My Life in Special Operations
Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)
Grand Central Publishing, 2019, 352 pp, HC, $32.00
I wasn't sure what to expect when opening this book; perhaps some dry, technical and dense descriptions of special operations. It isn't. This is truly a memoir. Sea Stories reads as an adventure tale, a coming of age and a man who was involved in many of the most important military operations of the 21st century.
McRaven defines sea stories as: "tales of epic adventures recounted by sailors returning home from a long voyage; usually told over a bottle of rum with good friends and good intentions". It is a fine description as it is evident that throughout his 37 years as a Navy Seal, McRaven amassed many stories with his friends, family, fellow Seals and two Presidents of the United States and their administrations.
As most memoirs do, the beginning starts with the Admiral's childhood. He recounts living in France. His father an Air Force officer, sitting around a table with fellow officers in a bar telling stories of WW II. As a child McRaven would sneak into the club, occasionally caught by the bartender and delivered to his father's lap. His mother and the other wives would sometimes join and "stories filled the evening, with my mother occasionally covering my ears when the men said something 'too adult'".
An underlying theme of this book is trust. That there is no way in which any great thing can be accomplished without the help of a team. A young McRaven is taught this through his training in the Navy Seals. Throughout "Hell Week" many candidates drop out. His class leader Dan'l Steward giving the young Seal hopefuls advice states "the only way you can complete Hell Week is if we stay together as a team...We must stick together...take it one evolution at a time." This advice informs McRaven his entire career.
McRaven is involved in so many high profile operations it is astonishing. Reading Sea Stories is reading the behind the scenes planning and execution of the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Phillips who was hijacked by Somali pirates and the Seal Team Six operation which killed Osama bin Laden. McRaven was intimately involved in the planning and at times directly supervised these operations. During these missions McRaven and his teams rehearse methodically. All contingencies that can be accounted for are. There is almost no wiggle room in the protection of his teams and the protection of the troops is utmost.
The life of a Navy Seal isn't pretty; it is filled with tragedy, loss and adventure. The triumphs that McRaven describe he shares with his teams and superiors. He is unfiltered in describing his own faults and willingly gives credit to those with whom he works. There are descriptions of his own life threatening incidences, and visiting the troops that have been injured in life altering ways. A thread throughout is determination and hope.
McRaven is unabashedly hopeful for this country. He states "I have seen the young men and women of this generation, the oft-maligned millennials...They are as courageous, heroic and patriotic as their parents and grandparents before them...they will not stand by and watch bad things happen to good people. They are more questioning. They want to know why... Why are we going to war, why are we increasing our debt, why can't we do something new and different...and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we will all be just fine". Coming from a Navy Seal with 37 years of service, I think I'll take his word on it.