Thursday, July 07, 2005

The greatest man alive is dead

The NYSun has an amazing tribute to Admiral Stockdale this morning.

On the morning of the day he died, it has been said of a few individuals over the years, he was the greatest man alive, and among Americans this could well be said of Admiral James Stockdale, who died Tuesday at the age of 81. He won the Medal of Honor for his leadership of the American prisoners of war held in Hanoi during the years of the Vietnam War, and his death, coming as America is in the early years of a new war, offers much about which to think.

The Medal of Honor, which is impossible to alloy, is usually awarded for acts that disclose the courage of an individual in a few split seconds - in the time it takes to save the lives of one's comrades by throwing oneself on a grenade, say, or by leaping from a foxhole to attack an enemy machine-gun nest. Such medals are worth no less for the fact that the character that won them was glimpsed in an instant.

Admiral Stockdale's courage, however, was disclosed over and over again, and was sustained for the entire span of the seven and a half years he spent in the infamous prison known as the Hanoi Hilton and other dungeons, where he was held four years in solitary confinement and two with his legs clamped in irons. He was a prisoner of one of the most savage enemies America has ever fought. It was Stockdale who invented the code prisoners used to communicate, and he told other prisoners, as Los Angeles Times put it, to defy their captors at every turn and never act like helpless captives.

The Medal of Honor citation refers to Stockdale's efforts at "self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes." In plain English, what he did was use a wooden stool to beat his face to a pulp so he couldn't be used in an enemy film. One reason that he is so admired by his fellow prisoners is that, when he inflicted what the citation calls "a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate," the enemy backed off in its torture and harassment of other Americans it was holding.

Stockdale's story has never been more relevant than now, when America is in the early years of a new war against an even more savage foe and a new anti-war movement is testing America's resolve. He has been quoted as voicing doubts about the Tonkin Gulf Incident after which was named the war resolution that passed, almost unanimously, in the Congress. But he fought for his country nonetheless.

Years after being freed, Stockdale presented himself for vice president on Ross Perot's ticket. He began his campaign by asking, "Who am I? Why am I here?" - only to be mocked by the press as a bumbler who was out of his depth.

Speaks to the glory of the American press. I remember those days. They were in such a dizzy tizzy in the hope of ridding the county of Republicans and bringing in a Democrat as President after what they considered 12 years of exile that they were perfectly happy to do Clinton's job for him.

I'm happy to believe they couldn't get away with that kind of thing now – not to the same degree. They might start it. But the milbloggers would stop thm dead in their tracks. And other informed voices would take up the cry. And hopefully shame the pants from a few of them.

Previous post on Admiral Stockdale here.


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