A Life In Special Operations

Nobody goes through life and is successful all on their own. In his memoir “Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations” retired Admiral William H. McRaven chronicles some of his experiences, achievements, and challenges that would not have been possible without the help of others. 

I never know what to expect from memoirs, autobiographies, or personal accounts. “Make Your Bed”, however, made me feel excited to learn more about the life of Admiral William H. McRaven. He first went viral following his commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin reaching a broad audience at home and abroad. His remarkable career within special operations could be described with an endless list of Hollywood movies that includes the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and the infamous Operation Neptune Spear – the mission to bring to justice the leader of Al-Qaeda – Osama bin Laden. Sea Stories is the rendezvous of his personal account and professional experience. Across eighteen chapters, McRaven tells his story of becoming a special operator. Born into a military family, McRaven gradually evolved his character from a rambunctious average child to a skilled and trusted leader. The early chapters eloquently describe the struggle to follow the footsteps of his family and the generation that ended European tyranny. Finding his profession through an evolution of athletic endeavors combined with the grace and support of good people helping the young McRaven along the way was heart-warming to read but also inspiring when McRaven reflected

knowing I could set a goal, work hard, suffer through pain and adversity, and achieve something worthwhile made me realize that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to

McRaven’s writing style is entertaining yet sometimes a little bland. Each chapter has its own charisma and appeal, which make this book a great read for a commute or as an alongside read to another book.

Critics called out that other communities within special operations have taken a different approach to public relations, one defined by discretion and the principle of the quiet professional. McRaven’s memoir continues to amplify the already romanticized image of the Navy SEALs without critically examining the current issues within the Navy SEAL community ranging from alleged war crimes to mental health to discipline problems. When in reality, the Navy SEAL community is drifting away from its core values prompting retired and active duty Navy SEALs to speak up against the exploitation for personal gain by so many former special operators. McRaven failed the reader in that regard, but perhaps more tragically failed his fellow SEALs. Sea Stories is nothing more than repeating special operation missions already known to the public. In some cases these stories were immortalized by heroic portrayals of Hollywood actors. But it’s also nothing less than a personal account of serving 37 years, almost four decades, in one of the toughest professional organizations within any military industrial complex in the world. I found pleasure reading some of the stories while its sometimes repetitive nature often undermined a true takeaway for the reader.  

An Ode To Diplomacy

There are few books that taught me more about the strategic decisions behind U.S. foreign policy than the Back Channel. Bill Burns’ account is both a history lesson and an upbeat reminder of the value of diplomacy.

The Back Channel by Bill Burns is a well-written, historic memoir of one of the finest career diplomats in the foreign service. Exceptionally clear-eyed, balanced, and insightful in both voice and content, Burns walks the reader through his three decades of foreign service. Starting out as the most junior officer of the U.S. embassy in Jordan under then Secretary of State George Shultz, Burns quickly made a name for himself in the Baker State Department through his consistency, ability to mediate and deliver, but also his foreign language skills including Arabic, French, English and Russian. In describing “events” at the State Department, Burns strikes a perfect balance between the intellectual depth of his strategic thinking against the contours of U.S. foreign policy. He offers a rare insight into the mechanics of diplomacy and the pursuit of American interests. For example, Burns illustrates the focus of the H.W. Bush administration in Libya was on changing behavior, not the Qaddafi regime. Sanctions and political isolation had already chastised Qaddafi’s sphere of influence, but American and British delegations supported by the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) interdiction in the Mediterranean were able to convince Qaddafi to give up the terrorism and WMD business. “He needed a way out, and we gave him a tough but defensible one. That’s ultimately what diplomacy is all about – not perfect solutions, but outcomes that cost far less than war and leave everyone better off than they would otherwise have been.”

I was too young to remember the German Reunification, but I vividly remember the Yeltsin era, its mismanaged economic policy, and the correlating demise of the Russian Ruble sending millions of Russians into poverty. When Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, I was glued to the news coverage for days, weeks on end – forever changing my worldviews and national identity. Burns memoir offers a new, liberating viewpoint for me about these events; it helped me to connect their impact on the foreign policy stage and subsequent decisions by world leaders. This really manifests in his description of Obama’s long-game in a post-primacy world:

“Statesmen rarely succeed if they don’t have a sense of strategy – a set of assumptions about the world they seek to navigate, clear purposes and priorities, means matched to ends, and the discipline required to hold all those pieces together and stay focused. They also, however, have to be endlessly adaptable – quick to adjust to the unexpected, massage the anxieties of allies and partners, maneuver past adversaries, and manage change rather than be paralyzed by it. (…) Playing the long game is essential, but it’s the short game – coping with stuff that happens unexpectedly – that preoccupies policymakers and often shapes their legacies.”

But aside from candid leadership lessons and rich history insights, what makes the Back Channel so captivating is the upbeat and fervent case for diplomacy. Burns goes out of his way detailing the daily grind that is required to serve and succeed in the State Department:

“As undersecretary, and then later as deputy secretary, I probably spent more time with my colleagues in the claustrophobic, windowless confines of the White House Situation Room than I did with anyone else, including my own family. (…) Our job was to propose, test, argue, and, when possible, settle policy debates and options, or tee them up for the decision of cabinet officials and the president. None of the president’s deputy national security advisors, however, lost sight of the human element of the process. (…) We were, after all, a collection of human beings, not an abstraction – always operating with incomplete information, despite the unceasing waves of open-source and classified intelligence washing over us; often trying to choose between bad and worse options.”

Moreover Burns offers lessons for aspiring career diplomats:

“Effective diplomats (also) embody many qualities, but at their heart is a crucial trinity: judgment, balance, and discipline. All three demand a nuanced grasp of history and culture, mastery of foreign languages, hard-nosed facility in negotiations, and the capacity to translate American interests in ways that other governments can see as consistent with their own – or at least in ways that drive home the cost of alternative courses. (…) What cannot be overstated, however, is the importance of sound judgment in a world of fallible and flawed humans – weighing ends and means, anticipating the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions, and measuring the hard reality of limits against the potential of American agency.”

All taken together make the Back Channel a must-read of highest quality for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy or diplomacy. I would even think the shrewd political observations captured in the Back Channel make for a valuable read with regard to domestic policy or current affairs, but a modicum of international policy awareness is still required. The Back Channel’s only drawback is its predominant focus on American interests in the Middle East and Europe. I can’t help but wonder how the United States would look like today had its political leadership opted for a strategy of offshore-balancing instead of a grand strategy of primacy; more focused on pressing domestic issues such as trade or immigration with our immediate neighbors Canada, Mexico and northern Latin America. I’m curious to hear Burns’ thoughts on this. Perhaps he’ll cover this arena after finishing his term as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Just Try One More

And find out what you are made of. In her autobiography, American ultra-marathon open water swimmer and international swimming hall of famer, Penny Lee Dean describes overcoming life’s adversities and conquering the elements when you just try one more.

Water is an unforgiving element. The oceans are a hostile domain for man. Unlike land, where an ultra-marathon runner may rest during a grueling 100 mile race, the open waters have no mercy: stop swimming and you’ll die. This makes swimming an intriguing sport for many athletes. When it comes to long-distance swimming, however, there are few people as groundbreaking as Penny Lee Dean.

As a native of California, her childhood is marked by moving around several swimming clubs across the Bay Area. Through a series of setbacks within short-distance races Penny identified her talent and passion for endurance swimming. Those early days were filled with invaluable lessons to improve swimming style and to build up mental and physical strength. The longer the swims, the more she needed to acknowledge pain and then go beyond it.

“In marathon swimming, more than in any other sport, the mental attitude is at least 85 percent of the battle.”

What I found fascinating about Penny Lee Dean is her early dream of swimming the English Channel. This goal weaves like a red thread throughout this book. It guides and drives all her important decisions. And in order to make her dream become a reality she was fortunate enough to have an influential coach: Siga Rose. They quickly became a high-performing unit with Siga taking Penny to the next level in a dynamic, ever-changing ocean environment. Persistent training in the ocean with increasing distances elevated Penny into a position where she would attempt to swim 22 miles across open water from Los Angeles to Catalina crossing the Catalina Channel.

Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, is fraught with a deep struggle for love and compassion. Her account of her mother appears like a pendulum that would swing from love and care to not feeling supported and left vulnerable. While her mother was instrumental to find the best coaches and teammates available in the early 1970s Penny also saw the relationship of her mother and father break apart. The emotional struggle with it helped her to build up a mental fortitude that is fueled by an intensity to go further, faster.

Despite her personal adversities with her family, her internal battles against herself, Penny always found her way back to just try one more and see where it would take her. With this unshakable attitude she overcame unimaginable physical pain, emotional stress, jellyfish and the mental trepidation when faced with dynamic swells, waves, high winds and ever changing open water conditions. 

I found many invaluable lessons in Penny Lee Dean’s autobiography. Her description of building up mental toughness through setting affirmations, repeating affirmations and linking those affirmations to concrete goals are commonplace nowadays, but her story takes place in the 1970s when amateur and professional sports were far from scientifically researched as they are nowadays. I was also intrigued by her daily, unwavering discipline. It almost appears as if her daily schedule didn’t change for about two decades: rise by 6am, training in between 6:45am to 6pm, and in bed by 9pm. It speaks to the sacrifices athletes must take on in order to achieve greatness. But it also speaks to the level of passion and dedication she had for the sport. While I chose this book to learn more about overcoming the elements and testing myself in the open waters I sure don’t see myself swimming at ultra-marathon distances. However, the beauty of this autobiography is its simple message: just try one more when you feel you can’t go any further. It’s applicable to your studies, to your family or work struggles or when life hit you hard. Just Try One More is just that: don’t think, do it.