Capturing the breadth of the legacy of the late Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, one of the most decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Navy, isn’t difficult for Dr. Martin L. Cook; it just requires ample time to cover it all.
On Wednesday evening in Shiley Theatre, Cook, the keynote speaker for the 15th annual University of San Diego James Bond Stockdale Leadership and Ethics Symposium, offered his views in “Reflections on the Stockdale Legacy.”
Cook, a longtime military educator and author, currently serves as the Stockdale Chair of Professional Military Ethics at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where Stockdale (pictured, right) briefly served as its president from 1977-79.
“When I went to work for the Navy, one thing struck me immediately,” he said. “The large number of activities and institutions that bear Admiral Stockdale’s name.”
Cook named six, knowing it wasn’t a complete list: the U.S. Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, the USD lecture, Cook’s current position, an annual Stockdale Leadership Award, given to the top leader in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets and the Stockdale Group at the Naval War College where senior class students perform research on ways to improve Navy leader development.
Stockdale and a close colleague created the Naval War College’s “Stockdale Course” or, formally “Foundations of Moral Obligation,” which Cook now co-teaches. In it, students deepen their knowledge of major philosophical traditions of ethics.
“Admiral Stockdale … wrote quite a bit about his belief that his study of philosophy at Stanford — in particular the Roman Stoics — was fundamental to his ability to survive his Prisoner of War (POW) experience,” Cook stated.
The life of Stockdale, 81 when he passed away in July 2005, includes his role of leading aerial attacks from the USS Ticonderoga during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident and later, his POW experience in Hoa Lo prison for seven years after his plane was shot down on Sept. 9, 1965. Though severely injured, he parachuted into a small village and was subsequently beaten and captured.
Stockdale’s tales of survival, psychological tactics and his unwillingness to give up information to help the enemy earned him immense praise. The highest-ranking naval officer held as a POW in Vietnam, Stockdale was awarded 26 personal combat decorations, including the Medal of Honor and four Silver Stars.
His post-war experiences included academic appointments such as president of The Citadel and a fellowship at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. He authored several books, including In Love and War: the Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam War, co-written with his wife, Sybil, who attended USD’s event on Wednesday. Stockdale was also H. Ross Perot’s Vice President running mate during the latter’s unsuccessful independent bid to become President of the United States in 1992.
Cook (pictured above, left) spent much of his speech discussing Stockdale’s philosophical beliefs, such as “life is not fair,” the importance of character, the need for deeper and intense knowledge, “to apply them to issues in military leadership development now and in the future.”
Cook’s speech included a reflection from Stockdale’s 1995 book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, the effect that the course he created at the Naval War College had on students.
“We studied moral philosophy by looking at models of human beings under pressure, their portraits drawn from the best materials we could find in philosophy and literature. The professional implications for military men and women followed. We did not have to draw diagrams [or, one might add, PowerPoint slides]; the military implications came up naturally in seminar discussions.”
Said Cook: “These seem, to me, the main elements of the Stockdale legacy: the importance of a deeply reflective, self-understanding, grounded in a clear-eyed and realistic appreciation of oneself and the world in which one acts. It stresses the central importance of character and, indeed, its primacy over technical knowledge and practical know-how. … Stockdale asserts that serious reading of the humanities is the single most important means to developing those attributes, because only such readings address fundamental human questions with rigor and depth.”
Cook closed with a message for ROTC and junior officers, many whom were present for Wednesday’s lecture:
“Stockdale’s message to you would be: don’t sell yourselves short. Don’t be content to remain on the surface and focus only on knowledge and skill. His example to you would be: take every opportunity — and make them if you aren’t given them — to think deeply and broadly. When someone tells you, ‘Well, we’re getting into philosophy here,’ don’t take that as a reason to get back to the practical. Take it as the challenge to press right on. As Socrates put it 2,500 years ago: the unexamined life is not worth leading.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES), USD and the San Diego NROTC Unit at USD/San Diego State University sponsor the annual James Bond Stockdale Leadership and Ethics Symposium. Within SOLES is a Naval Science Department chaired by Navy Captain and Professor William Auld who is the current Commanding Officer of the San Diego NROTC (based on the USD campus since 1982). SOLES, in a partnership with other San Diego-area colleges, offers an Army ROTC program. The inaugural Stockdale Symposium took place in 1998 and featured keynote speaker Nancy Sherman, PhD, discussing “Leadership and Ethics.” The lecture series’ topics focus on a topic related to the relationship of these traits. Symposium speakers have included Navy Admiral Leon Edney, (retired), Army Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, Navy Admiral William J. Fallon (retired), former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Navy Admiral Stanley Arthur (retired) and former Congressman James Webb Jr.