Elliot Ackerman is the author, most recently, of “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning.” His next novel, “Red Dress in Black and White,” will be published next year.
McRaven, most known for his key role in the planning and execution of the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, has long been a towering figure in the Special Operations community. This is his third book; his second, the bestseller “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life . . . and Maybe the World,” was based on a commencement speech he delivered at the University of Texas. His first and least well-known, “Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice,” came out in 1995 and offered analytical lessons from key commando raids throughout history. Among many in the Special Operations community, it’s considered a classic theoretical text.
“Sea Stories” combines certain elements of “Spec Ops” with the wisdom so colloquially articulated in “Make Your Bed.” In the second chapter, McRaven shares a story from his youth: He and a pair of friends attempted to break into an ammunition storage depot on the base where he lived with his mother and fighter pilot father. His friends were terrified, but McRaven successfully rallied the budding commandos throughout their raid. “As I started to ease my body over the final strand of barbed wire, my Roy Rogers pearl-handled six shooter fell from my holster onto the ground below. I looked at Billy and then down toward the pistol. ‘C’mon on! We gotta go!’ Billy screamed.” McRaven then describes his successful navigation over the wire and how he evaded the alerted military police. When his pistol was later discovered, his father asked him, “Do you know anything about this?” McRaven writes: “And then, for the first and last time in my life, I lied to my father. ‘No sir,’ I said.”
The anecdote is Washington-esque in its I-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree tone. And this is the book’s weakness. You can’t help but wonder how much these vignettes are aiming for truth and how much are they aiming for something else.
McRaven writes with great feeling about his remarkable career and the pivotal role he played in many complex commando missions, like the rescue of Martin and Gracia Burnham, a married missionary couple held hostage by Islamic militants in the Philippines. The strongest writing in the book is occasionally undermined by that “something else,” which feels like unnecessary SEAL mythmaking. In reference to the Burnhams’ weakened physical condition, a colleague of McRaven’s said, “They’re missionaries, for God’s sake, not Navy SEALs.” And McRaven replied, “They may not be SEALs, but what I do know is that their faith is strong.” When after a bad parachute accident McRaven stoically refused pain medication, he writes that “the imposing face of Doc Gould popped back into view. ‘You’re going to make them think all SEALs are f---ing superhuman.’ ” Does human suffering exist on a spectrum with SEAL training on one end and the rest of us on the other?
At times, McRaven alludes to parts of his life and career that contain complexity and, probably, truth, such as his premature relief from command of a SEAL squadron; however, he never discloses the details of that professional low. He grants the episode half a paragraph and remains silent about the rest.
Over the past decade, the SEAL community has been vocal about certain parts of its story while staying quiet about others. The alleged war crimes of Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, whose demotion Trump controversially reversed, come to mind, as does the dismissal of an entire SEAL team from Iraq this year after reports of drinking and sexual assault. Other communities within Special Operations, such as Delta Force — whose daring night raid killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month — have taken a markedly different approach toward public relations, one defined by discretion. As SEALs myths have become central to our culture, the silence of other, equally elite, groups has grown deafening.
McRaven could have written about what isn’t working in the SEAL teams. He could have touched on the emotional costs veterans pay for two decades of unending war. Addressing the complexity and humanity of the community would have been truly powerful, for being unique and new. That level of honesty would have made for the greatest sea story of all.
My Life in Special Operations
By William H. McRaven
Grand Central. 335 pp. $30