On the ninth of that month I led about thirty-five airplanes to the Thanh Hoa Bridge, just west of that city. That bridge was tough; we had been bouncing 500-pounders off it for weeks.
Reprinted by permission of the author from The Atlantic Monthly, April 1978.