Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations – Admiral William H. McRaven


Dear Partners in thought, 

I thought I would speak to you about a man and a book though in that case the man is the book and he is more important than his stories through who he is and represents in terms of values. I would like to speak to you about “Sea Stories – My Life in Special Operations” by Admiral William H. McRaven who tells us about his life and 37 years with the U.S. Navy SEALs (literally Sea, Air Land but actually the elite U.S. Navy special forces widely recognised as the elite of the elite American special forces) from trainee to Commanding Officer of all SEAL Forces, responsible for well-known special ops including the famed raid of Abbottabad against Osama bin Laden in 1991 In Pakistan.  

Mac as he was called in his Navy SEAL training days by his tough and hard-nosed Vietnam Vet instructors was the 2014 Commencement Speaker at University of Texas who delivered in his whites the famed 20 minute “Make your bed” speech (“If you want to change the world, start by making up your bed…” and ten similar pieces of advice) that made internet history, re-stressing the importance of taking charge of one’s personal life and always going forward. Mac is the kind man we growing up in Europe in the sixties and seventies would see on screen, trying to emulate, hoping we could be one day what we were seeing. This book is about human stories in an unusual context, first due to the SEAL environment and second as taking place in a war context where decisions mean life or death of fellow warriors and civilians. More than a simple author or even a SEAL, Mac through his book and his UT speech became a much needed role model for our different times (Do watch and listen to his UT 2014 Commencement speech on YouTube).   

As a child, Mac was a confirmed world traveler as his dad, a senior Air Force officer was stationed in France at NATOs’ SHAPE Fontainebleau headquarters (that was before Le Grand Charles decided to send them to Brussels in 1966). We see him at five  sneaking into the club of these fighters pilots, all bigger than life, prolific smokers, hard drinkers and with the biggest of hearts, surprised they were still alive and not at all used to peace time, however fragile. Mac had a great way to describe these men which the first chapter of the book clearly and accurately describes as “The Greatest Generation”. He has a few lines to describe his father and his friends that sums it all for us: “Like all the men and women of their generation, they were the children of World War 1, lived through the Depression, and the men all fought in World War 2 and Korea. They were survivors. They didn’t complain. They didn’t blame others for their misfortune. They worked hard and expected the same from their children. They treasured their friendship. They fought for their marriages. They wore their patriotism on their sleeve, and while they weren’t naive about America’s faults, they knew that no other country in the world valued their service and sacrifice as much as the United States did. They flew their flags proudly and without apology”. Mac felt that what made them different as a generation was also the way they took all the hardships they went through, which were so big when compared to what most of us went through with our lives since WW2, and “turn them into laughter-filled, self-deprecating, unforgettable, sometimes unbelievable stories of life”. The part I really feel should resonate in our Western “cry-baby times and areas” is the one about not blaming others or the system for one’s misfortunes and taking charge of one’s life and destiny.   

Mac takes us through a few chapters to his teenage years in Texas until we go into main territory with SEAL training, culminating with “Hell Week” that will decide who graduates or more likely not. SEAL is also about team-bonding, teams of men who bond together and will succeed better as such going through very challenging programs that will test their human limits. During Hell Week, instructors drive trainees to surrender and ring that bell three times, being odious and sub-human, though really wanting to toughen up these aspiring SEALs and creating a class sprit. Obviously Mac will not ring the bell and will be a graduate of Class 95. Mac will learn the value of the team at SEAL training. 

We are then in 1981 and go to the Philippines where Mac as a young Lieutenant heads up a jungle training op to rescue and release the local Marine commanding officer having been kidnapped by local Islamic terrorists (already!). The operation gets delayed, SEALs are noticed early and the bad guys win. Three times Mac will tell the actual Marine commanding officer who played a part in the exercise that they could pack and go home but he wants to keep going, also as the main rationale for the exercise is to smoothen the relationship between Marines and SEALS in the area. As the two planes in charge of taking them back on a three hour flight as part of the exercise are late, the Colonel will finally agree to call it a day so Mac and him will not board their plane when it finally arrives. One hour later, that plane will crash in the water, due to the exhaustion of its pilot, killing all but 28 on board. Mac will always remember that event, realising that fate also plays a role in life.  

In 1986 when SEALs are tasked for an under-water mission against Tripoli that would involve a submarine ride from Puerto Rico and the use of micro-subs, Mac trains hard with his buddies in the Puerto Rico waters. One day they get stuck and are not doing well, especially his partner with little body fat which looks good on the beach but does not help in cold watery temperature, even in Puerto Rico. After a few hours as the situation worsens for them, Mac can only think about telling a joke to his partner. He tells him about the gorilla that enters a bar and asks a gin and tonic to the bartender, who then asks his boss: What should I do? To which he is told: Just charge him (a very high rate then of) nine dollars as “gorillas an’t very smart” and “he won’t know the difference” which he does, worrying about the gorilla’s reaction. However the gorilla pays, drinks it straight and asks for another drink which he gets for the same rate, the waiter telling him: “Well you know, we don’t get too many gorillas in here…”. Before the gorilla punch line could be told by Mac, a rescue team arrives, took them off the water and takes them back to base, where Mac, still dripping, is being told that the Admiral in charge would like to see him hic et nunc. Upon seeing the Admiral and his SEAL commanding officer, the former tells Mac, in front of about 200 specialists who followed the operation that day, to give them a debrief. However before Mac could start, the Admiral says: “What’s the punch line?”. There had been a microphone in the sonar buoy and all their conversation, “all of it”, had been relayed to the whole team back at base…So Mac gave the gorilla’s punchline: “Well you know, for nine dollars a drink, I am not surprised”, the whole hangar erupting in laughter. In the end, the sub mission against Tripoli was cancelled as some of us remember (I was starting my first job in New York then and I do), a massive air raid took place, Operation El Dorado, taking out the main Tripoli airfield, a military barracks nearby and a headquarters in Benghazi. Mac will remember that event as one when good humour and camaraderie helped navigating the stress of warfare, creating a link throughout the ages with those warriors of that Great Generation and how they coped with they did and kept doing then.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush, a Great Generation man if any himself, a man whose values represented America so well, tasked the SEALs to identify a plane that had gone down in a very hard to get part of British Columbia, making it an unusual request in an unusual geographiy for the SEALs. The plane, lost 27 years before, had attained legend status to the point that even the locals did not know whether it existed or if it did could ever be identified so deep it was lost in the local wilderness. President Bush went to the SEALs due to the high-altitude diving that this mission would entail given the topography involved. That was a mission that nobody wanted, very peace-time, even if skills required were very much SEAL-like, which in the end Mac had to lead. He found the plane against all odds, provided necessary closure to the families of those pilots and passengers and got gratefully remembered both on Pennsylvania Avenue and within the U.S. Navy top hierarchy.  

We then go straight into Desert Storm and operations leading to the first defeat of Saddam Hussein and liberation of Kuwait under the international US-led coalition following U.N. resolutions 661 and 665. It looks like yesterday, even for those of us who saw the rapid unfolding of the events after work among investment banking colleagues in Paris cafés. Mac is still at sea though mostly ensuring that Saddam’s oil tankers do not play a military role in the confrontation. We follow Mac and his fellow Amphibious Squadron Five a.k.a. PHIBRONFIVE taking part in such operations. Interestingly his senior colleagues from the Air Force or from the Marine Expeditionary Unit/Special Operation Capable (MEU/SOC – as an aside the U.S. military is a trove of great acronyms) were all Vietnam Vets, war-tested individuals for whom Mac had tremendous respect as military leaders and men. We go through the boarding by a SEAL team commanded by Mac of Iraqi oil tanker Amuriyah, whose captain tries to stop, screaming at the American “pirates” while ensuring his face sufficiently shows he has resisted if only for internal purposes. The SEALs were told that some Iraqi oil tankers might shelter some of Saddam’s prized properties and possibly conceal weapons of mass destruction. In the end it will be clearer that this type of operation was to stop the tankers from preventing a Saddam-made ecological disaster by sinking oil-filled tankers in the Arabian Gulf. Many of these ships would eventually be air bombed before they could take on any oil. One of the interesting features of the story is to see how these Navy personnel, marines, Air Force and SEALs were coordinating such operations in a very disciplined script where each actor had to be ready 15 minutes before his turn short of being considered late. Desert Storm was the first time that Mac deployed his unusual skills in a war situation, fifteen years after basic SEAL training. 

As Mac tells us “war challenges your manhood. It sets you apart from the timid souls and backbenchers. It builds unbreakable bonds between your fellow warriors. It gives you life meaning”. When Mac, a very stable character, tells us that “Peace was meant for some people, but probably not for me” one could be forgiven for worrying as if that statement were an existential call, even a thirst for more war. However what Mac means is that for peace to be preserved, war needs to be prepared and for this we need professionals like Mac – si vis pacem para bellum. War should also not be an objective but a last resort. War should be prepared so we do not have to wage it in the full knowledge that we would lead it to win if needed. War is not to be trifled with, like launching strikes to cancel them in the same evening. War should be the prerogative of those who are not only elected but capable of assessing the pros and cons of military options and are surrounded by experts who can “lead” the leaders in that dangerous field. The U.S.-Iran confrontation we know, that pits the leading world democracy against a very challenging theocracy with the former having broken its word on a key treaty and the latter that is a very destabilising factor in its own region, shows that war needs being handled by level-headed leaders and experienced teams so last resort is really last resort and credibility is maintained at all times.  

Looking at what it means to command, Mac goes into issues that seem hard to handle like “giving second chances”. Some people will make the most of them and the giver of the second chance will be proud, and some will squander them and the world will say “I told you so”. Giving second chances can be risky. Mac reflects on the need to be a tough disciplinarian and the equal need to be compassionate at times so true leadership gradually emerges. Mac was fired early on in his career which could have stopped him in its very tracks, nobody being surprised. However while learning from his mistakes, he never quit, working hard on redeeming himself and proving doubters that he could lead a SEAL team (that the man who led all SEALs tells such a story tells you why he ended up leading them all). He gives a great story of a young SEAL Lieutenant he had to bench due to a DUI (driving under influence) which for an officer was a death knell though to whom he said to keep going and show his true worth. That Lieutenant was eventually promoted to Lieutenant Commander, would eventually serve in Iraq, earning the Bronze Star of valour and saving several lives of his fellow SEALs. Mac took a risk in not pushing him out and it paid off, strengthening the young Lieutenant’s desire for redemption and belonging.   

In 2001 when jumping from an airplane, frogman Mac, who by then commanded all West Coast SEALs, could have seen his career ended, first with his life. One of his fellow jumpers opened up his chute right into him in high altitude and knocked him out in the sky “with the force of a heavyweight boxer”. He recovered in time to land safely but quickly felt with high pain that the physical damage in the air had been massive, of the serious surgical kind. Mac was so wounded that it was not obvious that he could go on a a SEAL. He ended up in a wheelchair after leaving the military hospital, having struggled with “Sundowners” Syndrome, wildly hallucinating and fighting with nurses and doctors while losing his sanity while there. He also received support from visiting SEALs, also badly wounded, who lifted him up. When he visited Admiral Olson, the commander of Naval Warfare Command, a very tough SEAL, ex-“Black Hawk Down” Mogadishu veteran and his boss to talk about the future, that subject was very much up in the air, with no parachute. Olson had arranged for Mac’s next assignment in the Pentagon, so Mac could also recover better, but there was the issue of the medical board to let him go on. Mac played it straight to Olson asking him to forego the medical board (he knew would bench him) if he could do his passation of powers “on crutches” to which Olson agreed, taking a personal risk. Mac knew he put Olson in a tough spot as rules had to be followed, people to be notified and forms to be filled out, though he was betting on that unusual bond between fellow warriors. It worked. As Mac tells us, he had to visit many wounded soldiers throughout the Iraq and Afghan campaigns, all of them wanting to be kept in special ops. They didn’t need that second leg. They could see fine out of just one eye. They shot better with a prosthetic hand. Bu as a commander he had a job to do. They were rules to be followed. People to be notified. Forms to be filled out. Regulations to be to followed. But as Mac pointed out, showing what true leadership is in a way that the Greatest Generation would have enjoyed, “somehow my damn staff kept losing the paperwork…One of those days I need to check into that…”  

We then go on through several of the key periods of Mac, whose next step will finally be not at the Pentagon but with the White House as Director of Strategy and Military Affairs in the Office of Combatting Terrorism. We are in October 2001 and America is under its deepest shock since Pearl Harbor. On 9-11 four planes are highjacked, two of which down Manhattan’s Twin Towers, ending nearly 3,000 lives (including many first responders – we owe a big tribute just now to Jon Stewart and his great work to ensure funds are finally delivered to those heroes and most likely their survivors), one crashes into the Pentagon and one, likely en route to the White House, thanks to the indomitable courage of its passengers crashes into the forests of Pennsylvania killing all on board including its heroes. We see how a warrior adjust to bureaucracy and ends up advising the President by presenting retaliation options. We then go on to Iraq with Operation Iraqi Freedom and beyond when Mac will be one of the leaders in the hunt for Saddam Hussein under the overall command of General Abizaid. In 2008 we are more into occupation mode and dealing with the huge number of martyr-wrapped bombers being sent to the local open air food markets by various fanatics such as the dark Abu Ghadiya, of whom Mac will lead the elimination in nearby Syria via Black Hawk and SEAL intervention. We then go on the high seas and the SEAL-led operation to rescue the famed Captain Philips who will be later played by Tom Hanks on the screen. We then go to the Obama period and the use of drone or small “helos” to dispatch “bad guys” in a most efficient manner such as with the Somali Saleh Ali Saleh Nahban which involved a very soul searching decision from President Obama given the traumatic 1993 Black Hawk Down episode in Somali after Mac made a presentation to him, Joint-Chiefs of Staff Mullen, SecDef Gates and SecState Clinton. And of course there will be that famous raid in April 2011 in Abottabad where the mastermind of 9-11 who thought he was safe in “complicated” Pakistan, near army barracks, will fall at the hands of SEALs (if you have not see it, do watch Dark Zero Thirty with the talented Jessica Chastain). I will keep these sections under full wraps as if classified for you to enjoy. All of us remember the picture in the White House War Room (the one when Secretary Clinton puts her hand on her face, which will unfairly portray fear as she was always one of the toughest unwavering “go get them” supporters of Mac and the likes when they presented options to the deciders for going after leading terrorists).  Being a fair man, Mac will have a word on the fact they did not find any weapons of mass destruction, the driver for Operation Iraqi Freedom beyond the need for retribution in addition to “finishing the job of 1990” but likely as he did not write policy will stop from providing personal views, especially in terms of the devils that were unleashed and we still deal with, if only in Syria.                          

The beauty of this feel-good book, which is an easy and enjoyable read that I would recommend for the summer, is not so much about its stories as it is about Mac. However well beyond Mac it is about duty, honour, style and camaraderie under fire. It is about those things that few of us will ever have to face in a war situation (hopefully) but can apply in our daily lives dealing with our families, our friends, our colleagues and society in general. It is about being oneself and putting values first, certainly before money, for those of us working in business, finance or tech. And more importantly, it is about never, never ringing the bell.    

Hooyah! (the SEAL rallying cry, not to confuse with the Marine Corps’s Oorah!) – and warmest regards,