How a Soldier Captured in Vietnam Was Saved by Greek Philosophy

By Rick Larson
Commander James Bond “Jim” Stockdale was a vice admiral and aviator in the U.S. Navy, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor- the nation’s highest military honor, given for personal acts of valor that goes above, and beyond the call of duty.

Taken prisoner of war

During one of his deployments in North Vietnam, while he was Commander of Carrier Air Wing Sixteen aboard the carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34), Stockdale and his A-4 Skyhawk were shot down, and he was forced to eject form his cockpit on September 9, 1965. Upon landing within a small village, Jim was overpowered, severely beaten, and taken as a hostage.

These eleven men were subjected to heinous torture and deprivation tactics.

For the next seven and a half years, Stockdale would be held as a P.O.W. within the Hoa Lo Prison, infamously known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. As a senior officer within the Navy, he was one of the main organizers of P.O.W. resistance. Jim was one of eleven U.S. prisoners known as the “Alcatraz Gang”.

These eleven men were subjected to heinous torture and deprivation tactics. Each was kept in their own concrete 3 by 9-foot cell without windows, a single light that was kept on continuously, and their legs locked in leg irons each night (Stockdale had a leg that suffered brutal damage during capture and was denied medical attention) over a more than four-year span.

Saved by an ancient philosophy book

Stockdale never once lost faith of his eventual safe return home. This is due to a book he received after finishing graduate school at Stanford, “Enchiridion”, a 1st century Stoic handbook written by Epictetus. Epictetus was a slave from around the time of Nero. Little did he know at the time, how much this book really would mean to him.

The Enchiridion, by Epictetus

In his book, Epictetus famously wrote “Our thoughts are up to us, and our impulses, desires, and aversions — in short, whatever is our doing … Of things that are outside your control, say they are nothing to you.” This would set the tone for Stockdale’s captivity, identifying what he could and could not control. What could be controlled were the things that mattered most to him, and emotions and reactions to such things would ultimately would decide his fate.

What is Stoic philosophy?

Reducing vulnerability is the overall idea of the Stoic Doctrine, and starts off at the place where Aristotle’s work ended. The main component of happiness is virtue, which in itself, becomes purified, solely based on reasoning and without ordinary emotions that attach themselves to situations and objects that are not within our control.


Stockdale learned and practiced the overall importance of seeing bad within the world and his personal scenario, and not letting emotions take over, but rather, to react and carry himself in the highest of moral standards and practices that he could.

In a 1993 speech, Stockdale recalls the day his plane went down, and the thoughts running through his head, “… as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept 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, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are “external,” beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement.”

Commander Stockdale was born December 23, 1923, and lived until July 5, 2005. Though he is no longer living, James Stockdale will forever go down in history as an example of what the human mind and body are capable of enduring when faith is never lost. James Stockdale is also one of the highest decorated Naval officers of all time.

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About the Author

Rick Larson Jr.
Rick Larson Jr. has educational experience in colonial America, the American Revolution and Civil war, the U.S. Constitution, American History from 1867-Present, American Military history, World-War II, along with Ancient and Modern World history. He has a passion for all aspects of History, with his main fascination and focus being American history.

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