Sea stories are the tales that sailors and adventurers love to tell and retell as buddies gather over a bottle or two. In his new book, out today, Admiral William McRaven shares some good ones from his 37 years as a Navy SEAL and anti-terrorist commander.
There was the time McRaven took part in a free-fall training jump at 13,000 feet over the San Diego coast and collided with another SEAL jumper. Instantly McRaven was plunging head-down and spinning at 120 miles an hour, tangled in his half-deployed chute, its long nylon straps wrapped around his legs. When his chute finally opened fully, it yanked him almost to a stop, wrenching his legs in two different directions and catapulting him into a screaming chaos of searing pain and violent convulsions. That’s just the beginning of that story.
Lust for challenge and adventure showed up early in the McRaven psyche, and his Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations starts at the no-less-exciting beginning. As an elementary school kid in 1966, McRaven and two buddies one San Antonio summer day mounted a commando raid on an “igloo,” one of the weapons bunkers across the barbed-wire fencing from the McRaven home at Lackland Air Force Base’s Medina Annex. The facility, guarded by shoot-to-kill military police, is where a similar domed igloo had exploded three years earlier. (No one was hurt, but the detonation sent tremors into the city and an alarming mushroom cloud high over its southwestern neighborhoods.)
The young McRaven, armed with a pearl-handled Roy Rogers cap gun, slipped and fell going over an electrified fence just as a siren and flashing red light signaled trouble was coming. “Clearly, I had not thought this through,” McRaven remembers telling himself as he and his buddies scrambled to safety. It was a lesson that prepared him well for later years, during which he painstakingly built decision matrices for proposed operations, imagining what could go wrong and how to respond.
For example, McRaven discusses his responsibility for the perilous rescue of Richard Phillips, the cargo ship captain taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009. At the time, McRaven was also supervising anti-terrorist operations in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, and the Philippines, each involving Americans on dangerous high-stakes missions.
“I grabbed another Rip It from the small refrigerator in the SAR [Situational Awareness Room] and took a quick sip. It had been almost forty-eight hours since the beginning of the hostage crisis, and I hadn’t stepped away from my desk except to use the head,” he writes. On the phone, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, tells McRaven that the president wants a deliberate action plan, “and William—” he pauses, “you will give him a deliberate action plan . . . by tomorrow.”
The next day, Mullen is on the phone again listening to McRaven outline the plan.
“That’s your deliberate plan?” Mullen asks.
“Yes, sir, that’s it,” McRaven responds.
“Let’s make sure I understand this, William,” Mullen says, and he reads back the plan to McRaven. “Somehow when Mullen said it, it didn’t sound so clever,” McRaven admits.
There are many spellbinding tales in the book, including a chapter devoted to the McRaven-led mission that killed Osama bin Laden, told in the kind of gut-wrenching detail that only a first-person account can provide. Just beware of the reefs of acronyms that lie ahead: MOCLOC, SOA, LEDET, ARG/MEU, SAD, ATC, CDE and SAR, to name a few. They’re all offered with hard-learned lessons, including one summed up by the title of McRaven’s earlier best-selling book, Make Your Bed. Most trainees dropped out of the Navy SEAL course because “they struggled not with the problem of the moment, but with what they perceived to be an endless series of problems which they believed they couldn’t overcome,” he explains. McRaven’s solution? Take each problem as it comes. Persevere. Start with the first problem, and keep moving forward.
But this is a book of sea tales, not advice or philosophical musings. McRaven seems reluctant even to face up to the full cost of the past eighteen years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Readers may have preferred a more considered response from someone who was directly involved in much of it, including three years commanding a task force of SEAL commandos that captured or killed more than 6,000 “high-value” individuals. During the U.S. invasion and initial seven-year occupation of Iraq, 3,481 Americans were killed in battle and 31,957 were wounded; Iraqi society was fractured, and “thousands of innocent people” were killed, McRaven concedes, not mentioning that the fighting has gone on well beyond 2011.
“Some may ask whether the U.S. effort was worth it,” he writes, acknowledging that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the excuse for the invasion, never actually existed. “I have no good answer. I have only hope . . . that someday from the ashes of this war will arise a stronger, more representative, more inclusive Iraqi government . . . I hope that the families of the fallen warriors will find peace in knowing that their loved ones died serving valiantly, protecting their fellow soldiers and halting the spread of Saddam’s evil. I can only hope.”
It is sometimes said that no one hates war more than the people who have to fight in it. There is much truth to that observation—but disappointingly, you won’t find it in this book. On the contrary, McRaven writes a passage that celebrates violent conflict: “War challenges your manhood. It reaffirms your courage. It sets you apart from the timid souls and the bench sitters . . . It builds unbreakable bonds among your fellow warriors. It gives your life meaning” (emphasis McRaven’s).
In case his message isn’t clear, he adds that despite the painful losses and sacrifices of combat, he found that “war would never lose its allure.
“To the warrior, peace has no memories, no milestones, no adventures, no heroic deaths, no gut-wrenching sorrow, no jubilation, no remorse, no repentance, and no salvation. Peace was meant for some people, but probably not for me.”
David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist based in San Antonio, has covered war and conflict around the world for four decades. His most recent book, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (Little, Brown) won the 2017 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction.