After graduating from Northwestern University, he became a naval aviator in 1953 and served as an intelligence officer, going on to command various naval intelligence units until he retired in 1975. He later held several senior executive posts in private-sector companies. Following that, he began to dabble in writing.
Jim was working on Stars in Blue, a book he was writing about celebrities in the U.S. Navy with Annie Rehill, when the phone rang at home one day. His wife answered, and the caller said he was Paul Newman. “Oh, sure it is,” she said, and handed the phone to Jim. Turns out it was, indeed, the multi-Oscar winner, a Navy veteran who called to tell Jim he found a photo of himself on the deck of a ship he served in.
It is almost as if the authors were there beside Jim Stockdale while he was in the Maison Centrale (Hanoi Hilton). There are a few figures in each generation that rise above the norm to show the way by word and deed – who walk the walk as well as talk the talk. CAG (Carrier Air Group Commander) Stockdale was one of the rare few you would see at Thermopylae, Rorke’s Drift, Omaha Beach or Amarageddon leading the charge or holding the line.
This work would have been enriched by including as an appendix CAG’s remarks to his Air Wing prior to his shoot-down:
“Commander Jim Stockdale was the archetypal air wing commander. He commanded Carrier Air Wing 16 during the 1965 cruise, and set the stage for the air wing’s accomplishments during Rolling Thunder. Stockdale took command of the air wing in April 1965, after commanding VF-51, a fighter squadron on the USS Ticonderoga. As the Ticonderoga was already on station in the Tonkin Gulf, Stockdale had a wealth of experience concerning operations in Vietnam. He had been airborne as the on-scene-commander during the Tonkin Gulf Incident. He also took part in several of the reprisal raids in the rapidly escalating air war. These experiences made him uniquely suited for command of the Oriskany’s air wing as she departed for her first Vietnam War cruise.
Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, editor of our just-published 21st Century Mahan, is the 2013 recipient of the Navy League’s Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Literary Achievement, a highly prestigious award for an officer at the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
The Alfred Thayer Mahan Award is named for the famous naval theorist who, through his writing, provided vital stimulus and guidance to those who share in the defense of the nation. Presented since 1957, this award for literary achievement is awarded to a Navy officer, Marine Corps officer, enlisted service member, or civilian who has made a notable literary contribution that has advanced the knowledge of the importance of sea power in the United States. BJ follows in the footsteps of many notable Naval Institute authors…including ADM James G. Stavridis, USN, CAPT Henry (Jerry) H. Hendrix, USN, CAPT Edward L. Beach Jr., USN, VADM William P. Mack, USN, LtGen Victor Krulak, USMC, Dr. Jack Sweetman, LCDR Thomas J. Cutler, USN, Dr. John T. Mason Jr., Paul Stillwell, Col Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.), BGen Edwin H. Simmons, USMC (Ret.), Col John G. Miller, USMC (Ret.), and ADM James L. Holloway III, USN to name just a few.
LCDR “BJ” Armstrong is a Mahan enthusiast, for whom the award is named, and has published numerous posts about him in The Proceedings, Naval History Magazine, and on the USNI blog. He is also a recipient of the Naval HIstory and Heritage Command’s Samuel Eliot Morison Supplemental Scholarship, named after Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR, an eminent naval and maritime historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
The new Naval Institute Press book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” was released over the weekend. It is available at our bookstore, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ebook editions will soon be available. But why should readers care “What would Alfred Thayer Mahan Do?” Over the last century a few folks have made some suggestions.
“Captain Mahan has done more than write a new book upon naval history. He has even done more than write the best book that has ever been written upon naval history, though he has done that likewise; for he has written a book which, to use a somewhat objectionable phrase, may be regarded as founding a new school of naval historical writing. … His books are not only remarkable because of the philosophic standpoint from which they are written, because of his grasp of the subject and familiarity with all the facts bearing upon it, great and small; but they are remarkable also for the beauty of their style and the skill with which he has subordinated the lesser to the main points of interest.” – Theodore Roosevelt.
“There is no doubt that Mahan laid the foundation for a theoretical understanding of navies as well as contributed to the rise of the U.S. Navy to great power status.” – John Hattendorf
“After his death in 1914 he gained renewed stature as the high priest of American navalism, whose strategic writings were its holy writ.” – Russell Weigley
“No other single person has so directly and profoundly influenced the theory of sea power and naval strategy as Alfred Thayer Mahan.” – Margaret Sprout
“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept [Mahan's] guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realms of war and politics.” – Jon Sumida
“He asked his Navy and his nation some very difficult and pertinent questions, questions still relevant, questions each generation must ask and answer anew: What exactly is the nature of America’s ‘national interests’? How shall the U.S. Navy best be used as an ‘instrument of national policy’? What is the proper relationship between a nation’s sea power and its diplomatic objectives? What are the ‘moral’ dimensions of the employment of military force? How shall the U.S. ships and fleets be best armed, supplied, and deployed? How much navy is enough navy?” – Robert Seager II
As an introduction to Alfred Thayer Mahan, before you start reading “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era“, here at USNI Blog we offer the obituary and “In Memoriam” article published in Proceedings in January, 1915.
To very few has it been given so to influence the current of men’s thoughts as vitally to affect human development and even to shape the course of history itself. The dominance of the Aristotelian philosophy in the intellectual world of Europe endured for twenty centuries until .displaced by Bacon’s Novum Organum. In more recent times, the Social Contract of Jean Jacques Rousseau is admitted to have played no small part among the determining causes of the French Revolution. Without a Treitschke, Pan-Germanism would have remained a vague aspiration indulged in by a restricted circle of German thinkers. It is needless to multiply instances in which the ideas of one man have directed the current of events; the fact itself is too widely accepted to require demonstration. Among the number of those who have swayed their fellows, opened their eyes to a wider vision, pointed out the hazards in their path and the channel leading through those hazards to national or individual safety beyond, sober judgment must include that member of our own profession who, after an honorable career during which he shed a luster upon the American Navy of which all Americans are proud, none so much so as his brother officers, has recently departed from our midst leaving behind him a stainless record and a place unfilled and unfillable. It were well could we look for a second Mahan with his vast knowledge and accurate logic, but candor forbids us to expect. We are only permitted to hope-and in how many doubts that hope is shrouded-that as time goes on another may arise endowed with like passion for truth, like ability and the like gift of making clear and obvious what all have gazed upon without seeing.
Three natures were combined in this exceptional personality. First of all was the Christian gentleman, devout and earnest, giving daily, practical, outward expression to an inward conviction at once sincere and fundamental. His belief in Christ’s mission and in the world to come as revealed in Holy Writ was without shadow or question. Things earthly and material might not be what they seemed. Errare est humanum. Even so well poised a mind as his might be mistaken in its findings, but no possible chance of going astray existed or could exist in complete reliance on the promises of his Lord and Master to all those who truly follow Him. And follow Him Mahan did loyally throughout his years from youth to age. His abiding sense of duty, the keynote of his character, forbade a merely perfunctory compliance with ecclesiastical requirements and forced him to take active part in the management of the religious communities to which, from time to time and in various places, he belonged and to represent them at annual conventions of the Protestant Episcopal Church. For many years he was connected with its Board of Missions and with the Church Institute for Seamen. During a shorter period he was a member of the Church Institute and of the Church Mission for Help. All his charitable interests lay in the church through which alone, to the extent of his means, he sought to aid his fellow men. This devotion to his church was the manifestation of a faith which controlled every thought and every act of his life. All his serious undertakings, all his important letters even, were preceded by an appeal for Divine guidance. It is impossible to understand Mahan unless this mental attitude is recognized in its full power. Those ignorant of this side of his character may read his little book, “The Harvest Within,” and in the reading find profit to their own souls.
In his recent editorial in the Washington Post, Naval Academy professor Dr. Bruce Fleming asserts that leadership is the “snake oil” for today’s military and that organizations — civilian and military alike — are infatuated with it as the antidote to all organizations’ problems. He has a point. Leadership training as the single answer rings hollow. As he also suggests, teaching leadership may be a futile exercise. But he is wrong to say that “there’s no proof [leadership] has any benefit at all — or for that matter, even exists.”
On the contrary, good leadership and the powerful culture that it engenders can make the difference between a solvent company and a profitable one. Jim Collins’ Good to Great book research found virtually all the companies that outperformed their industry peers in the marketplace for sustained periods of time had what Collins called “Level Five” leaders, executives who exhibit a rare combination of deep personal humility and intense resolve.
In a military organization, leadership can make the difference between life and death. Forty years ago, 591 prisoners of war returned home alive from North Vietnam after the longest period of wartime incarceration in our nation’s history. They remained unified in their resistance to their captors and unified in their adherence to a mission: Return with Honor. To this day, they have one of the lowest rates of PTSD of any group of combat veterans: a lifetime average of 4%. And their leaders, especially Vice Adm. James Stockdale, made the unquestionable difference.
Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a former POW, recalls one hot summer night in 1967 when he shared a cell with Stockdale, the senior ranking officer of the group. They were trying to communicate with recent “shoot-downs,” other aviators whose planes had been recently shot down. As Mr. Johnson describes it, “They were scared, for good reason. We wanted to talk to them and make them know that there were other Americans around.” The communications system was the POWs’ lifeblood, but the risks for using it were high. When possible, the POWs assigned at least one man the task of “clearing,” or alerting other POWs of a guard’s impending approach.
“Jim would get on the floor and ‘clear’ and I’d get up on the concrete bunk and talk to [a new guy] down the back side out of the window. We happened to be on the back of the jail. We would tell him essentially how the cow eats the cabbage [how the things worked in the prison system] and, that ‘you’re going to be all right.’”
On this particular night, they were finally caught. “The guard and an officer came charging down the hall. Jim barely got up before the door opened. I’m standing there and the door pops open and here’s this little North Vietnamese guy wearing Air Force 2nd Lieutenant bars. Turns out he was a camp commander. He wasn’t a lieutenant – he was masquerading as one. Jim hauled off and decked him right there. Just knocked him down. And, I thought, ‘…We’re in deep serious now.’ And we were.”
Punishment was immediate and harsh. Mr. Johnson spent 72 days in leg stocks in a small cell with the windows boarded up. He quietly notes, “Jim got the worst punishment.”
Why did Stockdale intentionally assault the camp commander by punching him in the face? An irrational outburst of anger or violence was completely out of character for this Stanford-educated philosopher. He was noted around the camp for his towering intellect, not his emotional volatility.
Mr. Johnson pauses for a long moment before answering that question, choosing his words deliberately. “Frankly, I think he was protecting me. You know, that’s a characteristic of leadership.”
Stockdale exhibited several noteworthy characteristics of a great leader that day. He stayed focused on the POWs’ agreed-upon mission, he chose his battle carefully and — without fear of personal consequences — he sacrificed himself to protect those under him. He asked nothing of his followers that he would not first deliver himself. When pain was on the agenda, Stockdale didn’t delegate. He led.
Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland are the co-authors of the new book, Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the homecoming of our Vietnam POWs, a group of men who still rank as the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history. Most of the men are still alive and well, enjoying their second chance at freedom. But their leader, Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale, is not. He died in 2005. On this Memorial Day, it is fitting to remember this man who left a legacy of unparalleled leadership. The key to his success was in his leadership philosophy.
As Stockdale floated slowly down to certain capture and imprisonment by the North Vietnamese enemy after his plane was shot down, he recalled the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “I remembered the basic truth of subjective consciousness as the ability to distinguish what is in my power from that which is not…I knew that self-discipline would provide the balance I would need in the contest of high stakes.”
When he arrived at the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison where the majority of the POWs were held, Stockdale entered a world in which many POWs had already shown selflessness and commitment to each other. As the senior ranking officer, Stockdale was anointed their leader, responsible for governing their conduct and keeping the group of men unified in their resistance.
He knew the Code of Conduct, the rules that govern the behavior of American prisoners of war. But, he also knew these guidelines wouldn’t be enough. And so he dug into his bag of memories from his studies of Epictetus and remembered some of the teachings: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them”; “Do not be concerned with things which are beyond your power”; and “Demand not that events should happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen and you will go on well.”
In other words, you don’t get to choose your plight. You do get to choose how you react to it.
He and the POWs were faced with a Hobson’s choice. They learned quickly that they would all eventually break under enough torture and thus violate the Code of Conduct and risk military disgrace. If they resisted, they would be tortured until they submitted—for information that had no intelligence value and that was certainly not worth their life or a limb. So, Stockdale made the difficult decision that laid a foundation for a self-sustaining organization. He instructed the POWs to resist their captors to the best of their ability. If they reached their breaking point, they should fall back on deceit and distortion—giving false, misleading or ludicrous information. Finally, Stockdale insisted that the POWs force their captors to start over at each interrogation session. This innovation allowed for failure in the moment without failure in the mission.
These strategies and tactics conformed to the Code of Conduct where they could. When necessary, Stockdale created a new path by giving each POW the responsibility of deciding how to resist. Collectively, under these new guidelines, the POWs set a goal of giving every man a chance to achieve their group mission: Return with Honor.
This act earned the POWs’ respect. Stockdale, after all, shared their pain (literally) and understood the seemingly impossible predicament these men faced. Effective resistance couldn’t be centered on Herculean displays of pain tolerance or arbitrary goal lines. Instead, Stockdale made commitment, persistence, and unity the driving objective. Stockdale was, by virtue of his rank, the man in the corner cell—the boss. But decisions like these made him their leader.
Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Peter Fretwell are the co-authors of the new book, Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams.
The U.S. Naval Institute is having a meetup in Virginia Beach during EAST 2013!
Come talk with members and non-members alike about issues for the sea services. Special guests include Eric Wertheim, VADM William Crowder, USN (Ret.), VADM Thomas Kilcline, USN (Ret.), and VADM Peter H. Daly, USN (Ret.) the CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute.
Tuesday, May 14 2013 6:00pm – 7:30pm
Virginia Beach Town Center
244 Market Street
Virginia Beach, VA 23462
Use the hashtag #usnimeetup for this event.
ANNAPOLIS, MD – The U.S. Naval Institute announces with distinct pleasure that Admiral James G. Stavridis, U.S. Navy, accepted the appointment as the U.S. Naval Institute’s Chair of the Board of Directors. Admiral Stavridis’ appointment will take effect following his anticipated retirement from active duty in mid- summer 2013.
Admiral Stavridis anticipates departing his current duties this summer as combatant commander for all U.S. forces in Europe; as Commander, European Command; and as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, posts he has held since early summer 2009. In his role as Supreme Allied Commander, he has directed the NATO efforts in Afghanistan, commanded the NATO operations in Libya in 2011, led security in the Balkans, developed a successful counter- piracy campaign off the coast of East Africa, implemented an improved missile-defense posture for Europe and successfully expanded alliance partnerships throughout the world.
The U.S. Naval Institute’s Authors of the Year for 2012 will be honored today at our 139th Annual Meeting.
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