Saturday, December 04, 2010

Personal Honor

SOURCE:  “Perot’s Veep From Hanoi To the Debate" by Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale. Wall Street Journal.  October 13, 1992.

Vice Adm Stockdale describes his experience as a prisoner of war in Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

“Chivalry was dead in my prison.  Its name was Hoa Lo, meaning ‘fiery furnace,’ locatd in downtown Hanoi, a prison the French built in 1895.

“I arrived there, a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, in the late morning of a rainy Sunday in September 1965, a stretcher case.  I had a broken leg (which my welcoming party, a street mob of civilians, had inflicted), a broken back (which I charge off to my carelessness in not having had the presence of mind to brace myself correctly before ejecting into low-attitude, high-speed air from a tumbling airplane), and a gunshot wound in my good leg (which an rate farmer hand pumped into my stretcher during my first night on the ground, an act I credit as morally neutral just to keep the score balanced).  The North Vietnamese officer who presided over my arrival after three days in the back of a truck was about my age (42); also a career military man.”

“I asked him for medical attention.  ‘You have a medical problem and you have a political problem,’ he said.  ‘In this country we handle political problem first.’   That was the last time the subject of medical attention for me ever came up in my next eight years as a POW.”

“There are a lot of things you can’t do with torture.  Aristotle said that compulsion and free will can coexist, and he was right.  The man about to undergo torture must have burned into his mind the fact that he can be hemmed in only within a very narrow window, and that he need not volunteer information or ‘spill his guts.’”

“Religious conviction?  It was certainly a positive force for the great majority of us.  But indispensable?  No, Some good prisoners did not rely on it.  What is indispensable to avoiding entrapment in the web of fear and guilt is the ability to stand isolated, without friends and surrounded by entreaters, and quite uncharitably say ‘no.’  This is a very hard thing for many mannerly American men and women to bring themselves to do.”

“Eight years in a Hanoi prison, survival and dignity.  What does it all come down to?  It does not come down to coping or supplication or hatred or strength beyond the grasp of any normal person.  It comes down to comradeship, and it comes down to pride, dignity, an enduring sense of self-worth and to that enigmatic mixture of conscience and egoism called personal honor.”

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