The Stockdale Paradox


When teaching a class on Active Threat Response, and thinking of how important mindset is to this work, and I recalled the Stockdale Paradox.

Admiral James Stockdale was a Vietnam War hero, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor (among other high combat honors), and one time Vice Presidential candidate. He was also a proponent of Stoicism

Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for over seven years. His composure, and his leadership during that time earned him the Medal of Honor.

Quoting the admiral:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This speaks to each one of us who at one time or another may come face to face with the stark reality of our own death. The faith that we will prevail in the end, held while facing the brutal facts of our current reality…

It’s described as a duality, a paradox; I suppose it would be by most people’s accounting.

But it’s not. It’s a monism. Hard to grasp, I know, but in that moment, or in those years of the most demanding of circumstances that Stockdale endured, it can only be a oneness, a meditation-in-action.

Stockdale is not the only one to remark on this mindset. Another of my favorite quotes comes from G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die…A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

– G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy.

Though from Christian perspective, Chesterton’s quote has much in common with the Stoic ideas that galvanized Stockdale, and those that form the bedrock of the classical martial ethos.

And those that should inform the cultivation of armed professionals today…


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