John Cantlie, Vietnam and Stoic Philosophy
How An Ancient Philosophy Can Empower Warriors, Detainees — And Us
I am writing this at a lovely wooden desk, with a glorious early summer country landscape out the window to my left. It’s a place of peace and contemplation. John Cantlie is a prisoner of Islamic State. I can’t really imagine how he feels or what he is looking at right now. I don’t really want to.
Rewind a couple of decades and our lives were much closer.
We both worked for SuperBike magazine in England, testing 180mph motorbikes for a living and having a life of freedom and excitement. It wasn’t an entirely safe occupation. But compare that to now. We know John has been waterboarded, tortured, starved and beaten for well over two years. We think and hope that he is still alive. And if I could, I would give him a book to read in his hideous confinement.
It was written by another man who knew confinement and torture.
On 9 September 1965, Wing Commander Jim Stockdale flew at 500 knots into a flak trap over Vietnam. He ejected from his destroyed Douglas A-4E Skyhawk and reached the ground largely unharmed. Within a couple of minutes of landing he was savagely beaten and had his leg broken by an angry mob.
He’d seen the ‘roughnecks’ coming for him as he floated down on his parachute. What would you say to yourself at that moment? This is what he actually said: ‘I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’
Jim Stockdale was an extraordinary man and officer. He went on to lead the US POWs in Vietnam for the next seven and a half years. Seven and a half years being tortured, largely kept in isolation, interrogated and starved. He came out of it with his head high and, more importantly, so did all those who came under his influence.
So who did this highly trained jet pilot and Naval commander credit with his ability to conquer in adversity? The men under his command? His tutors at grad school at Stanford University? No, an ex-slave from Ancient Greece who, like Stockdale, had a damaged leg and a limp.
STOICISM, FROM THE PORCH TO SILICON VALLEY
Jim Stockdale was a stoic, a follower of the stoic philosophy. That’s a philosophy that started around 300BC when like-minded people started meeting under the Stoa — the Porch — in the main square in Athens, Greece. That philosophy, started by men with hipster beards and long robes, is now one of the major strands of thought in Silicon Valley in the 21st Century.
Tim Ferriss employed Ryan Holiday to handle the launch publicity campaign of his new book The 4-Hour Work Week in 2007. The young Tim decided on handing this task to someone who was just 20 years old. Between them they promoted a book which went on to spend four years on The New York Times Best Sellers List. It has sold well over a million copies. The relevance?
Tim Ferriss uses an ‘operating system’ in his life. That system is stoicism. Ryan Holiday is also a stoic. He starts his book The Obstacle Is The Way, with a story and a quote. It’s not by Steve Jobs, it’s by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was the last of the ‘Five Great Emperors’ of the Roman Empire, and a major champion of stoicism. (That was him played by Richard Harris in Gladiator.)
Epictetus, Seneca, Aurelius, Rufus, Zeno — these were some of the great stoics and it’s worth noting that they encompass everyone from a slave to an emperor.
Epictetus was a Greek slave in Rome, to a man who was secretary to the Emperor Nero. Over 2000 years ago, a crippled foreign slave in Rome had the life expectancy of a mosquito. And that was without the malevolent presence of Nero in your life. Yet somehow Epictetus gained his freedom and became one of the Roman Empire’s most charismatic philosophers.
And his handbook, The Enchiridion, was on the bedside of Wing Commander Jim Stockdale on board the USS Oriskany. It was there the day Stockdale was shot down, but he took its contents into the prison camp with him.
PHILOSOPHY IN ACTION
So what could a slave teach a Wing Commander? Everything he needed to remember to survive in a 20th Century hellhole for seven and a half years. The lessons of that hideous camp are exactly the same lessons we can apply to our daily lives, whether we’ve just been passed over for promotion, lost our job, or been shot down in one of the hundreds of ways that people suffer every day.
Stoicism is philosophy in action. It’s not a dry academic exercise divorced from the world. It’s an operating system, as Tim Ferriss describes it, for life. It’s as relevant now as it has been at every point in every civilisation over the past 2000 years.
People think stoicism is about putting up with things in a rather glum, Eeyore kind of way. It’s not. It’s about dealing with the negative things so we can live lives of contentment and meaning. One of the main tenets of stoicism is that you make a clear distinction between what you can influence and what you can’t. Then you let go the things you can’t affect.
Jim Stockdale had two files in his mind when he went into captivity, A and B. In A were all the things that were up to him, like his free will, his own grief, his own joy, his own judgements and attitudes. In B were all those things that were not up to him, not within his control.
So he let go of stressing more than necessary about being tortured or revealing minor information when ‘taking the ropes’, or about how he got to be shot down. He saw very clearly that people think things are under their control but Epictetus reminded him that they’re not.
Here’s a few things he lists. Do you think these things are fully and completely under your control: your body, property, wealth, pleasure, death, reputation?
I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL
Stockdale delivered a remarkable speech in the Great Hall at King’s College, London in 1993. In it he ran through a full response to the question of what is under our control and how much we should let go to focus on what we can actually change or influence. The speech is published in the form of a book, Courage Under Fire.
He was an amazing man and an amazing stoic. And I wish I could give John Cantlie that book right now. The book ends with the moment where Stockdale returns to the main cells after over a year in solitary confinement.
He was met by a note from one of the other prisoners, a trusted mate. He’d written the final verse of Invictus, Ernest Henley’s poem:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
It was scrawled on a flimsy piece of scrap paper. It had been written with a rat dropping.