Vice Admiral James Stockdale was shot down over North Vietnam. He was a prisoner of war for eight years: tortured 15 times, put in leg irons for two years and in solitary confinement for eight years. He knew something about survival under duress.
When asked, “What kept you going? His answer was: “The man next door.”
…From this eight year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea… an idea as old as scriptures…an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure…The idea is: You Are Your Brother’s Keeper.1
It is, no doubt, why the POWs were forbidden to talk to each another. Their captors knew that a prisoner support system would make breaking the captives much more difficult, even impossible. Neither the Japanese nor the North Vietnamese were able to prevent it.
We organized a clandestine society via our wall tap code – – a society with our own laws, traditions, customs, even heroes. To explain how it could be that we would order each other into more torture, order each other to refuse to comply with specific demands, intentionally call the bluff of our jailers and in a real sense force them to repeat the full ropes process to another submission, I’ll quote a statement that could have come from at least half of those wonderful competitive fly-boys I found myself locked up with: “We are in a spot like we’ve never been in before. But we deserve to maintain our self-respect, to have the feeling we are fighting back. 2
Zamperini and his fellow prisoners, like Stockdale’s flyers, improvised a system for talking with one another despite the ban on prisoner communication. They shared their pitifully inadequate rations with the sickest prisoners and when they were able to steal something extra, it went to the men most in need.
Stockdale’s point is that “compulsion and free will can coexist.” He elaborates by citing another man who knew something about living under duress:
So what Epictetus *was telling his students was that there can be no such thing as being the ‘victim’ of another. You can only be a ‘victim’ of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? ‘He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart.’
If you want to protect yourself from “fear and guilt,” and those are the crucial pincers, the real long-term destroyers of will, you have to get rid of all your instincts to compromise, to meet people halfway. You have to learn to stand aloof, never give openings for deals, never level with your adversaries.2
In Unbroken Hillenbrand explains writes:
…(T)he guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind… Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined, not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live…
… Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, holds a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty…. degradation could be as fatal as a bullet.
When forced to labor for the Japanese, they gleefully stole and waged a secret guerrilla war of their own.
At the railroads and docks they switched mailing labels, rewrote delivery addresses; and changed the labeling on boxcars, sending tons of goods to the wrong destinations. They threw fistfuls of dirt into gas tanks and broke anything mechanical that passed through their hands. ….
As dangerous as these acts were, they were transformative. In risking their necks to sabotage their enemy, the men were no longer passive captives. They were soldiers again.
If in the Post-Vietnam United States the soldier is just to be told that in modern times opinions change, the he should be prepared to have commitments dropped, that he should do his job in the field and never mind that he will be fighting for a government constantly doing a balancing act against a nasty opposition within, that will simply not do. Soldiers will march off to their deaths only so long as they don’t feel they have to die alone for what will be abandoned causes. 3
A recent statement by Secretary of State John Kerry exemplifies Stockdale’s objection. Kerry described President Obama’s (now abandoned) intervention in Syria as “an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
Unbelievable is an apt word for asking men to die for political expediency.
To emphasize the point, Stockdale cites a letter4 from Marcus Flavinius, a deployed soldier of ancient Rome, written to an influential cousin in Rome.
We had been told, on leaving our native soil, that we were going to defend the sacred rights conferred on us by so many of citizens settled overseas, so many years of our presence, so many benefits brought by us to populations in need our assistance and civilization.
- We were able to verify that all this was true, and, because it was true, we did not hesitate to shed our quota of blood, to sacrifice our youth and our hopes. We regretted nothing, but whereas we over here are inspired by this frame of mind, I am told that in Rome factions and conspiracies are rife, that treachery flourishes, and that many people in their uncertainty and confusion lend a ready ear to the dire temptations of relinquishment and vilify our action.
- I cannot believe that all this is true, and yet recent wars have shown how pernicious such a state of mind could be and to where it could lead.
- Make haste to reassure me, I beg you, and tell me that our fellow citizens understand us, support us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the Empire.
- If it should be otherwise, if we should leave our bleached bones in these desert sands in vain, then beware the anger of the Legions!
The Roman Army “was the most successful political organization in history” but Rome fell for painfully familiar reasons…
They fell of infighting as an empire, from a general lack of public virtue, from selfishness, and inconsiderateness.
Gregory Hicks, former Deputy of Mission in Libya, explained it this way during a recent interview on 60 Minutes:
For the people who go out, on to the edge, to represent our country, we believe that if we get into trouble, they’re coming to get us, that our back is covered. To hear that it’s not, that’s a terrible, terrible experience. (13 minute mark)
James B. Stockdale whose heroism in Vietnamese captivity won him the Medal of Honor, died on July 5, 2005. He was spared from witnessing the depredations of Barack Obama’s presidency. He did not live to see a president engaged in planning a “unisex” look for the Marine Corps while debt at home and chaos abroad threaten America’s security and standing in the world. He did not live to see a feckless president hurriedly withdraw troops from Iraq without securing what they achieved there. He did not observe this president’s public display of disdain for the military when, during the partial government shutdown, he withheld death benefits from families of soldiers slain in Afghanistan.
Stockdale, Zamperini and countless others went to war for an America they understood and revered. It was not an America where a president repeatedly and viciously maligned political opponents for disagreeing with his policies. It was not an America that denigrated religion, redefined the family, and supplanted the very concept of a moral code with moral relativism.
At some time, in the not too distant future, others among us will have to decide if it is an America worthy of their sacrifice.
4There is some dispute about the authenticity of this quote, but regardless of whether it came from a French novel, or from Flavinius, there is truth in the sentiment expressed. The fate of the Roman empire and the reasons for its decline are well-documented.
* Epictetus was born a slave in 55 A.D. and became a philosopher and teacher.