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: “..do 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.”

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

  1. one of the best things you’ve written.

    so much truth in here.

    i taught my girls from itty-bitty that life is not fair, just, or equal. they’d squeal, “That’s not fair!” I’d respond, “Life is not fair, just, or equal; add it to the list.” so then they started saying, “That’s not fair, and I don’t want to add it to the list!” LOL!

    i think we’d like to get to a plateau, sometime, where we just get a break from it. but i don’t think we do this side of eternity, or at least that’s what i’m figuring these days 🙂

    • The premise that life is not fair is something that Stockdale understood well. I do take issue with his premise that God is not good–he looked at the universe as having “no moral economy”, and in that calculus, he was more of a functional Deist.

      The Christian understanding is that God is good, and that the earth–while reflecting His handiwork–is cursed due to human sin. In that respect, while we have the capacity to understand good and evil–and justice–there is no moral economic balance in our temporal frame of reference.

      Looking at Stockdale’s presentation of Epictetus, I can understand how that framework would appeal to a military man. Get a unit where the men are mentally as tough as Epictetus, and you have a band of super warriors.

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