Friday, April 06, 2007

Remembering Douglas Bader and Admiral Stockdale

Those recently-released British sailors and Royal Marines will speak publicly this morning about their ordeal in Iran. The 15 military members flew back to Britain yesterday, after being freed by their Iranian captors.

Hopefully, the expected statements from the former detainees will shed additional light on their captivity, and their conduct while in Iranian hands. As we noted yesterday, it is premature to judge the actions of the British troops, because we don't know what threats or coercive techniques might have been used in extracting those "apologies." Various media reports also indicate that none of the British personnel--mostly junior enlisted members--had any prior training in survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) techniques. That meant that the captured sailors and marines were at a distinct disadvantage in dealing with Iranian interrogators and propoganda specialists.

Still, the televised images of British personnel "apologizing" for entering Iranian territorial waters and their chatty, pre-departure photo-op with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are raising questions in the U.K. Christopher Dandeker, a professor of military sociology at University College London, told The New York Times that the captives’ behavior raised worrying issues, but cautioned against a rush to judgment:

“I know many military people are concerned about the overly loquacious and positive statements made by the service personnel,” he said in an e-mail message. “But as yet we don’t know what kinds of coercion were present before the ‘hostages’ made their TV statements."

Steven Glover, a columnist for the Daily Mail, put it more bluntly:

“I do not blame the hostages for their apparent willingness to confess and apologize,” Mr. Glover wrote. “But we had better be honest with ourselves. In no previous era — not during World War II or Korea or Suez or the Falklands — would British servicemen have behaved in such a manner.”

Apparently, times have changed. I wonder if those young British service members are familar with the story of Douglas Bader, a legendary Spitfire pilot during World War II. Bader lost both of his legs in a flying accident during the 1930s, but returned to the cockpit with a pair of artificial limbs. During the war, Bader became an ace during the Battle of Britain, but was shot down during a fighter sweep over France in August 1941, and captured. Bader lost one of his prosthetic legs when he bailed out of his Spitfire, but the Germans allowed the RAF to air drop a replacement leg for him.

It was a decision the Luftwaffee quickly came to regret. With a complete set of artifical limbs, Bader spent most of this time trying to escape, and he staged a number of attempts over the years that followed. At one point, the Germans became so exasperated that they threatened to confiscate Bader's protheses, and finally imprisoned him in the "escape-proof" Colditz Castle, where he remained until liberation by U.S. forces in 1945. When can only imagine what Group Captain Bader might have said--or done--if offered a photo-op with Goering or Hitler.

Similarly, I wonder how many Americans know why Admiral Jim Stockdale won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conduct as a POW in North Vietnam? Regrettably, in this sound-bite age, Stockdale is best remembered as Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 campaign, and for his famous quip--"Who am I and why am I here"--during that year's vice-presidential debate.

But that is not the legacy of Admiral Stockdale. His heroism in the Hanoi Hilton is the stuff of legend--and rightfully so. From his Medal of Honor citation:

Recognized by his captors as the leader in the Prisoners' of War resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture after he was detected in a covert communications attempt. Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War. By his heroic action, at great peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners and of his country. Rear Adm. Stockdale's valiant leadership and extraordinary courage in a hostile environment sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

The citation doesn't go into details, but Admiral Stockdale's "personal sacrifice" included cutting his own scalp and beating his face with a stool so that he couldn't be used in enemy propaganda films. And, when he learned that other POWs were being tortured to death, Stockdale slit his own wrists, demonstrating to his captors that he preferred death to submission. Admiral Stockdale's selfless acts are credited with curtailing North Vietnam's brutal treatment of American prisoners, and he became a symbol of resistance during years of captivity.

Cut from the same cloth as Doug Bader, it is inconceivable that Jim Stockdale would ever agree to a grip-and-grin with Ho Chi Minh, or accept a "goodie" bag as he left North Vietnam.

Quite a contrast to what we saw in Tehran.


cynical joe said...

I'd be surprised if any of the RN or RM personnel don't find their careers 'plateauing' after this. I'd be amazed if any of them are still in the service in two years.

Elam Bend said...

I'm betting that Wale's or his troops wouldn't act in such a manner...if, that is, the Blair government give him a chance to fight.