Ever since I watched his famous speech “Make Your Bed”, I have been captivated by the career and thought of retired Admiral William H. McRaven, the former commander of the Navy SEALs. I was therefore excited to receive a copy of his most recent book The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived (Grand Central Publishing).
While I was reading it, an article from the Journal of Strategic Studies caught my attention. Written by National Security Affairs Professor James J. Wirtz, “The Abbottabad raid [during which Osama bin Laden was permanently neutralized by Navy SEALs] and the theory of special operations” elaborates about the theory of special operations, whose father was none other than Admiral McRaven. He theorized it in his master’s degree thesis in a period when, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, we lived in a “[…] new, unipolar world, [where] U.S. special forces would be relegated to tertiary missions within a Cold-War force structure that appeared bloated, obsolete and ripe for significant reductions.”
McRaven’s work sought “[…] to demonstrate that a tactic and unit deemed largely irrelevant by conventionally-minded officers and civilian strategists could actually achieve strategically and politically important effects, but only if planned and executed by special operators themselves against significant targets in proper ways.” And you can figure that the devil was – and still is – in the details.
Retired Four-Star Admiral James Stavridis served as the 16th NATO Supreme Allied Commander – a function once occupied by the legendary General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 2016, it was reported that he was vetted as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He recently published an excellent book Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Characterwhich I recently had the privilege – and tremendous pleasure – to review here on this blog.
Having always been attached to the Fourth of July celebrations because of my deep admiration for the United States, it was my intention of publishing a special interview for the occasion. Admiral Stavridis generously accepted to answer my questions and I’m profoundly grateful.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this book would be an excellent holiday read. Happy Fourth of July to all my American friends!
Here is the content of this insightful interview.
We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war.
In Sailing True North, one of my favorite chapter (with the one devoted to Nelson) is the one about Zheng He. What do you think of the current tense situation with China and how do you think we should deal with that?
We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war. That will require a mix of diplomacy, military deterrence, tech savvy, economic tools (both in competition with China and in encouraging other nations to avoid Chinese “debt traps”). In essence, we should confront China where we must (cyber, trade, tariffs, their claims of “owning” the South China Sea) but cooperate where we can (environment, pandemics, arctic trade routes). It will be a difficult and at times a dangerous passage. My next book, In Face, out in March 2021, is a novel about … a war with China! It is a cautionary tale, and let’s hope we don’t find it turning from fiction to fact before our eyes. Here’s a link to the Amazon page.
In the book, there are several references to religion, one to the Conclave, the other to John XXIII and Thomas Aquinas. I might be wrong, but I assume you are a Catholic and that faith seems to have had a significant impact on your journey. Am I wrong? Would you say that faith might also be an important buoy on the voyage of character?
Sea Power has always fascinated me. I will forever cherish the memories of walking in the footsteps of Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor and Admiral Horatio Nelson at Gibraltar. Back in 2011, I spent a night on the Rock and had trouble sleeping. Heat certainly had something to do with it, but I was also pondering how the British legend spent his days here, defending the interests of King and Country at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. I like to think that I might have crossed his spirit while walking in the beautiful streets of this British Overseas Territory.
These men and women who ruled the waves were gifted with exceptional and inspirational values. And I’m very grateful to retired Admiral James Stavridis for writing Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, where he details how these larger than life figures not only mastered what are certainly some of the most demanding jobs in the world, but also their character in front of adversity, whether it is the threat of invasion, war, bureaucracy, sexism or racism just to quote these examples. The best lessons are seldom learnt in easy circumstances.
Naturally, I will not talk about each of the fascinating personas that are presented between the covers, but I will write a few words about my Top 3.
“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.
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?”
Le livre de Guy Snodgrass, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattisest l’un des livres les plus intéressants et perspicaces à propos de la relation entre le président Trump et les militaires. À la lumière du congédiement récent du Capt. Brett Crozier en relation avec la crise de la Covid-19, cet auteur très bien informé a accepté de répondre à mes questions. Voici le contenu de nos échanges :
Capitaine de frégate Snodgrass: à la lumière du limogeage du capitaine Crozier de son commandement, je suis très heureux d’avoir l’occasion de vous poser quelques questions, puisque peu de gens sont plus qualifiés que vous pour commenter la situation.
Connaissez-vous personnellement le capitaine de frégate Brett Crozier?
Oui. Nous avons servi ensemble à bord de l’USS Ronald Reagan, un porte-avions à propulsion nucléaire basé à Yokosuka, au Japon. Il était commandant en second du navire (n° 2 à bord) et j’étais commandant de l’escadron de chasse.
Pensez-vous que le capitaine Crozier a fait ce qu’il fallait lorsqu’il a sonné l’alarme concernant la présence du virus à bord du navire?
Oui, sans aucun doute, il a fait ce qu’il fallait, en sensibilisant les autorités relativement à l’infection de la Covid-19 à bord de son navire de guerre. Un débat animé se poursuivra, à savoir si la manière dont il a sensibilisé le public, via un courriel envoyé à plusieurs destinataires au sein de la Marine, était la bonne ligne de conduite.
Cette situation évolue rapidement, alors que le secrétaire par intérim de la Marine, Thomas Modley, vient de prononcer un discours mal avisé et mal reçu à bord du navire de guerre concernant sa décision de congédier le capitaine Crozier.
Le secrétaire à la défense ou le président des États-Unis auraient-ils pu revenir sur cette décision s’ils avaient été en désaccord?
Pourraient-ils? Certainement. Modley était un responsable politique et ils sont supérieurs à lui [le secrétaire par intérim de la Marine] dans la «chaîne de commandement» politique.
Le secrétaire de la défense Mattis aurait-il agi de la même manière (limogeage du capitaine Crozier)?
Difficile à dire. Mattis est très imprévisible. Tout dépend de la façon dont l’information lui aurait été présentée. Comme Esper, Mattis aurait probablement ordonné que le capitaine Crozier soit relevé de ses fonctions, mais il aurait géré la situation de manière plus avisée.
Quel message ce congédiement envoie-t-il aux autres commandants de la Marine qui pourraient être confrontés à la même situation?
Faites attention à la façon dont vous communiquez avec les quartiers généraux supérieurs. Quoi que vous fassiez, vous aurez tort. À la fin de la journée, la US Navy a toujours besoin de professionnels prêts à prendre des décisions difficiles, quelles que soient les conséquences personnelles. Le capitaine Crozier a peut-être agi de manière inappropriée dans la manière de transmettre le courriel et le message à partir de sa boîte d’envoi, mais la gestion de la réponse par le Secrétaire de la Marine a été 10 fois pire que la faute originelle.
Que peut-on retenir des actions du capitaine Crozier au sujet du leadership en période de crise?
Faites ce qu’il faut, même dans l’anonymat. Placez toujours votre devoir devant vos intérêts personnels. Et que nos actions parlent plus fort que les paroles ne le pourront jamais.
À mon humble avis, il y a un parallèle intéressant entre les gestes posés par le capitaine Crozier et les paroles de Theodore Roosevelt, qui affirmait qu’il : « […] saura que sa place n’a jamais été parmi les âmes froides et timorées qui ne connaissent ni la victoire ni l’échec. » Êtes-vous d’accord?
J’adore cette citation. Je ne peux pas dire si elle convient ou non, et ce, tant que la Marine n’aura pas terminé l’enquête sur les circonstances entourant la note de service et sa publication.
Qui est votre leader / personnage historique favori pour des moments comme ceux-ci? Et pourquoi?
Le colonel de la US Air Force qui a posé la question philosophique à la génération montante des hauts dirigeants: préférez-vous être quelqu’un ou faire quelque chose? C’est difficile de faire les deux.
Accepteriez-vous de partager avec nos lecteurs votre opinion sur la manière dont le président et l’administration gèrent la situation?
Oui, j’aimerais bien. Je vous renvoie également à un épisode de mon podcast récent au sujet du congédiement du capitaine Crozier: https://anchor.fm/htlpodcast
Êtes-vous étonné par la démission du secrétaire par intérim de la Marine? Était-ce prévisible?
Pas étonné. Il était prévisible que les gestes posés par le Secrétaire par intérim de la Marine a résulté en une perte de confiance auprès de la population américaine, sans parler des hommes et des femmes qu’il représente au sein de la US Navy.
Merci beaucoup pour la générosité de votre temps et je souhaite que vous et votre famille soyez à l’abri de cette pandémie.
Merci, Marc, je te souhaite la même chose ainsi qu’à tes proches.
Guy Snodgrass’s book Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattisis one of the most interesting and insightful books I’ve read about the relationship between President Trump and the military. In light of what happened in the last couple of days with the firing of Capt. Brett Cozier in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this very well-informed author has accepted to respond my questions. Here is the content of our exchange:
Commander Snodgrass: in light of Capt. Crozier’s firing from his command post, I’m very happy to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions because few people are more qualified than you to comment it.
Do you know Capt. Brett Crozier personally?
Yes, I do. We served together onboard USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier homeported in Yokosuka, Japan. He was the ship’s executive officer (#2 onboard) and I was a fighter squadron commanding officer.
Do you think Capt. Crozier did the right thing when he sounded the alarm about the presence of the virus on his ship?
Yes, undoubtedly, he did the right thing by raising awareness of the Covid-19 infection sweeping through his warship. What will continue to be hotly contested is whether or not the manner in which he raised awareness, via an email sent to multiple Navy recipients, was the right course of action.
This situation is moving swiftly, as Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modley just gave an ill-advised and poorly received speech onboard the warship regarding his decision to fire Captain Crozier.
Could the Secretary of Defense or the President of the United States have reversed this decision if they had been in disagreement?
Could they? Sure. Modley was a political appointee and they are senior to him in the political “chain of command.”
Would DefSec Mattis have acted the same way (firing Capt. Crozier)?
Hard to tell. Mattis is very mercurial. All depends on how information was presented to him. Like Esper, Mattis would likely have ordered Crozier’s firing but he would have handled it in a more savvy manner.
What message does this firing send to other Navy commanders who might be confronted to the same situation?
Be careful how you communicate with higher headquarters. Damned if you do… damned if you don’t. At the end of the day, the U.S. Navy still needs professionals willing to make hard calls regardless of their personal consequences. Captain Crozier may have acted inappropriately in the manner by which the email and message made its way out of his outbox, but the Navy Secretary has handled his response 10x worse than the original sin.
What does Capt. Crozier’s actions teach us about leadership in times of crisis?
Do the right thing, even when no one is watching. Always put service before self. And that our actions speak louder than words ever can.
In my humble opinion, there is an interesting parallel between Capt. Crozier’s actions and the words of Theodore Roosevelt when he said “[…] so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Would you tend to agree?
I love that quote. Can’t comment on whether or not the quote fits until the Navy completes the investigation of the circumstances around the memo and its release.
Who’s your favorite leader / historical figure for times like these? And why?
U.S. Air Force Colonel who asked the philosophical question of rising senior leaders: Would you rather be someone or do something? It’s hard to do both.
Would you agree to share with our readers your opinion about how the President and the administration are managing the situation?
Yes, I would. I also refer you to my recently released podcast for an episode discussing Captain Crozier’s firing: https://anchor.fm/htlpodcast
Are you surprised by the resignation of the Acting Secretary of Navy? Was that predictable?
Not surprised. Seems predictable in that the Acting Secretary’s actions resulted in a loss of trust and confidence with the American public, not to mention the men and women he represents within the U.S. Navy.
Many sincere thanks for the generosity of your time and I wish you and your family will be safe from this pandemic.
In the process of writing my review of his excellent book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, I got in touch with Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), asking if he would agree to respond to a few questions for my readers. Despite a busy schedule and numerous media requests in relation with his book, he kindly accepted. I’m both grateful and impatient to put my hands on his upcoming book.
Commander Snodgrass, what’s your favorite political memoir, apart from Peggy Noonan’s (I assume it’s on the top of your list)?
All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos.
His favorite bios are the ones written about Henry Kissinger and George H. W. Bush
What’s your favorite biography? (My little finger tells me it might be “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson).
Either Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (for it’s no-holds portrayal of Kissinger) or Power and Destiny by Jon Meacham (the biography of former President George H. W. Bush).
Given your past career, you certainly nourish an interest in military history? What’s your favorite book in that category?
I’ll give you the standard TOPGUN answer to your question: it depends. I have a lot of ‘favorites’ depending on the application or topic at hand. Top three are: Eisenhower At War by David Eisenhower, The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, and The Encyclopedia of Military History by Ernest and Trevor Dupuy. For fun I’ll throw in Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot.
NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.
During your tenure with Secretary Mattis, which international personality (military or political) left the best impression on you and why?
Jen Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. He is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.
The U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations (Russia and China) on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.
I’d be very curious to know if you share Henry Kissinger’s vision about Russia and China? (I would have loved to read more about it in your book, but I understand it was not its scope)
No, at least not the way Kissinger views them now. Russia and China actively work to subvert U.S. influence around the world. Kissinger is far too eager to rush into their arms from what I’ve seen from him in recent years. Regardless, the U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.
Are you working on another book or is it something you are planning?
I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service.
Would you consider a run for political office in the future?
Would I? Possibly. Both U.S. political parties are incredibly unsettled at the moment, so I have a hard time determining if recent shifts in platforms are permanent or merely a reaction to President Trump. I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be able to publish and make a positive impact in the lives of others.
Premier porte-avions de conception entièrement chinoise et second de ce type au sein de la marine chinoise, le porte-avions CV-17 vient d’entamer ses essais en mer. Ce développement constitue une manifestation supplémentaire de l’ascension de la puissance militaire chinoise. Pékin est encore bien de pouvoir disposer d’une flotte comparable aux 11 porte-avions de la US Navy, mais l’entrée en mer de son 2e bâtiment témoigne bien du fait qu’elle incarne un acteur naval qui s’en vient jouer dans la cour du grand. Il s’agit d’ailleurs d’un sujet que j’entends suivre de près sur ce blogue.
Je tiens d’ailleurs à souligner que cette nouvelle a été portée à mon attention par le newsletter hebdomadaire de Nemrod, une association qui regroupe des étudiants et chercheurs de l’Université de la Sorbonne spécialisés sur les questions de défense et de sécurité internationale.