From Stockdale to Crozier, History Has a Way of Avenging the Humbled and Humbling the Proud
Telling a man he may have earned a place in history rings hollow when he is alone in quarantine pondering the end of his career. His legacy might be little solace when one of his crew members has just succumbed to the COVID-19 virus and medical professionals have warned him of the potential for dozens more. But ironically, when the U.S. Navy fired Capt. Brett Crozier, they almost certainly assured him a lionized place in U.S. naval history. His superiors’ attempts to punish him likely earned them a footnote in the same history books for their hebetude.
Reading the headlines of many debates during this pandemic, it is helpful to remember that classified and suppressed documents and voices emerge over time, and the light they shed has a pesky way of messing with earlier, official versions of events. History takes the long look, using multiple sources and the advantage of hindsight to sort out the spin from the facts. Not unsurprisingly, when all the facts behind the headlines become known, history has a way of championing the silenced.
The importance of that waiting and sifting process is recorded (where else?) throughout history. Sophocles is credited with noting that “A lie never lives to be old.” Jesus reminded his followers: “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” Warren Buffett offers a simple aphorism for how truth eventually surfaces: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
History venerates another career naval officer who risked his own future to assure the survival of those under his command. When he was shot down over the skies of North Vietnam, Cdr. James Stockdale was a carrier air group commander aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He was at the pinnacle of his career as a naval aviator and on track to become a flag officer.
Two little known facts about Stockdale’s time as the senior-ranking prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam directly connect to Crozier’s plight and decision. Stockdale thought he might face a court-martial for one monumental decision he — and he alone — made in the Hanoi Hilton. He weighed the risk and still consciously instructed his fellow prisoners to adopt a more liberal interpretation of the military Code of Conduct. He knew it would preserve the health and physical safety of the men under his care.
Stockdale chose an interpretation of the code that recognized even battle-hardened military aviators would eventually crack under torture. He believed that none of his men should die because they could not adhere to the rules demanded by the code: that prisoners of war only admit name, rank, service number, and date of birth. So he created his own rules that contravened the July 1964 directive from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That directive was intended to reinforce Article 5 of the code and made it clear to every servicemember who might be captured by enemy forces that “further responses are made on his own responsibility.” In other words, giving up more than the basic four pieces of information was strictly forbidden and those who did would suffer the consequences — not just from their captors, but from U.S. military leadership. Violating the Code of Conduct was now a chargeable offense.
When his men asked Stockdale what information was worth torture, Stockdale put a lot of thought into what his first orders would be:
They would be orders that could be obeyed, not a “cover your ass” move of reiterating some U.S. government policy like ‘name, rank, serial number and date of birth,’ which had no chance of standing up in the torture room. My mind-set was, “we here under the gun are the experts, we are the masters of our fate. Ignore guilt-inducing echoes of hollow edicts, throw out the book, and write your own.”
He told the prisoners to withstand torture for as long as they could. If they succumbed to the physical or psychological pressure — which was severe — he instructed them to yield as little information as they could, or better yet, give false information to their captors. A tortured prisoner of war had one more responsibility once he came out of the interrogation room: he was to share with the group what he had given up. Whether the information was true or false, the next person going into the room was sure to be asked about it. He needed to know what the guy before him had said.
Not everybody under Stockdale’s command agreed with his modification of the code. Air Force Capt. John Dramesi, a former prisoner of war, believes to this day that all prisoners should have tried to escape whenever possible — another requirement of the code. The one other prisoner who joined Dramesi in an ill-fated escape attempt, Air Force Capt. Edwin Atterberry, died from the beatings he received during the ensuing punishment of the entire camp. Stockdale and other leaders decided that it was fruitless for Caucasian prisoners to try to escape in the heart of the capital city of an Asian country. Stockdale essentially suspended subsequent escape attempts in direct violation of the code.
His conscious departures from the code did not cost Stockdale his career. Instead, because the nation — and political leaders — needed good news from Vietnam in 1973, Stockdale found himself returning to a hero’s welcome for helping the 591 men under his command to return home safely. Over time, however, military leadership and history has come to understand and appreciate the wisdom of Stockdale’s unilateral decision: he saved lives without sacrificing honor or aiding the enemy.
Most histories of the Hanoi Hilton slide past a second startling fact. Stockdale was the fourth highest ranking officer among the prisoners. Three other men — all senior to Stockdale — remained as silent and low profile as possible during their time in the camp, fearful that they would be tortured into giving up military secrets that would be advantageous to their captors. Stockdale — despite holding important military secrets himself — stepped into the breach. He had been an aerial eyewitness to the Tonkin Gulf incident, the event that launched the American military into the Vietnam War. Stockdale had come away from that night skeptical of the Johnson administration’s claims about the incident. He was convinced there was no attack on Aug. 4, 1964. He carried that secret with him throughout the war, knowing that if he ever gave it up in the face of torture, it would be a propaganda gold mine for the North Vietnamese.
He paid a high price for his decision to assume command, facing intense torture and spending more than half of his seven and a half years at the Hanoi Hilton in solitary confinement. He answered the call that some superiors were unwilling to shoulder. When the prisoners returned home, the Pentagon said nothing about the silence of the higher-ranking officers. Similarly, his superiors denied Stockdale’s request for a court-martial of two prisoners of war who had aided their captors over the years.
As with the decision to relieve Crozier of his command, some decisions back during the controversy of the Vietnam War appeared to serve political interests rather than follow the facts. Regardless, history treated Stockdale well, precisely because of the circumstances surrounding his difficult decisions. His courage and judgement were exonerated by time and results. He is venerated today as one of the Navy’s all-time great leaders.
Crozier may face a similar fate. Indeed, it seems possible his command might be re-instated and his career put back on track. Certainly, he did not face the same austerity, isolating conditions, and relentless enemy that Stockdale did. Stockdale’s decisions stretched over seven and a half years of challenges, but Crozier’s decisions demanded a lightning-speed response. He was forced to confront a fast-moving and invisible enemy, hard to combat and stamp out in close quarters. As all the facts become known, it is possible that future generations of Naval Academy plebes will learn his name as an example of what a good leader does to protect his followers.
Those who have handled his case — and those reviewing it now — will be held to account by the same history. It has a way of avenging the humbled and humbling the proud.
Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Peter Fretwell are the co-authors of Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams. Kiland is a former naval officer, the third generation in her family to serve. She has spent two decades researching the unprecedented physical, mental and professional success of our Vietnam prisoners of war. Fretwell is a former radio news anchor and talk show host.