The British Sailors: Stockdale Syndrome

It’s really not my place to criticize the conduct of the captured British sailors and marines; they have put their lives on the line to defend their country (and by extension, mine), and I have not. They’ve already demonstrated more bravery than I have, just by getting on a boat flying the Union Jack anywhere near Iranian waters.

Some things about this are, I believe, fair game: their lack of preparation for capture, the “please just kill me now” rules of engagement foisted on them by Whitehall ninnies, and the absurd policy of appeasement toward Iran propagated by feckless British politicians. Those things I’ll rant about quite a bit. But the sailors and marines have nothing to prove to the likes of me, and I give thanks to God that they are home safely.

Still, I want to contrast the story of another Navy POW you might have heard of. He ran for Vice-President alongside Ross Perot in 1992, and he spent seven years being tortured by the North Vietnamese. For his resistance to their efforts to use him as a propaganda tool, Rear Admiral James Stockdale won the Medal of Honor:

Recognized by his captors as the leader in the Prisoners’ of War resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture after he was detected in a covert communications attempt. Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War. By his heroic action, at great peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners and of his country. Rear Adm. Stockdale’s valiant leadership and extraordinary courage in a hostile environment sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

According to his memorial site, Adm. Stockdale (also a classical scholar) was inspired by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus to resist his captors. In 1969, when he learned he was to be paraded before the media, he “slashed his scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face with a wooden stool knowing his captors would not display a prisoner who was disfigured“. For more on Stockdale’s heroism and the other heroes he inspired, see here.

PS I see the same thought occurred to Smantix at Six Meat Buffet.

TO CLARIFY: There’s nothing wrong with a civilian like me criticizing troops who fall short of the professional standards expected of them. But I certainly won’t accuse them of cowardice, nor will I second-guess their behavior inside Iran, especially as details emerge that they were roughed up and subjected to mock execution.

I don’t think their government trained them for this, though, and the British admiralty still doesn’t seem to get it:

The admiral dismissed suggestions that the hostages should have restricted themselves to merely telling the Iranians their name, rank and serial number. “They weren’t on combat operations. They weren’t like people shot down in Tornados in the Gulf War.”

I think that’s exactly what they were like.