James Stockdale – Philosophy

Friends,

Aviation has always attracted its share of adventurers, but it has also seen a good number of people who lived by a personal code that made their lives and actions stand out in history.  I have made a point studying the lives of these men, reading most of the available works on them. There is much to be gained by understanding their  perspectives, ethics and philosophy.  Although I have read the biographies of several hundred aviators in the past 25 years, I can say without hesitation that James Stockdale had the most impressive personal code of all.

Above, Stockdale’s official USN photo. The blue ribbon supports the Congressional Medal of Honor.

More or less, anyone can be said to have some code of personal conduct. The majority of people have a very flexible set of personal guidelines, bendable enough when combined with a little hypocrisy to ease their path through the day. Many people who do have a firm code have the luxury of never needing to demonstrate a fidelity to it. Others are tested only once, for a short moment in their lives. James Stockdale not only lived by a very demanding code, he spent 2,700 days in the Hanoi Hilton living up to it. It is hard to think of another man in aviation whose personal philosophy was put to such a test.

There is an important distinction here. Stockdale credited his survival to philosophy more than faith. There are a number of moving biographies of human survival written by men who endured much of what Stockdale did.  Jeremiah Denton’s book When Hell was in Session is one of the most moving stories I have ever read. Denton clearly states that first and foremost, faith saved him. Likewise, this is also the central thesis of Robbie Risner’s The Passing of the Night. John McCain’s Faith of my Fathers speaks of his desire to measure up to the code of his father and grandfather.  Each of these men felt the common ground of duty, country, honor, family and faith, each man differing in  the proportion of strength he gained from his allegiance to each of these elements. Stockdale felt all of these, but contended that a set of values, based on ideas that were 2,400 years old, afforded him not only survival, but gave him honor, effective leadership, and allowed him to thwart his enemies despite being their captive.

Above, James Stockdale before his aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam. As Commander of the Air Wing he flew all of the aircraft types they operated. At the Gulf of Tonkin, he flew an F-8 Crusader; later he was shot down flying an A-4 Skyhawk.

What Stockdale endured as a POW  is covered on a number of Web sites. Here is a sample from his Wikipedia page:

“Locked in leg irons in a bath stall, he was routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends’ ‘black activities,’ he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession.”

This went on for years. Stockdale was in solitary for half the time he was a POW. He spent several years in leg irons. He endured 15 torture sessions, many lasting more than a week.

Above, on the left, Colonel Risner with Stockdale beside him about a week before their release from the Hanoi Hilton. These two men, as the ranking U.S. officers, bore the added burden of leadership of all the other POWs. They took this as a deadly serious responsibility. Stockdale did not have youth on his side during imprisonment; he was 49 years old when this photo was taken.

Although the actions of the North Vietnamese officials look purely sadistic, Stockdale knew they were driven by the goals of destroying the morale of the POWs, forcing them to make “confessions,” and advancing their political goals of eroding U.S. support for the war. Stockdale saw his war as continuing through a contest of wills. He effectively and repeatedly demonstrated that he was willing to die before he would be their tool. Winning this contest is credited with convincing the prison officials that it was futile to further torture the POWs. This is the centerpiece of his being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Although many people know what Stockdale was able to accomplish, they spend far less time trying to understand how he did it. In all of his writings and recorded speeches, he stated that the means he had at his disposal was his understanding of Greek Stoic philosophy. His actions demonstrated that in a contest of wills, stoicism is very effective armor and weaponry. Three years before his capture, he was in graduate school and his instructor had given him a gift of the works of Epictetus, the best known of the Greek stoic philosophers. Stockdale absorbed this material in great depth. He brought the books with him on all three of his combat deployments.

Stoicism was the dominant creed of the Greeks, and for a long period, the Romans. Like most developed systems, it is not possible to accurately summarize it in a few sentences. Among its basic tenets are that man does not control his circumstances nor the actions of others, so they should not be lamented. Man does however have absolute control over his opinions and conduct. He cannot abdicate from this if he is to have a life of value. Men should strive to be indifferent to things they cannot control. The only thing that Stoics should never be indifferent to is the struggle between good and evil, and this battle takes place in each man’s heart, not in the external world. Each person should define their own moral purpose or quest, and not be deterred from it. Stoicism is not about allegiance to a system or state, it is about developing an allegiance to your own moral purpose. Although it is focused on the individual, its end result is not self-glorification nor narcissistic. Its goals are tranquility, freedom and leading a life without fear.

I highly recommend going to the bottom of Stockdale’s Wikipedia page,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stockdale

and looking under the heading of “Writings” where you will find a link to a 22 page paper titled “The Warrior’s Triad.” This is a transcript of a speech that Stockdale gave in 1995. It is of sufficient length to come to a good understanding of the role that Stoicism played in Stockdale’s life.  For a simple example of Stoicism in action, here is what Stockdale said when asked which prisoners had the hardest time in captivity:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”  

Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.
 -Epictetus

What is in this for you the homebuilder? Something very important that it took me a long time to learn. The primary determinant of whether or not your aircraft is ever finished is not how much money, skills, information, time nor previous flight experience you have. The single most important factor is your personal attitude toward the project, and your willpower to bring the factors you do control to effective use in advancing your goals. You are never going to read this reality in an aviation magazine, as I am sure most editors don’t know it.  If they do, it isn’t in their interests to say it.

In Stockdale’s test of wills, his enemy’s goal was to make him succumb to fear. If he did, they could determine his mindset and actions from there forward.  It is easy to say that 99.99% of us will not find ourselves in such circumstances. Literally true enough, but perhaps misleading. Stoic philosophy is all about being in command of yourself, and not letting anyone or any circumstance dictate your opinions, attitudes or actions. Stockdale’s enemy was obvious, his goals were clear. Your life and the challenges you choose may not be as dramatically profound as Stockdale’s, but they are no less important. These things literally are the value of your life and your satisfaction with leading it. Choosing to learn, build and fly are not common goals. The vast majority of people are afraid of these things. If this fear stops them from acting on their ideas and dreams, then someone else is controlling them. People are not born to be afraid, they are taught this. Stoic philosophy is a method of undoing this, recognizing your own value and sovereignty as an individual. Aviation is a singularly appropriate Arena to develop one’s personal codes.  It offers near limitless potential to those who take it seriously, it holds serious risks and penalties for those who do not.  At any level worth engaging, it is not a pastime, a game, nor a sport. It is a real endeavor worthy of your devotion.

We are now in the 6th decade of homebuilding, and the resources available to homebuilders, in terms of disposable income (compared to 1950s households), tools (actually cost less today), information (the Net) and access (the Sport Pilot Rule) are better than ever. So why does the completion rate for projects remain low? It took me 10 years to understand that the answer lies inside each person. When I first started in homebuilding, I had training and information, but little money. This latter element became the helpful scapegoat for a slow start. Around me were plenty of people sending the message that if I just had more money, and blindly spent it, the trajectory of my progress would change. This is the common message of consumer aviation, and it is a lie.

Aircraft are not free, they do cost money to build. I sell parts for engines and components to mount these engines on aircraft. I consider the things we sell a very good value.  On the surface, this appears to make us like every other aviation business. The difference requires a moment of thought to consider; I am here to share what we know, to teach you what I have painstakingly learned. The things we sell allow you the builder to put this knowledge into action in your own life.  I am working to assist people in becoming successful builders, not blind buyers. Having worked with Corvair builders for more than 20 years, my plan is long-range. The completion rate of our builders is twice the industry average, despite many of our guys working inside tight budgets and often being new to aviation. A here-today-gone-tomorrow LLC is focused on selling things. I have always focused on the success of individual builders, and the sales have taken care of themselves.

We have all seen a guy with an untouched kit in his garage, a shelf full of electronics and instrumentation, an interior kit, and a stack of sales brochures he picked up at Oshkosh. None of the people who sold him these things made it clear to him that he couldn’t spend his way to success in experimental aviation. It wasn’t in their interests to do so. If it were my sole goal to sell things, it wouldn’t be in my interest to type this. My goal is to get many people flying. To achieve this, I need to make them aware of what really stands between them and their success. The single most common reason why people don’t finish their planes, learn to fly them and achieve their personal goals is simple: They have been continuously exposed to the subtle message that they can’t do it, they shouldn’t trust themselves, they are not worth the time and treasure of the quest. People would reject this if it were delivered this plainly, but it is sent in a thousand subtle messages that seep into the back of your head and gradually slow your progress and steal your pride. It comes from consumer co-workers who want to see your desire for adventure beaten down to the level they settled for; from the 20,000 hour pilot who would rather have you marvel at his achievements than to counsel you to have your own; from the people who live their lives in fear of everything, unable to differentiate between the odds of being eaten by a shark and dying of heart disease. It is a lot to counter, but if you have the mindset of Stockdale, you will win your contest.

Thank you.

William

Postscript notes:

James Stockdale is sometimes remembered as Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential running mate. Perot, also a graduate of the Naval Academy, selected Stockdale based on his belief that Stockdale was a man of spotless character, superior intellect and proven moral courage.  In the Vice Presidential debate, both of his opponents knew his life story and wisely were as respectful as possible. The media did little homework and focused on Stockdale’s deafness (a byproduct of beatings he endured in captivity).  This disrespect initially made me livid, and the public lapping it up made me depressed.  Stockdale would have chided anyone for reacting the way I did. A fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy is being indifferent to the reactions of others.  In time I got over it, but I learned that you can never trust people who endlessly try to reduce the world to sound bites to teach you anything of importance. H.L. Mencken, a real journalist, always pointed out that Americans were drawn to short, simple, and conveniently neat answers … which were invariably wrong. Mencken died in 1956, mercifully before the proliferation of TV news as we know it.

About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

One Response to James Stockdale – Philosophy

  1. Ray Richards says:

    Very well written Sir. I thought that you may enjoy reading a response from someone who has found a considerable applicability in their personal life when related to several of the points you have written about.
    My Daughter is finishing her Freshman “Doolie” year at the United States Air Force Academy. She has been laboring over the selection of her major, running through a number of Engineering options intended to help with her future aspiration of becoming a pilot. Last week, she made a decision that at first seemed quite a departure from her end goal. She decided to select Philosophy as a major. Her reasoning went back to High School when an exceptional Teacher spoke about Admiral Stockdale and his personal success with the effective use of Philosophical teachings to control his own actions through Stoicism and how it has continued to be a model for the development of future Officers. Looking back on those dinner time conversations when her eyes would light up explaining to me the writing’s of Epictetus, it all makes perfect sense that she follow this path of education. I believe that this may be the most valuable decision she will make while preparing to become an effective Air Force Officer, potential Pilot, and any other aspirations she may pursue in the future.
    Thank you for the clean and understandable read. I’m sure my Daughter will enjoy it as well. Perhaps she and I will discuss it, not over the dinner table, but on Skype this evening. Regards, Ray Richards.

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