“Help as many people as you can. Make as many friends as you can. Work as hard as you can. And, no matter what happens, never quit!”
These are not the usual words or piece of advice you generally expect from a military figure like the retired commander of American Special Forces. But that’s the philosophy of Retired Admiral William M. McRaven, distilled in his most recent book Sea Stories: My Life of Special Operations.
Let me say it from the get-go. The book is pure joy to read. Not only because Admiral McRaven details his life as a Navy SEAL and the main operations in which he took part – like finding a crashed Navy airplane in the mountains of British Columbia (hey, I’m proud when a great author writes about my country), the capture of Saddam Hussein or the find and seek operation to neutralize Osama bin Laden (“the most successful special operation since World War II”). For a military enthusiast, those are great pages to read and the author has a gift for expressing himself eloquently and precisely. No word is superfluous.
But what amazed me the most is the mindset of that great military figure. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to watch the video of his speech inviting you to make your bed first thing in the morning then going about to change the world. Make your bed is also the title of a previous book by the famous Navy SEAL.
An outspoken believer in God and family man, Admiral McRaven also refers often to stoicism in his book – a predisposition also shared by none other than Former Defense Secretary and retired US Marines General James Mattis. Comfortable and at ease with his beliefs and values, he also finds no qualms in bringing terrorists to justice.
But what impressed me the most is what I learnt about the elected officials Admiral McRaven worked with and for. To that end, the following excerpt about his interaction with President George W. Bush regarding the neutralization of terrorist Abu Ghadiya (“the most wanted man outside Iraq”) in 2008 is worth quoting at length:
“At one point in the brief the President stopped me and asked, “Why are we sending the SOF guys in? Can’t we just drop a GBU‐31 on this guy?”
The question was telling in so many ways. Here was a President who had been intimately involved in fighting this war for the past seven years. He was so well versed on the missions and the nomenclature of the specific ordnance that he understood that using a precision‐guided five‐hundred‐pound GBU‐31 was in fact the right munition for the job. I was momentarily taken aback by the question.”
I found it revealing and I told myself it contradicts those (and there are many) who liked and probably still enjoy doubting President’s Bush acumen.
He has a similar observation about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when he writes that “Contrary to public perception, I had found Clinton to be almost hawkish. She asked all the hard questions, but never shied away from making the tough recommendations. I liked her style.” Between the lines, the reader can also understand that the author appreciated working under the command of President Obama.
But there is something even more revealing. When you read a memoir, you expect to witness some episodes of axe-grinding and gutter sniping. After all, this is an excellent opportunity to settle scores and get back at foes.
Don’t expect to find that approach between the covers of this book. After all, you are in the presence of a man who believes in the utmost importance of “making as many friends as you can.”
Admiral McRaven is always ready to praise those he worked with. The book is peppered with comments like: “a superb SEAL”, “one of the most professional enlisted men I had ever worked with”, “a level of maturity that wasn’t common in most young petty officers”, “with a drive for perfection that made his MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] one of the best I had ever seen”, “the finest enlisted man I had ever worked with”, “one of the most inspirational men I knew”, “one of the toughest SEALs I had ever known”, “exceptional leader”, “superb officer”, “seasoned operator”, “reliable ally”, “one of the most valuable men in my command”, “consummate team player”, “no finer enlisted man in the military”. And there are more like that…
The same goes about his superiors: “Mullen [the admiral who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] always reminded me of the great fleet admirals of World War II” (who wouldn’t appreciate such a flattering historical comparison) or “There was always something reassuring about having Leon Panetta [Director of the CIA] in your corner”.
Not once does Admiral McRaven pronounce even the slightest mean, derogative or unfriendly comment about anyone. I can’t remember reading such a style of memoir and it’s refreshing.
No wonder the guy is so popular. Kindness never kills and it permits one to reap great benefits in life. Stoicism must have a great deal to teach about the art of friendship.
You might not have what it takes to become a Navy SEAL (I certainly don’t). But there are many pages from that book that will help you and me get further in life. Making and keeping friends doesn’t require lots of physical ability, but it surely counts.
I have been very touched by this book and I’m not shy to admit that Admiral McRaven inspires me to become a better person.
Admiral, if ever you read this book review, please be assured that I won’t ring the bell – no matter how difficult the circumstances are.
William H. McRaven, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2019, 496 pages.
I would like to express my deep gratitude to Hachette Books and Grand Central Publishing for their precious and friendly assistance, notably for providing me with a review copy of this excellent book.