Book Review: “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot”, by Vice Admiral James Stockdale (USN)

My wife got me the perfect birthday present: Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, by James Stockdale.

Many people remember Stockdale as the VP Candidate for Ross Perot in his 1992 Presidential campaign, who appeared out of his league in the Vice Presidential debate that also featured Sen. Al Gore (D-TN) and Vice President Dan Quayle.

(My theory: Stockdale was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, which ultimately killed him in 2006.)

I was already familiar with some of Stockdale’s backstory. The book was a collection of essays and speeches after his release from the Hanoi Hilton, where he spent 7-1/2 years. The book left me all the more impressed with his accomplishments as well as his character under extreme pressure.

(While Stockdale was a Stoic, one need not be a Stoic–I’m not–to admire the man and his accomplishments. And many of his life lessons offer practical takeaways for the Christian.)

Aviation nuts will eat this up, as well they should. Stockdale was one of the great military pilots of his generation: a graduate of the Naval Academy, a Naval aviator, a test pilot, a fighter wing commander. (During his time at the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, he was a mathematics tutor for celebrated astronaut John Glenn.)

At the top of his game, the Navy sent him to Stanford for graduate studies. While there, he decided to learn philosophy on the side. One of the professors–Phil Rhinelander–obliged him, and got him hooked on Epictetus.

Three years later, he was in the thick of the Vietnam war. He was an eyewitness to the faux “Tonkin Gulf” incident that ignited the American involvement in the war. Stockdale led the first bombing raids. He was on a routine “milk run” bombing when he was shot down and became a POW, spending the ensuing 7-1/2 yrs in the “Hanoi Hilton.”

In his words, as he descended in his parachute to what he knew was certain capture, he was “entering the world of Epictetus.” His worst challenges as a POW were not physical but rather the battle to keep what he called “the good man inside” intact.

As a POW, he was the ranking officer among a group of Americans who were constantly tortured for political purposes: the Communists thrived on getting Americans to confess to crimes, to do propaganda videos, to rat out other prisoners.

Stockdale formulated a strategy for perseverance that he instilled in his fellow POWs: BACK US:

(1) Don’t BOW in public,

(2) Stay off the AIR,

(3) Confess to no CRIMES,

(4) Do not KISS them goodbye,

(5) UNITY over SELF.

It was accepted that everyone would break under torture, but the principle was MAKE THEM EARN IT. In other words, take as much torture as you can handle, then give them as little as possible, and then share that with everyone else for their safety, thereby preventing the enemy to use such triangulation to break other prisoners.

For his part, Stockdale went to great extremes to avoid being used for photo-ops: he beat his face to a pulp; he even slashed himself. At one point, when guards discovered a letter that gave them enough information that they could have tortured confessions out of him to burn others, he attempted suicide in order to protect his men. (Providentially, his wife had made a public statement in Paris regarding POW safety, and his captors–put on notice–found Stockdale bleeding to death. They were able to save him. According to Stockdale, the torture stopped at that point.)

He was the ringleader of a group of POWs who were so resistant to their captors that they were segregated from the other prisoners. They were dubbed “The Alcatraz Gang”. Another member of that gang included Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who–forced to appear in a televised interview–blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code, thus wrecking the photo-op. For that and other actions, Denton was awarded the Navy Cross.

For his dedication in captivity, Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor.

As a Stoic, Epictetus was Stockdale’s major influence. He focused less on his physical state but rather maintaining his self-respect, “the good man inside”.

For a Christian, Jesus taught something similar: “ not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:4-5)

One of Stockdale’s first realizations as a POW was, “I am my brother’s keeper.” And that was a major driver of his conduct in the Hanoi Hilton. Again, the Christian should have no conflict with Stockdale here.

And while Stockdale drew more on Epictetus than from Scripture, the Christian reader of Stockdale will resonate with his takes on Job, and even Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as they understood that (a) life is not fair, and (b) they need to stay the course no matter what.

For someone who was likely not a Christian–Stockdale was a Stoic philosopher who nominally acknowledged Jesus–he understood suffering better than most evangelicals do.

In fact, what we know today as the “Stockdale Paradox”, is a reality that Job, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, the prophets, and Jesus and the Apostles understood long before Stockdale arrived.

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.

Vice Admiral James Stockdale (USNR)

For Stockdale, that meant having the courage to withstand torture–and even years of solitary confinement–without betraying his men or his country. For the Christian, that means having the faith that God will give you the courage to face trials of all types as they come. We all aren’t going to face torture, or death by fire, stoning, hanging, or beheading; we can STILL face family tragedies, job losses, & other calamities.

In the pandemic, most of us have faced serious challenges with lockdowns and various policies centered around distancing. Many had to worship at home via livestream, missing out on contact with friends and family. Many people lost jobs and businesses. Many saw their pay slashed. Many ended up in the hospital; many COVID patients died in misery: alone in an ICU and on a ventilator.

Some of us, in the midst of all of that, had various personal traumas. Life on this earth is not fair. For the Christian, that Stockdale Paradox should resonate, as our faith is in a God who will provide what we need when we need it. And that need often includes perseverance.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego got that: they knew God COULD deliver them from the furnace. But even if He didn’t, they weren’t going to bow down to the statue.

They knew it could get a little warm before things got better. And they still trusted God.

The type of fitness required for this is not a function of your muscles, as the God we serve can deliver a child through a trial that will sink a Crossfitter. But if you have any preconceptions that life is fair, or that your devotion to God will insulate you from tragedies or hardships, then you are setting yourself up for major disappointments.

In fact, I would contend that if you think that life owes you fairness, then you are embracing a form of Prosperity Theology.

As most of the #churchtoo world can attest: life is not fair. You can do everything right and still suffer unjustly. You can be the perfect wife, but that doesn’t guarantee that your husband won’t cheat or beat you up. You can be the perfect husband, and that does not guarantee that your wife won’t ditch you.

When our child was in NICU clinging to life, a man in my church lost his wife–and the kids lost their mom–to cancer. Many years ago, I lost a longtime friend–an otherwise good Christian woman–to breast cancer. When Jesus was an infant, many mothers in Bethlehem could only watch as Herod and his thugs butchered their infants and newborns. Their weeping could be heard all the way in Ramah.

There is no indication from Scripture that those mothers deserved to see their children die. When a Stoic says that “the universe has no moral economy”, he is correct in this respect: there is no guarantee that good will be rewarded and evil will be punished on this earth. The Christian must accept that, in many cases, justice will not happen in this life. For many, the only justice we will see is on Judgment Day. And perseverance means keeping that finish line in sight.

A faith in God won’t necessarily keep you protected FROM tragedy; it WILL manifest itself in God giving you that “discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.” And, as Paul said, “having done everything, to stand firm.”

Women in Ranger School: Two Made It

When the first co-ed Ranger School class began, the first week had much promise: eight of them, out of 19, made it through the first week. This prompted critics to wonder if the standards had been lowered. Personally, I was not so sure: most of RAP week is PT, and there are women who can handle extreme PT.

Then, in the Darby Phase, reality kicked in. Of those eight, five washed out. Three of them, after washing out of Darby twice, were given a “Day 1 restart”, meaning they had to recycle through Ranger School, starting on Day 1 of RAP week.

All three of them made it through RAP week, and all passed the Darby Phase.

One had to recycle the Mountain Phase, and two of them made it through the Mountain Phase.

Those two would go on to complete the Florida Phase–in spite of the lightning–and graduate.

Not surprisingly, both are West Point grads.

While critics may argue that the Ranger School standards were lowered, I’m willing to give these ladies the benefit of the doubt. After all, a lot of men washed out of Ranger School, too.

My argument against women in Ranger School is a cost-benefit issue–and I’ll stick to that, given that, out of over 120 women who volunteered, only 20 qualified to get in, and only 19 showed up for the first day, and only 2 made it–and not about whether some can handle it.

Still, I’ll tip my cap to these two who earned the Ranger Tab. That is quite an accomplishment.

Women in Ranger School, Part 3

That eight women made it through RAP week of Ranger School was impressive. I didn’t think that many would make it into the Darby Phase.

While none of the eight passed the Darby Phase on the first try, they were eligible to recycle.

However, none made it on the second try: five were bounced out of Ranger School, while three are eligible for a “Day 1 Recycle”: they will have to re-take Ranger School, starting with RAP week.

Women in Ranger School, Part 2

The first co-ed Ranger School class began on April 20 with great fanfare and promise: of the the 19 women who showed up, only three failed the first day. In percentage terms, their Day 1 performance was better than the men.

By the end of the week, however, only 8 of those women remained. Still, that was better than many skeptics–myself included–were predicting. I figured a couple would make it to the Darby Phase, and none would make it to the Florida Phase.

Well, if this is any indication, I was half correct: all 8 women failed the Darby Phase and must re-take it.

While it is not at all uncommon for Ranger School grads to “recycle” at least one phase–most in fact end up doing that–it’s going to be a tall order for these gals to regroup after the Darby Phase, given that (a) two phases–the Mountain Phase and the Florida Phase–remain, and those are harder, and (b) the extra endurance load that this requires on their bodies.

Weight loss of at least 20 pounds is very common in Ranger School, and it’s not like the women have that much weight to lose to begin with. Having to recycle is going to subject them to extra food deprivation. It’s tough enough if you’re a 220-pound linebacker; it’s not as easy if you’re a 140-pound woman who is lean.

Psychologically, it’s one thing to recycle the “Florida Phase”, when you know it’s the last one, whereas the Darby Phase is only the first phase. It can be done, but the eight women who are recycling now have their work cut out for them.

If they make it through Darby, then more power to them.

Having said that, their road just got an order of magnitude tougher.

New Book About Korean War and No Kum-Sok

Blaine Harden, author of Escape From Camp 14, has written a new book, The Great Leader And The Fighter Pilot, which chronicles the rise of Kim Il-Sung, key milestones in the Korean War, and the life of No Kum-Sok (Kenneth Rowe), who would defect to the United States by flying a MiG-15 into Kimpo Air Base in South Korea on 21 September 1953.

In 1996, No and Embry-Riddle humanities professor Roger Osterholm co-wrote A MiG-15 to Freedom.

Both are absolutely fascinating reads.

Wasted Ranger School Slots?

It appears that Fort Benning is going to be seeing women in the next cycle of Ranger School.

Personally, I think the Army is wasting time here. While it is entirely possible that there may be a woman or two who are capable of handling the physical and psychological rigors of Ranger School, I find it highly improbable. Among the guys, getting into Ranger School is not easy, and–even then–a lot of folks get punched out in the FIRST DAY.

The endurance challenge alone causes many otherwise good men to drop. Others get bounced for performance: they weather the storm, but perhaps don’t show adequate leadership worthy of the Ranger Tab.

If the Marine Corps infantry courses–enlisted and officer–are any indication, the women are going to get dropped in droves out of Ranger School. To date, only four women have passed the Marine Corps Infantry basic course, and ZERO have passed the officer version.

And Ranger School is harder than that.

Maybe Professor Hale has other thoughts on this, but I just don’t see this working out well at all.

He Was An Idiot

I don’t usually say this about folks in our military Special Operations community, as they tend to be fairly bright folks. The person in question in this case, in fact, was in SEAL Team 6/DEVGRU/Whatever its real name is, and was supposedly involved in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. So I know he isn’t a stupid man.

But seriously, I’m not even in the military and EVEN I know that, if you leave short of 20 years, you are not going to be eligible for retirement benefits.

As for whether he was the trigger man who shot Osama bin Laden, we may never know. Still, I believe Matt Bissonette’s story–chronicled in the book No Easy Day. The outcry against Bissonette has not been with regard to his accuracy, but rather his telling of the story. That tells me he is probably on the money.

Whoever this guy is who calls himself “The Shooter”, why can’t he go into security work. I hear that SEALs and Rangers and Special Operators–who leave the service–are fetching pretty high dollars in security work. I’d say that being a veteran of SEAL Team 6–which typically has the best of the best of the SEAL community–would carry an advantage going into such work.

On the Brink with North Korea

The Korean War never really ended. Only a truce prevents the resumption of hostilities. Should those resume, it will be ugly all the way around, with high death tolls among our troops, the South Koreans, and the North Koreans. We could lose more troops in the first month of a resumed Korean War than we lost in the last ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And no one will win.

We will suffer because we lacked the determination to finish the job 60 years ago. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had the right strategy. We could have beaten China and Russia. It would have been ugly, but had we done the job then, there would have been no Vietnam, no Cultural Revolution in China, no slaughter in Cambodia, no Fidel Castro in Cuba, no Che Guevara, and the North Koreans would be part of a free Korea.

It would not have been the end of evil–countries have an uncanny habit of finding excuses to fight each other–but we would have slain the diabolical monster known as Marxist-Leninism, which has killed more people in peacetime than anything else in world history. But Truman lacked the stones.

And China will pay a huge price as well: without their active–and passive–aid of North Korea, MacArthur would have steamrolled North Korea. While we initially had a bad start in that war, we recovered well and were on the way to victory. That is, until China started sending troops across the Yalu River.

Now, China has to deal with a nuclear threat next door, which has a starving population and very unstable leadership in both military and executive levels.

So here we are today.