The Vietnam War, Tonkin, and the alleged Stoicism of James Stockdale

[image: Stockdale exiting his A-4 fighter-bomber weeks before becoming a POW (Wikipedia); this is essay #302 in the Figs in Winter series]

The day is August 2nd, 1964. The destroyer USS Maddox has been sent on a mission near the coast of North Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, with the express purpose of provoking an armed response. Which it did. The outcome of the brief encounter was four dead and six wounded North Vietnamese sailors. No American casualties. The Johnson administration will later falsely claim that the confrontation was unprovoked and that it occurred in international waters.

Lyndon Johnson was up for reelection that year, and he wanted to escalate things in Vietnam to be seen as tough on communism. Apparently, the episode of August 2nd was not enough, so the National Security Agency claimed that there was a second confrontation two days later. This claim was entirely false, and President Johnson knew it. But it was what he needed to convince Congress to authorize him to deploy the US Military in Vietnam, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The reason I reminded you of this sordid story is that it involved one of the modern Stoic role models, James Bond Stockdale, and both the episode and Stockdale’s conduct shed a significant amount of light on the relationship between Stoicism and the military (about which I have written before). They also illuminate the crucial distinction between Stoicism as a philosophy of life and Stoicism as a collection of techniques, or “life hacks,” as they are often referred to.

First, let’s review the connection between Stockdale and Stoicism, and then I’ll get to his role in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Stockdale is often portrayed as a Stoic role model (including by yours truly in one of my early writings), because he wrote in his memoir, Courage Under Fire, that it was Stoicism — and particularly Epictetus’ Manual — that allowed him to survive seven years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of war.

Stockdale was captured when his fighter-bomber was shot down during one of his missions over North Vietnam. Here is how he recalls the events: “On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane — the cockpit walls not even three feet apart — which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’”

The single most important lesson Stockdale had learned from Epictetus, during a course on philosophy he had taken for his Master’s degree at Stanford, was — of course — the dichotomy of control:

This famous passage is usually presented as the quintessential Stoic life hack: realize that some things are up to you and others are not, focus where your agency is maximized, and develop an attitude of equanimity toward the rest. This is correct, as far as it goes, but such reading neglects the most important aspect of Epictetus’ philosophy, and of Stoicism in general: the ethical — as distinct from the purely pragmatic — element. The sage from Hieropolis was very clear about this:

And that’s where Stockdale runs into trouble, at least when he is viewed as a Stoic role model instead of just an example of how Stoic techniques can be useful. To see why, we need to turn to the connection between Stockdale and Tonkin.

As it turns out, Stockdale was at the site of the second “incident” on the very night when it allegedly happened. Here is what he later wrote: “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there. … There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.”

The day after President Johnson ordered “retaliatory” bombing raids over North Vietnam. Stockdale was ordered to lead the attacks. He said: “Retaliation for what?” Moreover, after he was captured he was afraid of being forced by the North Vietnamese to publicly admit that the US had escalated hostilities under false pretenses. That is, Stockdale willfully participated in the deception, as he himself recalled after he was freed: “We were about to launch a war under false pretenses, in the face of the on-scene military commander’s advice to the contrary.”

I maintain, therefore, that Stockdale acted in the most un-Stoic way possible, flagrantly violating Epictetus’ reminder that the most important thing for a human being is integrity of character. Stockdale should have refused to fly additional missions over North Vietnam, resign from the Navy, and go public to unmask Johnson’s travesty. He would have, of course, incurred great personal cost for such actions, but he would have done the right thing and, possibly, help shorten the most devastating American conflict after World War II. Again, Epictetus:

Stockdale did sell his integrity, presumably in the name of a misguided form of dutiful patriotism that puts one’s country above all other considerations, even when said country is embarking in a highly immoral course of action. “My country, right or wrong,” as the saying goes.

[There are two versions of this quote: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!,” said by Stephen Decatur, a US Naval officer, in an after-dinner toast of 1816–1820. And “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right,” often attributed to the American statesman and journalist Carl Schurz, circa 1872. Needless to say, Stockdale subscribed to Decatur’s version, a Stoic should endorse Schurz’s.]

This tale is one reason I am concerned about the connection between Stoicism and the military or, to be more precise, militarism. The ancient Stoics were no pacifists, but when they took up arms it was for what they considered — rightly or wrongly can of course be debated — moral causes. Cato the Younger thought Julius Caesar was a tyrant bent on destroying the Roman Republic. The “Stoic opposition” objected to what they perceived as the tyranny of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. Gaius Blossius first attempted to address the perennial question of land redistribution peaceably, and only later took up arms against Rome. Marcus Aurelius was somewhat unusual (though not unique) among Roman emperors because he tried to settle border disputes rather go to war, and when his hand was forced he carried out defensive operations along the eastern and northern frontiers of the Empire. A marked contrast with the aggressive imperialism of the US in Vietnam (and elsewhere, before and since).

Stoicism is a cosmopolitan philosophy, which means that Stoics regard every human being on Earth as a brother or sister, and you don’t engage in violence against your siblings, particularly unprovoked violence that is carried out on the basis of ulterior motives. One of the four Stoic virtues is that of justice, which is understood as the knowledge of what is fair and right wherever other people are concerned. Clearly, Stockdale was not practicing this virtue when he agreed to follow orders and not ask questions.

At the last Stoicon event held in person before the pandemic, in Athens back in 2019, one of the talks was given by Thomas Jarrett, retired combat stress control officer and creator of “Stoic & Warrior Resilience Training” programs during the Iraq War. Apparently unusual among the audience, I found Jarrett’s talk to be highly disturbing, because he recounted story after story of wounded soldiers who had been helped by Stoic techniques, but not once did he stop to contemplate the bigger picture and question the morality of the Iraq War itself.

Which brings me to the final point: the distinction between Stoicism as a philosophy and as a set of techniques. One way to make clear the difference is to think about another very popular philosophy, Buddhism, and the associated, also very popular, technique of meditation. Meditation has proven to be effective to reduce stress and manage chronic pain, among other things. It follows that if you are stressed, or suffering from chronic pain, it is a good idea to practice meditation. But such practice will not make you a Buddhist. Being a Buddhist means to adopt the philosophy’s tenets — both metaphysical and ethical. It means to understand the four noble truths and to pursue the eight-fold path to enlightenment. Regardless of whether you do or do not meditate (according to my colleague Owen Flanagan, most Buddhists do not, in fact, meditate).

Similarly, to be a Stoic means to embrace cosmopolitanism; to practice the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance; and to understand and internalize the dichotomy of control, among other things. Whether or not you also engage in specific practices, like the view from above, or philosophical journaling, is not the main point. It’s the philosophy that is crucial, not the techniques. Though of course the techniques are meant to help you practice the philosophy, just like actual Buddhists don’t meditate (solely) in order to manage pain but to help themselves stay on the path to enlightenment.

By all means let us teach Stoicism to soldiers and officers. But not (just) the sort of life hack that sustained Stockdale through his horrible experience as a POW. We need to teach our service men and women about the most important, ethical dimension of Stoicism. The problem, of course, is that then they would be far less likely to blindly follow the sort of criminal order that President Johnson gave Stockdale and his comrades. You can see why there is a problem here…

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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