Thursday, November 4, 2021

Book Review: Sea Stories, My Life in Special Operations

By Admiral William McRaven
Reviewed By Captain Alexander Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Docent and Contributing Writer

In Sea Stories, Admiral William McRaven has written a well-organized, powerful book in which he performs a number of valuable functions. The title Sea Stories is misleading because it has a connotation in the patois unique to the Navy, which means the story is embellished to meet the intent of the teller. The admiral’s stories are, by contrast, real. He shows his personal sacrifice and involvement in his arduous initial training as a SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) special operations officer, an experience shared by all SEAL personnel, officer and enlisted. He describes the wide variety of situations in which Special Operations forces apply their training. Most important, he provides an inspiring catalog of events worldwide which, taken together, show the Navy’s institutional response to the novel challenges of unconventional warfare where one fights against often un-uniformed yet dangerous adversaries. The book gains meaning because of his personal involvement in many of the evolutions of which he writes.

McRaven immediately engages the reader’s attention by linking his personal growth and testing as a nascent high school track star to his indoctrination as a special operations officer. The common thread in the experiences is the necessity for overcoming the difficult aspects of a situation under pressure. He notes doing this through the intercession and encouragement of a devoted coach, Jerry Turnbow, who inspired him to greater effort to break a school record in the one-mile run. He was later inspired by the often profanity-laced exhortations of instructors in BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal) training, reputed to be the most strenuous indoctrination syllabus in the armed forces. He describes what he considers the most important objective of BUD/S indoctrination: to push trainees to their limit and beyond, “to eliminate those unsuited for the world of the special forces operator.” It entails giving encouragement to others as team players in the final stage of a seemingly insurmountable task: surviving Hell Week, the capstone of initial SEAL training.

The book is a rendition of operations in which the United States Navy, often in cooperation with other nations, has applied military power to attain goals to include ensuring national safety, if not survival. McRaven uses various situations requiring rapid response to emerging threats as well as those requiring complex, highly sensitive preparation. An example of the first operation is the seizure and inspection of SS Amuriyah, a hostile merchant vessel thought to be carrying contraband to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Supported by USS Ogden (LPD 5) and USS Brewton (FF 1086), a team fast roped onto the ship, stopped it, and subdued a bellicose master and hostile crew. The operation, fashioned in about 72 hours, was a success because of total dedication of the SEAL team to mission completion, though it could not be ascertained beyond all doubt that no contraband had been found. McRaven notes in justifying abandoning detailed R2P2 (Rapid Response Planning Process) planning that, “all the staff work on the world doesn’t get you better results than what the experienced officer knows intuitively.” The operation was executed “without any major injuries to either Americans or Iraqis. He later emphasizes another key ingredient in carrying on unconventional operations exemplified in dealing with pirates who seized the SS Maersk Alabama. That is: “factors unfold quickly—you give authority to the ground commander and hope that will win the day.” A second type of operation, shown in the effort to remove Osama Bin Laden, known as Operation Neptune’s Spear, requires planning of a detailed sensitive nature involving the same considerations. Operators must take risks to accomplish the mission.

Admiral William McRaven (Official U.S. Navy photo)

The most moving chapter of the book, “The Next Greatest Generation,” describes his visit to the U.S. Army Hospital, where he visited special operations personnel wounded in the line of duty. Some of these gallant soldiers required intensive hospital care to survive the long journey to CONUS medical facilities. His description of the injuries sustained by one young soldier, who is connected to a multitude of life support appliances, is devastating to the reader and clearly affected the admiral. It renews his admiration for their “tremendous sense of determination, ebullience and lack of self- pity” in facing catastrophic injuries. The abiding lesson for the nation, made at various points in Sea Stories, is that its citizens, like special warfare operators, must be “imbued with an indomitable spirit, a true belief that tomorrow will be a better day—if only they fight and never give up.”

Certain aspects of the book may be distracting to the reader unfamiliar with military patois. The use of coarse language throughout, though sometimes good natured, may be offensive and tiresome; however, it gives it authenticity that is required. The author generally strives to define unique military/Navy terms and acronyms. It might, however, be useful to have a separate glossary of terms and expressions not known to the non-military reader.

In summary then, Admiral McRaven has fashioned an engaging volume well worth the reading. It clearly shows what he quotes from Helen Keller in the page immediately preceding the table of contents that, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

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