James Bond Stockdale (1923-2005) was by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkable man.  In his own words, he described how at one moment, he was “on the top,” the admired commander of over 1000 men and over 100 pilots fighting in the Vietnam War, “confident” and “self-satisfied,” a man who thought he had “found every key to success.”

All that changed on 9 September 1965 when he was shot down and in a matter of minutes became “an object of contempt” and a “criminal” in the eyes of the North Vietnamese. He recounted in his autobiography how in such short time, your place in life “can be changed from that of a dignified and competent gentleman of culture to that of a panic-stricken, sobbing, self-lothing wreck…

050706-N-0000X-005 U.S. Navy File Photo: Formal portrait of Rear Adm. James B. Stockdale in dress white uniform. He is one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Nay, wearing twenty six personal combat decorations, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, two Purple Hearts, and four Silver Star medals in addition to the Medal of Honor. Later he obtained the rank of Vice Admiral, and is the only three star Admiral in the history of the Navy to wear both aviator wings and the Medal of Honor. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

He handled and survived the challenges of being a prisoner during the peak of the Vietnam War. That included 4 years in solitary confinement. He was tortured over 20 times during his 8 year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973. After one extended round of torture he become so depressed he attempted suicide by his wrists with a  shard of broken glass. He lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date and no certainty as to whether he would even see his family again.

But after his eventual release he became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honour. From 1981 to 1993 he was a professor at the Hoover Institute of Stanford University. In 1992 he stood as vice president candidate in the presidential election. (For more on his life see Could This Be The Real James Bond?)

Stockdale was able to survive and even eventually thrive from his terrible experience by drawing on Stoic philosophy. (See What Was The Real James Bond Thinking?)

The main focus of Stoic philosophy is developing personal control, reducing vulnerability and living by a set of time-honoured standards that promote dignity, even under the harshest of conditions. To develop personal control it is vital to distinguish that which is within your control from that which is beyond it. Quoting Stockdale:

“….a Stoic always keeps separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are ‘up to him’ and (B) those things that are ‘not up to him’. Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are ‘within his power’ and (B) those things that are ‘beyond his power’. Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of ‘his Will’ and (B) those things that are beyond it….In short what the Stoics says is ‘Work with what you have control of and you’ll have your hands full.'”

This philosophy became enormously relevant as Stockdale debated with his fellow prisoners how to handle the on-going torture and abuse they were receiving at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors.

Stockdale came to the realisation that “a structured set of values supporting a basic tenant of self-respect was fundamental to the performance of these men,” and his goal was to make certain that the men “returned home with their heads held hight.”

He developed a set of rules that formed the acronym BACK US:

B: BOWING – prisoners should never voluntarily bow in public. Refusing to do so would show the world that American prisoners had not been defeated, and if prisoners were visibly forced to bow by the North Vietnamese, any observer would see that US prisoners were being mistreated according to the Geneva Convention.

A: AIR – stay off the air, refuse radio interviews and tape-recorded messages or confessions.

C: CRIME – never use the word ‘crime’ and never admit to having committed a crime against the North Vietnamese people.

K: KISS – don’t kiss them goodbye when you eventually get released. Never give the impression that the North Vietnamese were civilised in their treatment of prisoners and never show gratitude for any treatment by the North Vietnamese, even if granted early release from prison for medical reasons.

US: Unity over self. It was the welfare of all the prisoners together that was important and not special privileges for any one person.

It is incredibly hard to relate to someone like Stockdale. His experience is way beyond anything what most of us have gone through. Yes his ability to grow and develop in spite of his experience indicates that there are specific life lessons we can learn from him. Those life lessons are transferable to any situation we may face. These are some I can reflect upon:

  • The fragility of life and how even the most apparently secure position or circumstance is ultimately vulnerable. My self worth must not come from my role or position, but from within.
  • The importance of preparation and training before times of testing and challenge. For athletes and those in the military there are only two basic ways to spend your time – being in battle and preparing for battle.
  • The need for right thinking as a pre-requisite for dealing with life challenges. Thinking leads to feelings which lead to choices and behaviour. However, it all starts with how you think.
  • The importance of taking in the reality of the situation -facing the brutal facts of the harshness of what is happening while at the same time maintaining hope that you will overcome (the so-called Stockdale Paradox).
  • The importance of learning to guide us into right thinking. For me the equivalent to Enchiridion (which Stockdale sought guidance from) has to be the Bible scripture that I seek to understand and apply to every area of my life. (For more on this see How To Avoid God).
  • How we do not know what the future holds, but how God prepares us for what is yet to come. Stockdale credits what he learnt from Stoic philosophy as enabling him to get though 8 years of harsh imprisonment.
  • The immense value of clarity about what I am responsible for and what I am not responsible for.
  • The importance of relationships to survive and ultimately thrive. As Henry Cloud likes to say, you brain functions on three things – oxygen, glucose and relationships.

What lessons or principles do you pick up from Stockdale’s experience?