Archive for the 'History' Category
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.
Stephen Rodrick’s father, Commander Peter Rodrick, was the skipper of VAQ-135 and an EA-6B Prowler pilot who was killed off the Kitty Hawk when Stephen was thirteen. In his book, The Magical Stranger, Rodrick re-traces his father’s life by talking with his friends and squadron mates. But to get a full feeling for his father’s experiences, Rodrick followed his dad’s old squadron for two years as they prepared to deploy to the Persian Gulf for missions over Afghanistan. He established a particular kinship with Commander James Hunter ‘Tupper’ Ware, a man about to take his dad’s old job.
Commander James Hunter Ware III carefully laid out a white uniform on the bed in his Anacortes, Washington, home. He took out a ruler and made sure his medals were perfectly aligned, a trick he learned at the Naval Academy. On paper, he was the American man as hero. There was the buzz cut, the flight jacket, and a cowboy’s squint. His garage housed his Harley, a beat-up Ford pickup truck, a still for his nasty homemade hard cider, and license plates from five states. He was an Eagle Scout, an Annapolis grad, and a former test pilot. For a decade, he had flown in harm’s way—most recently jamming Taliban communications in the skies above Afghanistan—and then landed his EA-6B Prowler in the dark on the deck of a carrier. There were ribbons on his uniform to prove it.
Tonight, Ware dressed for VAQ-135’s dining-out, a formal dinner marking the squadron’s change of command. Tomorrow, he would become skipper of a squadron heading to sea, the Navy’s glamour job.
There was so much he wanted to do. He’d been in enough squadrons where number chasing was the only goal: percentage of sorties completed, percentage of sailors promoted, percentage of wives participating in Toys for Tots, blah, blah, blah. The Navy was no longer about sailors, thought Hunter;
it was about stats and checking boxes. As far as he knew, a stat wasn’t what would get a Prowler aboard a carrier in a driving rainstorm. It was the 167 men and women of VAQ-135, and they’d have to do it with the four oldest EA-6B Prowlers in the fleet.
Ware knew it sounded new agey, but his command was going to stress “sailors taking care of sailors.” That didn’t mean screwups and misconduct would be ignored—Ware had no tolerance for shitty sailors and excuses—but it did mean looking out for one another, taking personal responsibility, and not passing the buck—long a VAQ-135 staple. Ware guessed if he could pull that off, not nearly as easy as it sounded, getting jets in the air and getting jets home safe wouldn’t be a problem. Promotions and sortie completion quotas would follow, and pretty soon he’d have his dream: the top electronic attack squadron in the U.S. Navy. If all that happened, his own future—he had dreams of commanding his own ship—would be his to write.
Ware could change lives with a signature, but at home he was still a figurehead king. Downstairs, he could hear his daughters—twelve-year-old Brenna and ten-year-old Caitlin—chattering with his wife, Beth, and his mother, Cindy, about dance classes, Harry Potter, and sleepovers. He caught snippets of dialogue as he drifted in and out of ear-shot. He knew his daughters better than most Navy dads, but sometimes he felt like a stranger in his own home, trying to understand a language not his own.
Ware spent a lot of time laughing about how little power he held over his own life. (It beat crying.) A Pentagon fleet monkey decided when he came and went. Another fleet monkey ruled on his screwups. Entire days were spent trying to protect himself and his sailors from the flying bullshit being pushed by men living in the D.C. echo chamber—men who hadn’t been to sea for years, men who had forgotten what it was like to spend eight months away, missing babies being born.
In reality, Ware didn’t even hold the deed to his own name. He was named James after his father and grandfather, but raised as Hunter, shortened to Hunt by his mom and Beth. But that was only within the confines of his Anacortes home, a twenty-minute drive from the back gate of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. In the Navy, Ware was known by his call sign, “Tupper,” a not-clever play on his last name. Ware grew up dreaming of Maverick and Ice, so he didn’t much like being known by the trademarked name of a brand of plastic containers. Still, he knew it could be much worse: The Black Ravens’ ready room featured a Crapper and a Turd. In the real Navy, call signs were ego-killing nicknames designed to strip away rank and privilege, making everyone equal in the cockpit—a good thing when skies turned black. Tupper knew call signs would be gone soon, or at least the R-rated ones—victims of a politically correct Navy hell-bent on not offending anyone. Sure, it would suck to tell your son that your call sign was slang for shit, but where was the line? He didn’t know. He was serving in a Navy that was waging two wars while afraid of its own shadow.
Sometimes, he had to remind himself why he got into the flying business. It was simple: he had no choice. He knew it sounded corny, but when he saw Top Gun at sixteen, that was it. Suddenly, every conversation was about Annapolis, flying
jets off carriers, and the need for speed. (He wrecked three cars in high school.) Spare quarters were spent down at the arcade playing After Burner, a Navy pilot video game. There was no Plan B. The Air Force Academy sent a representative to his house and promised Tupper a slot if he wanted it. Tupper shook his hand and looked him in the eye.
“Thanks, but I’m not interested. I want to fly jets off carriers.”
But now even flying jets off carriers had lost some of its allure: too many rules and regs to follow. Couldn’t fly the Prowler below 500 feet, couldn’t make a hard break toward the carrier at more than 350 knots. Sometimes, Tupper muttered to himself: “What the hell is this? The goddamned Air Force?”
And the paperwork! Forms for this, forms for that. Fit reps to write, everyone gets an award come end of cruise. Jesus Christ! Sometimes he felt like Dilbert with gold wings.
But he pushed all of that out of his mind. Tomorrow was what mattered. “Concentrate on the important things,” he told himself. “This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
Beth came into the room. “Hunt, we’ve got to go in ten minutes.”
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.
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.
As this week’s addition to the USNI Blog series in the run up to the release of LCDR BJ Armstrong’s book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” we are republishing his article from the May issue of Proceedings. The call for sailors and Marines to become active participants in the debates of the 21st century has long been a rallying cry here at USNI. From Senior Chief Murphy’s “A Pseudo-Intellectual Wanna-be” in the March issue to the 2008 article “Read, Think, Write, and Publish” by ADM Jim Stavridis. While critical for the future of the Sea Services, it also applies to our brothers and sisters in arms, as illustrated by Jason Fritz at FP’s Best Defense Blog.
When the latest issue of Proceedings arrived in June 1906, Naval Institute members and the American people heard from a renowned global expert, a retired naval officer whose pen had been quiet for some months. His name was Alfred Thayer Mahan. His article, “Reflections, Historic and Other, Suggested by the Battle of the Japan Sea,” derived from the recent Russo-Japanese naval war lessons for U.S. fleet design and battleship construction. Just a few years away from Great Britain’s launch of HMS Dreadnought , which would revolutionize ship design by bringing speed together with an all-big-gun main battery, Mahan advocated for smaller and more numerous ships with mixed batteries of different calibers. As the leading naval expert, Mahan’s articles were voraciously read worldwide, and his analysis matched well with the “Big Navy” party line.
The U.S. Naval Institute, then as today, was a members’ organization. It didn’t exist for the sake of itself, but to share ideas and debate the future of the Sea Services. A naval arms race was developing in Europe; after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, the nation stepped onto the global stage as a naval power. A year away from the Great White Fleet sailing around the world, the USNI members understood that their ideas, innovations, and wisdom mattered. Even though many considered Mahan the greatest living navalist and a strategic genius, he was not impervious to challenges from Naval Institute members.
In the December issue of Proceedings, a member responded to Mahan’s assertions. The article didn’t come from a civilian contractor who was building the next set of battleships, or from an academic expert who made his living advising politicians. The response came from an upstart lieutenant commander on staff duty in Washington, D.C. Then-Commander Mahan had once written him up for being disorderly at the Naval Academy as a first-class midshipman. Lieutenant Commander William Sims’ article “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One Calibre Battleships” dissected and refuted Mahan’s arguments. He argued that “if we are to remain a world power,” the large, fast, heavily gunned battleship was the future of naval warfare.
President Theodore Roosevelt read with great interest the exchange between the renowned, retired officer and the active-duty staff officer. The articles were republished in public-affairs magazines and entered into the record during debate on the floor of the Senate. The names of two great officers and naval thinkers make the story interesting, but it was the mission and membership of the Naval Institute that made it possible. The exchange didn’t happen in the pages of The Atlantic or Harper’s. It happened in Proceedings. Both men were USNI members and understood that ensuring the future of their Navy required discussion, debate, and participation of the membership.
In the case of battleship design, the lieutenant commander won the debate. After studying the response and new information about the Pacific battles, Mahan admitted that his argument didn’t stand up. Nevertheless, his expertise and experience as a retired naval officer-turned-civilian expert was central to the development of the future Fleet, as was his willingness to debate an upstart like Sims. The Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought before the United States could put its first large, fast, heavily gunned battleship to sea. But we weren’t far behind, because the ideas had already been debated in Proceedings.
In the first decade of the 1900s, the United States was fighting a counterinsurgency war in the Philippines. An Asian power, the Empire of Japan, was rising to become a major economic and military force, rapidly building up its navy. USNI members faced shifting alliances and adversaries, new technologies, tactical innovation, and globalized economics. These challenges should sound familiar today. We need the expertise and experience of our senior members to keep us from repeating past mistakes. We also require the exciting and innovative ideas of new, younger members, junior officers and enlisted personnel, to propel the discussion and debate forward.
The pages of Proceedings (and USNI Blog!) need your well-developed research, thoughtful articles, and best ideas to ensure that we continue the vital debate in the 21st century. To provide an independent forum to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and national defense, we must first have those who dare to read, think, speak, and write. The U.S. Naval Institute is a members’ organization—help us continue the debate!
As this week’s addition to the USNI Blog series in the run up to the release of LCDR BJ Armstrong’s book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” we are republishing this post from USNI NEWS. First published July 7th of last year, it remains a relevant discussion today. The potential for negative impacts from globalization was the subject of ADM James Stavridis’s oped “The Dark Side of Globalization” in the Washington Post on Sunday, and it reminds us of the dangers that Mahan saw in an interconnected world.
“It seems demonstrable, therefore, that as commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world to day… The instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”
– CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan
Much of today’s discussion of international relations is based around the core idea that globalization has radically changed the political landscape of the world. Today’s thinkers, writers, and strategists tell us that because the world is flat, and we are closer to each other than ever before, we are in uncharted seas. In 2011 LCDR Matt Harper suggested in an award winning article in the pages of Proceedings that the economic ties between China and the United States, the “WALMART factor,” made military conflict almost impossible. Recently the discussion has once again been taken up in the pages of Proceedings. In the April issue LCDR Rachel Gosnell and 2LT Michael Orzetti wrote a piece suggesting that great power conflict was still something that should be planned for in the twenty-first century. LT Doug Robb responded in May with his Now Hear This…, “Why the Age of Great Power Conflict is Over.” He made a familiar case familiar to readers of the writing of Tom Friedman today or the idealism of Norman Angell, early in the last century.
Both articles suggest that this is a new question and the question is a new challenge to be tackled. The dawn of the twenty-first century, however, is not the first time that the world has dealt with globalization. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about it in a number of his essays at the turn of the last century. In 1905 he published “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies,” which opened with what he called “an antecedent appreciation of the political, commercial, and military exigencies of the state.” He felt that before he discussed how and where naval forces should be deployed it was important to first talk about the condition and political state of the world because the use and deployment of a fleet in peacetime should be done in anticipation of the needs of war. ATM believed that any military policy had to be in tune with political and economic realities. This opening discussion centers around what readers in the twenty-first century recognize as globalization.
The adoption of steam power, transatlantic telegraph cables, and wireless telegraph technology had dramatically shortened the connections around the world. This created a global economic and political system that ATM called “an articulated whole.” He foresaw that as commerce and economic considerations increased in their power, there would be a desire to maintain the global status quo for reasons of economic power. The economic, political and military power of a nation, according to ATM, was all intertwined and he wrote, “This is the more necessary to observe, because, while commerce thus on the one hand deters from war, on the other hand it engenders conflict, fostering ambitions and strifes which tend towards armed conflict.”
In other writings ATM warned that “civilizations on different planes of material prosperity and progress, with different spiritual ideals, and with very different political capacities, are fast closing together.” He saw the rise of new powers in Asia as a source of future conflict. When the rising powers and the great powers come into commercial and economic competition ATM saw it as a recipe for the development of armed conflict. With economic conflict leading to potential political conflict, which would lead to military conflict, he believed that America required a solid strategy based in naval strength. Why? Because, “it seems demonstrable, therefore, that as commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world today, so, in consequence of its acquired expansion, oversea commerce, oversea political acquisition, and maritime commercial routes are now the primary objects of external policy among nations. The instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”
There is a common tendency for us to look at our challenges and strategic questions as new, with more complexity, or wickedness, or whatever other new adjective we can think of, than ever before. However, history and the strategic thinking of the past frequently helps us develop the right approaches to those questions, or can provide realistic starting points for debate and research. Reading and studying ATM, who addressed globalization in his thinking and writing, can help add to our modern discussion, debate, and strategy formulation.
Historian and researcher Nate Jones of the National Security Archive marks the 30th anniversary of a tension filled year in Cold War history by publishing an interesting three part series on the geopolitical gamesmanship that occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1983. At the center of Jones’ research are the events that preceded and culminated in NATO exercises ABLE ARCHER and REFORGER. Jones posts an impressive collection of recently declassified documents that will certainly be of interest to Cold War historians and those on active duty during this period.
As the 1980s were known as the decade of “Maritime Strategy”, naval forces certainly played a vital role in this period of escalated tension.. As Benjamin Fischer of the Central Intelligence Agency recounts:
Last night I got to visit with a good friend who is about to retire. We spent most of the visit talking about her post-retirement project, which was fitting for Memorial Day: the day after her retirement ceremony, she is embarking on a cross-country bike ride to meet with and interview Gold Star Mothers. The purpose of her ride is to focus on the families and the sons and daughters they lost, to give a voice to the memories that they have, and to remember. She’ll ride from state to state, and as she completes each day or more of riding, she will meet these families and conduct interviews. The interviews are not so much formal interviews as they are a way for these families to share their memories of their sons and daughters so that others will get to know them too. She’ll see baby pictures and scrapbooks, watch videos and hear stories. And in the process, and in her subsequent work on the subject, she will get to know some of those we have lost and—more importantly—will keep their memories alive.
It’s going to be exhausting and draining, and I am humbled by the enormity of her project.
We forget so easily—and yes, those of us who have served tend to forget less easily than others, but we all forget at some point—the enormity of the loss and sacrifice that so many have endured. As a nation, we pay tribute on our appointed “holiday” days. And then life goes on for most.
As a child, I often heard the story of my great-uncle George, who enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II and was killed in action during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He was the youngest of seven children, the baby of a big, Catholic family in New Orleans. Family legend has it that when he was 17, the Marine Corps recruiter told him he was too short to enlist, and he desperately wanted to be a Marine, so he went home and stretched himself out by holding onto the claw feet of the bathtub. Sure enough, within a year, he was miraculously tall enough to enlist, so he shipped out and ended up on Iwo Jima.
Private First Class Dittmann was present for the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, but just over two weeks later, he was killed. My great-grandparents received the telegram notifying them of his death. Painfully, shortly after that, the mailman brought a letter from George, written shortly before he was killed. Today, my grandmother remembers with incredible clarity the pain of that time. I’ve only seen two pictures of him, and to the best of my knowledge, that’s all that the family had when he died, barely 19 years old.
Things are different now in some ways: technology has changed that. If he had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the details of his death might still be fuzzy, but his pictures, videos, and cell phone messages would still be around. But in other ways, nothing has changed. The grief, the painfully empty space, and the loss are all the same. Memorial Day should make people remember, but only if they have forgotten. Memorial Day in the Washington area is a series of cookouts and sales and pool parties and parades. And oh, that’s right, a day to remember those we have lost. For my great-grandmother, and for all of the mothers, fathers, siblings, children, husbands and wives left behind, Memorial Day is not a single, lone day. Memorial Day is every day, every hour, and every minute for the rest of their lives.
The vast majority of naval theory and strategy has focused on fleet engagements during times of war, rather than the smaller engagements and expeditionary operations that, more often than not, occur in times of relative peace. Counter-piracy operations have long been one of the irregular missions conducted by naval forces that didn’t fit the traditional mold. The writing of Alfred Thayer Mahan is a common foundation for many naval thinkers, and they remember his strategic focus on blue water and fleet engagements. In his book Naval Strategy ATM lamented “police duties” and emphasized that these operations detract from the central principle of concentration of military power.
However, ATM’s dislike of anything that would distract from the concentration of effort for naval formations did not automatically mean that he disliked expeditionary operations or naval irregular warfare. He believed that counter-piracy missions, in particular, were a valid function of naval forces. In writing about Nelson’s operations in the Mediterranean in the early 19th century, ATM agreed in theory with the Admiral’s desire to attack the Corsairs of Algiers and end the Barbary menace. In Nelson’s own words, “My Blood boils that I can not chastise these pirates,” and Mahan identified with the sentiment. In practice, however, he supported Lord Nelson’s decision not to attack because it would split his force, and detract from his primary mission, which was the destruction of the French Fleet.
It wasn’t that attacking piracy was an invalid naval mission, as some who claim to be part of a Mahanian tradition maintain; it was that Nelson’s Fleet had a higher purpose that required concentration. Without that higher purpose, an attack on the Barbary Corsairs would have been an important and distinctly naval mission. In his biography of Admiral Pellew, ATM championed the 1816 attack on Algiers which did finally end the Barbary menace once and for all, an operation that would today be described as a multinational force conducting power projection against an asymmetric menace.
ATM also wrote about the American 1820’s counter-piracy campaign in the West Indies which was led by Commodore David Porter. In his brief discussion of the subject in his biography of Admiral Farragut, he approved of Porter’s decision to leave the heavy frigates and traditional naval warships behind in favor of Sloops-of-War, armed schooners, and gun barges. What he termed the Mosquito Squadron, fulfilled his thoughts on concentration, as the ships worked together to attack the pirates both offshore and in the shallows of Cuba. It also illustrated the point that he would made in his debates with William Sims over the need for a balanced fleet rather than a myopic focus on battleships.
In ATM’s eyes the effectiveness of the squadron fulfilled the important naval mission of providing for “the security of commerce.” Ultimately, because they could not take or occupy territory, ATM realized the influence that navies could exert on an enemy was based in the ability to impact economics. First and foremost the battlefleet had to be ready for fleet engagements to drive the enemy’s naval forces from the sea, to fight the decisive battle in blue water. However, naval forces also needed to be ready to conduct irregular missions, like counter-piracy, because ultimately Mahan believed that “Navies exist for the protection of commerce.”
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.