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Reflections on Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.
Gregg Zegarelli

I was recently asked to attend an alumni event at a major university.  The event was hosted by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences for certain freshman students who were enrolled in a new "pilot" course for freshmen.  The alumni were asked to make impromptu remarks.  Being a pilot course in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, I recalled Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, by James B. Stockdale, which I thought was a relevant work for reasons that I hope will become apparent to you.

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor, among so many other awards.  He was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the Vice Presidential candidate with H. Ross Perot.  He served in the Navy from 1947 to 1979, beginning as a test pilot and instructor at Patuxent River, Maryland, and spending two years as a graduate student at Stanford University.  He became a fighter pilot and was shot down on his second combat tour over North Vietnam, becoming a prisoner of war for eight years, spending four in solitary confinement. The highest-ranking naval officer held during the Vietnam War, he was tortured fifteen times and put in leg irons for two years.  The work is a collection of his many speeches.

As I took a turn at the podium, I clicked away at my mobile telephone to look up the book text from my Kindle app, apologizing to the audience that I was not checking my email.  I finally found the section I wanted to access.

Before I reference the text, I will preface that there is an ongoing debate about the Liberal Arts & Sciences as an educational framework versus trade schools.  Each has advantages, of course, and no choice would be correct for all circumstances.  But I defer, in deepest respect, to Admiral Stockdale, who impliedly, if not expressly, addresses this debate.

Let me start by saying that when I first identified the book to the audience, there were some soft giggles.  The reason?  Some persons may have thought the book name was supposed to be a causal speaker's joke, which it certainly was not, as you now know.  But, deeper yet, why the giggles?  Because, quite simply, the name of the book is somewhat of an oxymoron: a fighter pilot is the epitome of a human war mechanism, a highly detailed human machine trained to make decisions regarding some of the most complex and sophisticated weaponry.  Fighter pilots are smart, decisive, and intellectually mechanized.  Philosophers, on the other hand, are perceived to be theoretical and impractical.  Thus, the superficial contradiction.

But philosophy is not impractical; it is simply overlooked: it being as subtle and ubiquitous as the ground we fail to contemplate, although we walk on it each day.  

When Jim Stockdale returned from 8 years of captivity, of which 4 years he endured torture (at one point having a body weight of 50lbs), he was often asked to speak about his experiences to aid in the training of others regarding life events.  This is a phenomenal work.  Pushing buttons on a fighter weapon is one thing, but existing within a context of psychological challenges is quite another thing.  As we all have challenges thrust upon us, Admiral Stockdale outlines the framework of leadership.

Here is an excerpt that I referenced for the freshmen, slightly abridged, quoting Stockdale:

I would like to share my views with you.

But let me make one point first.  I think these criteria are important because our changing times demand the kind of person who can lead in troubled times.  Down the road, locating these individuals will be crucial to the welfare of all sectors of our society.  I'm not talking about our "nominal" leaders who may look the part, who say the right things, who indeed may be the right people in calm waters.  I'm talking about the leaders who, to use Melville's phrase, "in time of peril" come out of nowhere to control the flow of events: the businessman who rises to the top to keep a company afloat during a depression; the warrior who takes command of a decimated battalion, rallies its spirit, and makes it whole again; the mayor who gets the bankrupt city back on its feet.  Frequently, these are not the people the public was acclaiming before the fire started.  These are the natural leaders to whom others instinctively turn in times of crisis, who become the leaders through trial by fire. 

What are the true qualities we're looking for?

Let me examine just five.

1. Must Be a Moralist.  First, in order to lead under duress, one must be a moralist.  By that, I don't mean being a poseur, one who sententiously exhorts his comrades to be good.  I mean he must be a thinker.  He must have the wisdom, the courage, indeed the audacity to make clear just what, under the circumstances, the good is.  This requires a clear perception of right and wrong and the integrity to stand behind one's assessment.  The surest way for a leader to wind up in the ash can of history is to have a reputation for indirectness or deceit.  A disciplined life will encourage commitment to a personal code of conduct. 

2. Must Be a Writer of Law.  Second, there are times when leaders must be jurists, when their decisions must be based solely on their own ideas of fairness.  In effect, they will be writing "law."  When they're on the hot seat, they'll need the courage to withstand the inclination to duck a problem.  Many of their laws will necessarily be unpopular, but they must never be unjust.  Cool, glib, cerebral, detached guys can get by in positions of authority until the pressure is on.  Then people ease away from them and cling to those they know they can trust-those who can mete out just punishment and look their charges in the eye as they do it.  When the chips are down, the man with the heart, not the soft heart, not the bleeding heart, but the Old Testament heart of wisdom, the hard heart, comes into his own.

3. Must Be a Teacher.  Third, every good leader is a good teacher.  He is able to give those around him a sense of perspective and to set the moral, social, and particularly the motivational climate among his followers.  This is not an easy task.  It takes wisdom and self-discipline; it requires the sensitivity to perceive philosophic disarray in one's charges and the knowledge of how to put things in order.  I believe that a good starting point is that old injunction "know thyself."  A leader must aspire to strength, compassion, and conviction several orders greater than required by society in general.

4. Must Be A Steward.  Fourth, a leader must remember that he is responsible for his charges.  He must tend the flock, not only cracking the whip but "washing their feet" when they are in need of help.  Leadership takes compassion.  It requires knowledge and character and heart to boost others up and show them the way.  The Civil War historian Douglas Southall Freeman described his formula for stewardship when he said you have to know your stuff, to be a man, and to take care of your men.

5. Must Be a Philosopher.  A fifth requirement of a good leader is a philosophical outlook.  At least he should understand and be able to compassionately explain, when necessary, that there is no evidence that the way of the world assures the punishment of evil or the reward of virtue.  The leader gives forethought to coping with undeserved reverses. 

As he is expected to handle fear with courage, so also is he expected to handle calamity with emotional stability or—as Plato might say—with endurance of the soul.  Humans seem to have an inborn need to believe that virtue will be rewarded and evil punished.  Often, when they come face to face with the fact that this is not always so, they are crushed. 

The only way I know to handle failure is to gain historical perspective, to think about people who have successfully lived with failure.  A verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes perfectly describes the world to which I returned from prison: "I returned and saw that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise nor riches to men of understanding, nor favors to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all."

Admiral Stockdale makes it clear that the required characteristics are not hard skills per se, nor are they trade skills, but the characteristics are the framework of thought.

Trade skills are like the train cars running on the rails of a traditional liberal arts and sciences education. 

The derailment of individual human character with the resultant society occurs when we have the train cars moving forward without the proper placement of the rails.  Once the rails are properly laid down, the train cars can carry anything.   But, even the best of cars, carrying the best of commodities, cannot achieve a rightful delivery without the proper underlying framework.  Wisdom, virtue and character are separate and distinct from intelligence.

Please read Admiral Stockdale's list again.  You will find that those referenced qualities and skill sets are derived from a traditional liberal arts education, and the quickness of earning a trade income is not any part of his assessment of leadership or excellence of human character.

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Gregg Zegarelli http://www.zegarelli.com/staff/grz


Gregg Zegarelli, Esq.


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