If you settled down with a sailor, back onshore from a tour of duty, he tells you sea stories, those tales of drama and humor from his experiences.
That is the premise of the book Sea Stories by Admiral William McRaven, USN (Retired). McRaven spins a lifetime of experiences into a compelling narrative about some of the headline-grabbing events of the last half-century.
Sea Stories stayed on the New York Times Bestsellers List many weeks. It is McRaven’s second book, the first being Make Your Bed, popularized by his 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas. This book is more personal than pedagogical.
McRaven takes you from his childhood in a military family in San Antonio through being piped off at retirement. His career spanned significant events in the life of both McRaven and an America at war with terrorism.
McRaven was more than a sailor. He was a SEAL. The stories of his training experiences make the reader shiver in the waters off Coronado Island. It shines a light on the bone-crushing training designed to do one thing: teach a man not to quit.
One practical take away from that chapter was to “just get through the next evolution.” Evolutions are tasks/exercises designed to stretch a man to his maximum endurance. When challenged, the chant became one more evolution. When faced with regular challenges of life, it is an effective strategy. Just get through the first thing.
On the menu for McRaven are high-profile SEAL missions. He describes both the on-the-ground and backroom discussions concerning the rescue of Captain Phillips (made into film form by Ron Howard), the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the discovery and killing of Osama Bin Laden.
His narrative is crisp. Language is vivid. In his explanations, you can feel the blanketed-humidity of Iraq, the rugged expanse of the mountain ranges of the Afghan-Pakistani border, and the open water of the Somali Sea.
News reports make military missions sound John Wayne. In reality, it required time and effort to vault political hurdles to accomplish what seemed, from reports, to be routine for military operators. Interagency turf wars are a reality to the modern military as it fights not just conflicts abroad but must fight to get their missions done.
However, McRaven indicates that most of this red tape yields better decisions for mission in the end. He appeared to know how to navigate the world of competing interests at the State Department, the CIA, and between the various branches of the military.
For me, the chapter in which he visits wounded soldiers and sailors drew the most attention. It wasn’t about missions but sacrifice. The story about Brendan Morocco will linger inside of me for a while.
Many lessons flowed from his stories.
  • Never quit. Tough times come, but those who endure are the ones who win at life. He describes the dreaded sound of the three chimes of the bells during SEAL training. It meant that someone gave up.
  • Planning is vital to any task. McRaven describes in details how deeply planning for missions took. It took months, examining all kinds of scenarios. Devised plans faced repeated rehearsals uncovered flaws. Once the planning was complete, mission confidence was high.
  • Learn to deal with setbacks. In the incident of the killing of Bin Laden, he tells of the Blackhawk helicopter lost due to a hard landing created by a vortex. They depended on that aircraft but shifted to a backup plan when things went south.
  • Discipline is a trait that gives freedom. With every word, you hear of men and women who have trained their bodies and minds to stay focused on the task at hand. In a world in which discipline is a dirty word, it is refreshing to see the value of self-management.
I thoroughly enjoyed McRaven’s book. I listened to the audiobook version, which McRaven himself read. It made the words and emotions even more compelling.
Sometimes, we let journalists tell stories shortened to a 20-second segment. They reduce great service and great heroism to an irrelevant soundbite squeezed between the report of new diets and the latest political snipping. McRaven gives the full story, with detail only known to a principal. With it, we appreciate the sacrifice of those who gave lives, limbs, and legacy to make this country free for all.