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A philosopher and a warrior probe the complexities of battle

PATRICIAN in bearing, eloquent, always erudite, Philip Rhinelander moves easily from the thought of Aristotle to that of Kierkegaard as he suggests a point about human nature.

Retired Vice-Adm. James Bond Stockdale, his words landing hard and fast like jets on a heaving aircraft carrier, propounds the practical implications of foreign policy in waging war.

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Both professors - one a distinguished philosopher, the other the most decorated living hero of the United States Navy - are marching their students through the ethical foxholes mankind digs for itself when force is applied in human affairs.

They jointly teach a course at Stanford University on the moral issues of war and peace. Class lectures resemble a philosophical jam session. The ivory tower meets the bombing line.

The two men have been friends for 23 years. As a young Navy flier, Admiral Stockdale was sent to Stanford and studied philosophy with Dr. Rhinelander. A Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Stockdale is famous for his refusal to break under torture during eight years of captivity in North Vietnam.

He was senior American officer in Hanoi's Hoa Lo prison, where he set an example for not collaborating with the enemy by bruising his face with a stool so as not to be photographed for propaganda purposes. A husband and the father of four, he spent four years in solitary confinement, two years shackled in leg irons.

''What I learned from Phil (Rhinelander) was vitally sustaining to me in prison,'' Stockdale says. Words like '' 'God,' 'duty,' 'honor,' 'integrity,' were not philosophic abstractions. The ideas I had studied became principles to live by.''

''When I was freed, the Navy asked me to write a paper justifying the value of nontechnical courses for career officers. My recent experience convinced me that no engineering course in the world could have prepared me mentally for what I had to face as an individual. And as officers, we had to maintain the rationale for a country-in-exile,'' he adds.

''I'm not saying that we should base education on training people to be in prison, but I am saying that in stress situations, the fundamentals, the hard-core classical subjects, are what serve best,'' he later wrote in The Atlantic Monthly.

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Both men challenge students to ask: ''How do I as an individual fit into the bigger picture of war?'' Neither considers war a law unto itself. Each has spent his life grappling with the moral scourge it represents - where, as the Greek historian Thucydides wrote, ''the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.''

Rather than starting with accepted standards of conduct in war, ''We start with an adequate theory (of conduct) as the goal in the distance, with ourselves mired in the question of war today as it is,'' Dr. Rhinelander says. ''We hope to cut through cultural and ethical relativism and find a standard of solidarity with others.''

Rhinelander, a former student of Alfred North Whitehead, has reflected upon and taught about the conflict of man against man for more than 50 years. ''Jim and I have fought many times the mental skirmish of might vs. right,'' he says.

''What we want to suggest to students is that they clarify their minds as to what they really believe.'' This can only be done by ''understanding a problem thoroughly before rushing in with a solution. Students are not asked to agree with us, but to think for themselves. We tell them to 'seek simplicity but distrust it,' '' Rhinelander says.

They plan to collaborate on a book that they hope will serve as a syllabus for similar classes. In their course, they cover five theories of war:

* No restraint. One side totally destroys the other.

In the Peloponnesian War, the inhabitants of the island of Melos refused to surrender to Athens. They were annihilated. The events recorded in the ''Melian Dialogue,'' by Thucydides, provide a useful comparison to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

* Prudential restraint. War becomes an extension of national policy, essentially diplomacy by other means.

This theory was best stated by Karl von Clausewitz, the German philosopher of military affairs. Rhinelander summarizes it this way: War is a matter of practical expediency, in which the morality and laws that exist within a given community are not shared across two distinct national boundaries.

* Moral restraint - the ''just war'' theory.

This approach poses limitations on the conduct of war, especially as regards the treatment of prisoners and the destruction of civilians. Originally developed by the 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, it establishes criteria as to the initiation of war (jus ad bellum) as well as to how one fights a war once engaged (jus in bellum).

Modern warfare must be seen against the backdrop of nuclear weapons, which have irrevocably altered the just-war theory. The tactics of terrorism and guerrilla warfare likewise call into question just-war concepts and flourish in the shadow of a nuclear Armageddon.

* War as always wrong. Widespread civil disobedience of the Gandhian sort is considered an alternative.

A pacifist outlook gains added weight in a nuclear age, where survival of the human race, not just oneself or one's nation, is the issue.

* War as necessary because history dictates its necessity.

The ''oppressor class'' is so evil that war must be waged as a condition of freedom. Marxism-Leninism and some exponents of liberation theology often embrace this point of view.

But the course is not just neatly developed theories. Hard questions stemming from hard experiences surface in every lecture, students say.

Stockdale, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, knows that in a nuclear age even the most humane of warriors is suspect. The 1972 ''Christmas bombing'' of Hanoi ordered by President Nixon (''I viewed this from a prison cell'') convinced him that Clausewitz ''is as right today as he was during the Napoleonic wars: The name of the game in war is to break the enemy's will.''

B-52s pounded the enemy's capital with little or no letup for 11 days, effectively bringing the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. Within 30 days of the end of the bombing he was released from prison.

The Hanoi bombing experience prompts him to raise what he considers perhaps the most difficult question in the course, one that every democratic society must face. When is force necessary, and how much force is necessary, in the face of a clear threat to the body politic? At times, to prevent a greater loss of life, there may be a need for a ''restraint on restraint,'' he says.

''Would it have been better for a few French brigades in 1937 to have terminated Hitler's career, one that ultimately took millions of lives to end?'' Stockdale asks. A country's ruling out a preemptive strike (like the Israeli bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor or the recent US invasion of Grenada) would eliminate a necessary option for national leaders in modern warfare, he says.

Mrs. John Bernice Mitchell, a student auditing the course (her husband fought in World War II), says about her experience: ''Life will never be so simple again. I realize now how totally complex every issue, especially this issue of war, is.''

She and most other students in the course - many of whom are engineering majors fulfilling a humanities requirement - especially appreciate the juxtaposition of a warrior's thought with that of a philosopher's.

''Admiral Stockdale has made me realize how different the professional military mind is from my preconceptions. It has made me reread Plato,'' Mrs. Mitchell says.

Three texts, all in paperback, make up the core of the curriculum: ''The Warriors,'' by J. Glenn Gray; ''The Future of Mankind,'' by Karl Jasper; and ''Just and Unjust Wars,'' by M. Walzer. Four other books are required reading. They are ''On War,'' by Clausewitz; ''War and Morality,'' R. Wasserstrom, ed.; ''Enchiridion,'' by Epictetus; and ''Living With Nuclear Weapons,'' from the Harvard Nuclear Study Group.

The point of the course is to help students understand the issues and seek wisdom knowing that war, in Rhinelander's words, involves ''the art of making correct decisions on insufficient evidence, under conditions of uncertainty, and then acting on what we know.'' That, he says, is what philosophy is all about.

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