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Interview With Adm. William H. McRaven, USN, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command

Adm. William H. “Bill” McRaven is the ninth commander of SOCOM, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. He previously served, from June 2008 to June 2011, as the 11th commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Before his JSOC command, McRaven had served from June 2006 to March 2008 as commander, Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). In addition to his duties as commander, SOCEUR, he was designated as the first director of the NATO Special Operations Forces Coordination Center, where he was charged with enhancing the capabilities and interoperability of all NATO special operations forces (SOF).

McRaven has commanded at every level within the special operations community, including assignments as deputy commanding general for Operations at JSOC; commodore of Naval Special Warfare Group One; commander of SEAL Team THREE; task group commander in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility; task unit commander during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield; squadron commander at Naval Special Warfare Development Group; and, SEAL platoon commander at Underwater Demolition Team 21/SEAL Team FOUR.

His diverse staff and interagency experience includes assignments as the director for Strategic Planning in the Office of Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council staff; assessment director at USSOCOM, on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations; and as the chief of staff at Naval Special Warfare Group One.

McRaven’s professional education includes assignment to the Naval Postgraduate School, where he helped establish, and was the first graduate from the Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict curriculum.

He recently took time to answer a few questions from The Year in Special Operations Consulting Editor John D. Gresham.

 

The Year in Special Operations: You were a journalism major at the University of Texas. What drew you to that particular vocation, and how did you make the transition to becoming a special operator?

Adm. William H. McRaven: I got into the school of journalism in my junior year. I found out I could write and enjoyed the creative process of writing.

In high school, after seeing the movie The Green Berets, being a Green Beret was everything to me, so I had always wanted to go into the service. However, back then, there were no movies, no books, nothing about the SEALs. My sister was dating a Green Beret who told me he thought I should be a Navy SEAL. So I have to give credit to my being a SEAL to an Army Green Beret.

So I have to give credit to my being a SEAL to an Army Green Beret.

 

Are there any significant differences in the BUD/S course that selected, qualified, and trained you into a SEAL, as compared to today?

While all courses go through some changes, the core of BUD/S has always remained the same. That is, it teaches you the rules. It gets back to this point about doing the small things and doing the small things right. You need to do things right, even when you are tired. You learn at a very early stage in your military career you need to be precise. The instructors are very clear and they give you very specific guidance.

Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S)

A Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) candidate waves a flare during a simulated dive casualty drill while training at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. Dive training is the second phase candidates participate in during BUD/S. The Navy SEALs are the maritime component of U.S. Special Operations Forces and are trained to conduct a variety of operations from the sea, air and land. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dominique M. Canales

BUD/S then and now also teaches three other things:

The first is to know what your body can do. I went essentially six days without any sleep, and was cold and wet most of that time. You may be tired, but there are some things that are more important than being tired. Whether you are from the SEALs or any of our SOF forces, you do the same sort of mental gymnastics to determine whether you are on the threshold of known pain, or known fatigue. In the field I can ask myself, “Have I gone six days without any sleep?” Well, if I haven’t, then I’m probably okay because I did it in BUD/S.

BUD/S has also always taught not to quit. I think this is probably the most important thing. When we look back on our careers, we’ve all had moments when we said, “I’m tired” or “I’m wet, cold, and miserable,” or “I’m fed up,” or “I’m at the lowest point.” Those moments define us.

Another thing BUD/S teaches you is the guy that ends up becoming a SEAL is not always the strongest, the fastest, and the bravest. He was the guy who just kept going. As Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

Those young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and civilians who are supporting us out in Afghanistan, those are the ones who are really, really good. They’ve been knocked down a lot of times. They just keep moving.

 Those young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and civilians who are supporting us out in Afghanistan, those are the ones who are really, really good. They’ve been knocked down a lot of times. They just keep moving.

Unlike many special operators who have avoided the media, you’ve embraced it, even writing a book called SPEC OPS: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. Can you tell us what made you do that, and has the book’s long-term success surprised you?

The funny thing is it was never meant to be a book. I never had any intention of getting it published. I wasn’t interested in the mass market. I wrote it as my thesis for Naval Postgraduate School. I was approached by Presidio Press, who said they wanted to publish my thesis. They obviously were interested in the mass market. I was interested in the theory, which I had worked so hard to develop. They initially wanted to cut out the theory and said they wanted to sell the great stories. I said no and wouldn’t agree to it. To me, it was all about the theory, because that is what serious practitioners of special operations would want to know. The fact of the matter is now I’m not sure if the serious practitioners really cared about the theory. But I did.

So, with that in mind, yes, I think the long-term success of the book still surprises me. Although in all honesty, I’m not sure how much of that success can be attributed to me as the author as opposed to the curiosity, and sometimes myth, which exists about special operations.

The books, movies, video games, and other things about special operations all seem to become wildly successful in their own way. If the book helps garner more support for or awareness of the bravery and sacrifice by our special operations warriors and their families, then that’s when I’ll feel the book has been truly successful.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

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    Susan Polizzotto

    ” the guy that ends up becoming a SEAL is not always the strongest, the fastest, and the bravest. He was the guy who just kept going. As Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

    Couldn’t agree more, or say it any better. Reminds me of a Japanese proverb that inspired me thru many difficult times: Nana korobi, ya oki. trans. if you fall down seven times, stand up eight.