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On Epictetus and Tin Cups: How the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ POWS Won Their War

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

VAdm. Stockdale - Portrait - President of the Naval War College, Newport, R.I

“Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant.” Epictetus

When naval aviator James Bond Stockdale became a ‘guest’ in the Hanoi Hilton, his vital leadership helped his men to survive. His son James Stockdale Jr. recalls his father’s sterling character. Then Taylor Kiland  author of ‘Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,’ distills the lessons in this exclusive, unique interview to Victor Fic, Biztech’s special correspondent for business and politics.

** Jim your father was smart enough to attend Stanford to study...what?

He took his MA through the navy at Stanford and was a life - long learner. He finished in political science focusing on Taiwan in the Sino – Soviet dispute. He wandered across the Stanford quad to the philosophy department. By fate, he met a phenomenally well regarded philosopher named Philip Rhinelander. He took a shine to my father and tutored him. Rhinelander gave him the 'Enchiridion' by Epictetus. It was a manual for soldiers.

** How did your dad go from focusing his eyes on the books to looking through a site for communist targets to bomb?

Dad served as commander of a flight squadron and became a carrier air group commander for all the planes on the USS Oriskany.

** But North Vietnamese anti – aircraft fire grounded him....

Flying an A – 4 Skyhawk, he came in for the primary target, the Thanh Hoa bridge south of Hanoi. But it was shrouded in fog. The secondary target, railway box cars, was a milk run. He knew the position of the anti – aircraft guns but the North Vietnamese installed a new one. His plane was shattered by an anti – aircraft gun on a hill. Dad tried to get to the sea because there is more chance to be rescued there. He came down in the little village of Thanh Hoa. It was September 9, 1965. It was two days before sailing for liberty leave in Hong Kong.

** Did he dub the prison the Hanoi Hilton?

That sarcastic name came from Bob Schumaker, the second man shot down and imprisoned there. He became a rear admiral. It is called Hoa Lo in Vietnamese -- fiery furnace. Originally, the grounds were for making pottery so it had a hot kiln. Dad was tortured several times. He considered it his duty to put himself first in line. He was ‘in the ropes’ several times. The Vietnamese tied your wrists and then pulled the rope higher to dislocate your joints. He suffered week long sessions intermixed with severe beatings.

** How was sarcastic humor one defense?

They gave the torturers nicknames. Dad’s was “pig eye” because he had one grayish eye that looked dead.

** Who is buried next to your father and what does that say?

The morning before he was sworn in at Annapolis, he and his father were at breakfast. There was a thin, gaunt guy there. So they invited him over and my dad and him became friends for life. That was Bill Crowe, later chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are buried next to each other. Oh yes, my father believed deeply in trust and loyalty.

** Taylor, prove that the Hanoi Hilton gang suffered less stress.

This group has one of the lowest rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – or PTSD – of any combat veterans ever. A definitive study in the 1980s of Vietnam veterans discovered their average rate of PTSD as more than 15%. By contrast, the Vietnam POWs are at 4% as evidenced by the Mitchell Center for POW Studies in Pensacola, Florida. The Department of Veterans Affairs cites research on Iraq and Afghanistan vets that suggests 10-18% likely have PTSD.

** The – unfair -- Hollywood stereotype is of ‘Nam veterans as druggies, mentally ill, deranged, but in truth....

A total of 725 returned from Vietnam. John McCain ran for president, Stockdale Sr. ran for vice president, several were Senators and in the U.S. House of Representatives, one was a state governor, many were in state elected positions, many were in federal political appointments, and many reached top leadership in industry or became doctors, lawyers, consultants, entrepreneurs, or authors.

** Stockdale led them. How was Epictetus ‘present’ in the prison?

One key to understanding how they successfully resisted is knowing that Admiral Stockdale was a devotee of Epictetus and the Stoics. He found a kindred soul in the Greek philosopher, who preached personal responsibility and a “choose your battle” approach. Fate happens and you cannot control it. The Stoics say focus on what you can control and that will set you free. When Stockdale was shot down, he said to himself, “I left the world of technology and entered the world of Epictetus.”

** How was he a “servant leader?”

Robert Greenleaf, the man who coined the term, explains that “the servant leader is servant first.” Stockdale modelled the behavior he wanted his fellow POWs to emulate. He took the brunt of the punishment and retribution – for maintaining the communications system and for the good of the organization. He took responsibility for what happened and what was going to happen.

** People might denigrate Stockdale because they assume POWS bond naturally. Explain the jungle at Changi prison in Singapore.

History shows that many POW camps in many US wars were divided. Men were pitted against each other for more food or better treatment. James Clavell wrote a famous fictionalized account of his WW 2 POW camp experience in Changi called 'King Rat.' One powerful and corrupt POW, nicknamed "The King," exploited other POWs and bribed and cajoled them for food, money, better living conditions and he had brutal control over his fellow soldiers.

** Why was the Hanoi Hilton far better?

The differences are stark because of leadership. A later study showed that Changi POWs blamed their senior officers for their incarceration and believed the latter worked against them to salvage their own reputations. This led to dissent.

** One expects the Hanoi Hilton gang to be 100% macho, but their core values were humane....

We identified six characteristics contribute to high-performance teams. The Mission Leads - being mission-centric versus leader-centric creates a sustainable organization that outlives any individual leader. You Are Your Brother's Keeper - protecting your fellow soldier promotes inclusion, honesty and second chances. Think Big and Basically - The rules for a high-performance culture are minimal, simple and focused on achieving the mission. Don't get distracted.

** And Epictetus re-enters with his call for perspective... .

Focus on effectiveness and efficiency -- what you can control and let go of the rest. Keep the Faith - a high-performance culture is dominated by rational beliefs and optimism. It views setbacks and failures as temporary, local and external. The Power of We – find personal and organizational meaning in common goals and values.

** Why did they stress total honesty about if one cracked under torture?

Stockdale adapted the Code of Conduct for his POWs. The men should resist in interrogation sessions – to the best of their ability, but he also said that their life and limb were not worth totally resisting. When they gave in, he instructed them to confess to their fellow POWs. He understood that this confession was cathartic. And it was.

** They “leaned” into their fears ...seemingly artsy – fartsy! Explain that.

Leaning into your fears means recognizing and understanding your inner confidence. The POWs faced their torture by visualizing their response. Some said that men who had played individual versus team sports performed better during interrogation. They were accustomed to facing challenges one-on-one.

** What is the evidence that leadership can mitigate trauma on followers?

Dr. Stephen Hobfall at Kent State University is one of a handful of experts studying the impact of intervention after trauma, a type of psychological "first aid" that the POWs perfected. He identified five elements of intervention that can mitigate the long-term impact of trauma: safety, optimism, calm, connectedness, and efficacy.

** Specifically, how did this help?

The intervention that the POWs practiced after torture provided them with a renewed sense of security, it gave them hope after their optimism had been shattered, it calmed and soothed them, it reconnected individuals with the group, and it gave all the POWs a sense of purpose.

** What are the four phases of forming a successful group?

Dr. Bruce Tuckman first spelled out his theory on small group formation in 1965 after two years at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. He identified forming where the members come together, storming where they get a sense of their roles and relationships, norming where they set values and rules and performing. The POWs in the Hanoi Hilton followed this pattern.

** Tie your cardinal conclusions to what corporate leaders can learn and do.

A common excuse that individuals and organizations offer for not achieving their mission is: we don’t have the resources. Well, the Hanoi Hilton POWs had only their brains and their tin drinking cups. The used the cups to tap out the communication code through the prison walls. They tapped messages, instructions, and encouragement. They never gave in to the enemy and they never lost sight of their group’s mission of returning with honor. With just their brains and these tin cups, they won their war.

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