A POW's story of heroic triumph; In Love and War, by Jim and Sybil Stockdale. New York: Harper & Row. 472 pp.

By , Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

''There is cold and darkness even at noon.'' So wrote United States Navy flier James Bond Stockdale from a Hanoi prison cell in 1966 to his wife, Sybil, seven months after he was shot down over North Vietnam and reported missing in action. It was her first confirmation that he was still alive.

Seven years later - his hair now totally white, unable to read because of ''too many months in the dark, too many weeks in the blindfold,'' crippled and unable to raise his left arm - Stockdale walked out of the cold and darkness of Hoa Lo Prison into the arms of his wife, his four sons, and America's proud history of individual resolve.

This is a book which shows that the human spirit transcends national boundaries, but in which identity is clearly traced to home and hearth. Like Homer's ''Odyssey,'' it evokes classical themes about family and country - honor , courage, and patriotism. At its core is a heroic triumph over fate. As mentally and emotionally storm-tossed as the wandering Odysseus and the faithful Penelope, this distinctly American couple prevails over the despair of circumstance.

Recommended: 'One for the Books': 5 stories from Joe Queenan's exploration of his life as a reader

Told in alternating chapters by husband and wife, their story is a deeply personal one: the commanding officer struggling in the fog and dark of a communist gulag; the Navy wife trusting her traditional upbringing to see herself and family through a crisis she had never expected. Drawing on strengths of character both individual and cultural, the Stockdales faced and overcame the severest test of internal resolve - to hope in a hopeless situation, cut off from each other by a war seemingly out of control.

The technique of juxtaposing Jim's and Sybil's points of view elevates, indeed ennobles, the individual ordeal each faced. Their contrasting first-person narratives lend a sense of wholeness, not only to the disrupted pattern of their personal lives, but to the fragmentation experienced by the broader society during the Vietnam years.

No survival school can prepare an American POW for the systematic brutality of sadistic captors. Jim details his beatings, tortures, and lack of food and medical attention during four years of solitary confinement, two of them in leg irons. The story is a sordid (but, to many, familiar) litany of life in a communist prison. Moral principles handed down by his parents and nurtured throughout his naval career, beginning at Annapolis, enabled him to leave prison with his conscience intact.

As senior officer (shortly after his release Stockdale was promoted to admiral and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in prison) , he succeeded in establishing rules for resistance in every camp in the Hanoi prison system. ''To tell them (his men) 'Do the best you can and decide for yourself how to resist,' was an insult. They demanded to be told exactly what to take torture for. They saw that it was only on that basis that life for them could be made to make sense, that their self-esteem could be maintained, and that they could sleep with a clear conscience at night.''

At great personal risk, Stockdale and his men maintained communication and morale by tapping stealthily on walls and picking up return signals through taps , gestures, coughs, throat-clearing, and sneezes. At one point Stockdale disfigured his face with a stool and broken glass rather than be photographed for propaganda purposes. Of immeasurable lift to him while in captivity was a statement by an exasperated camp official: ''Prisoners at camps miles away all know your rules.... You have set back the Camp Authority two years.''

The first letter Sybil received from her husband convinced her that he was being severely mistreated. The lack of response from her own government, particularly the State Department, confused and then disheartened her. After two years of agonizing inaction, she finally took matters into her own hands and went public with what she knew about the prisoners' inhumane treatment, in violation of the Geneva accords. Already returning from ''visiting'' American POWs, antiwar activists were, at best, dupes in a larger propaganda war, at worst traitors.

This ''traditional'' Navy wife formed the League of Wives of American Vietnam Prisoners, which was instrumental in securing better treatment for her husband at the hands of his captors, as they feared adverse publicity if he should suddenly die. Throughout, she was the single parent providing for and raising four young sons.

Her cooperation with Naval Intelligence through a covert method of communication to get information in and out to her captured husband provides some of the most exciting reading in the book. She wore a hidden tape recorder to meetings with the State Department. That she used the US antiwar groups allowed to visit American POWs - pawns in the highly orchestrated Vietnamese effort to manipulate the US news media - as carriers for her own and Jim's clandestine messages is testimony to the stature of her efforts and the personal growth demanded of her.

A major role of Homer's ''Odyssey'' was to instruct the young as to what it was that made them members of a nation-state, and what obligations they owed to this nation. Odysseus' son, Telemachus, is but an infant when his father sails for Troy. He is a young man of 20 when they meet again. Despite the separation, the son knows what is expected of him when his father returns.

Modern experience too often cheapens the individual deeds of men and women, too often loses the connection between examples of bravery and what a society can rightfully expect from its very best. In some ways all of us, young and old alike, are left alone, like Telemachus, waiting for the return of an Odysseus to ground our ideals in heroic fact and deed. By telling their story of personal best in extremis, Jim and Sybil Stockdale offer parent and child just such a timeless lesson in honor, fidelity, courage, and sacrifice.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...