Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations by William McRaven: Summary & Notes

Rating: 7/10

Available at: Amazon

Related: Extreme Ownership


A fun read full of stories that are modern legends: the Captain Phillips episode, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and more.

There are people who are so impressive that they can inspire you through a book. They are real-life heroes.

McRaven seems like one of those people, and he has lived more in his life than most of us could ever hope to.





The years at Lackland Air Force Base were filled with dove hunting in the fall, deer hunting through the winter, bridge for the women, poker for the men, golf on the odd weekends, and frequent trips to the Gulf Coast for fishing and more storytelling. I’m not really sure when the men got any work done, but as a kid, I thought it all seemed part of the rhythms of life—and I loved it.

Like all the men and women of their generation, they were children of World War I, lived through the Depression, and the men all fought in World War II and Korea. They were survivors. They didn’t complain. They didn’t blame others for their misfortune. They worked hard and expected the same from their children. They treasured their friendships. They fought for their marriages. They wore their patriotism on their sleeve, and while they weren’t naïve about America’s faults, they knew that no other country in the world valued their service and sacrifice as much as the United States did. They flew their flags proudly and without apology.

But I’m convinced that what made this generation so great was their ability to take the hardships that confronted them and turn them into laughter-filled, self-deprecating, unforgettable, sometimes unbelievable stories of life. My father used to tell me, “Bill, it’s all how you remember it.” The stories in this book are how I remember my life. I think I could sit at that table in Fontainebleau now… and tell a story or two.




One evolution at a time. One evolution at a time. These words would stick with me for the rest of my career. They summed up a philosophy for dealing with difficult times. Most BUD/S trainees dropped out because their event horizon was too far in the distance. They struggled not with the problem of the moment, but with what they perceived would be an endless series of problems, which they believed they couldn’t overcome. When you tackled just one problem, one event, or, in the vernacular of BUD/S training, one evolution at a time, then the difficult became manageable. Like many things in life, success in BUD/S didn’t always go to the strongest, the fastest, or the smartest. It went to the man who faltered, who failed, who stumbled, but who persevered, who got up and kept moving. Always moving forward, one evolution at a time.


Aboard the amphibious ship USS OGDEN, Indian Ocean

October 1990

As terrible as it sounds, every SEAL longs for a worthy fight, a battle of convictions, and an honorable war. War challenges your manhood. It reaffirms your courage. It sets you apart from the timid souls and the bench sitters. It builds unbreakable bonds among your fellow warriors. It gives your life meaning. Over time, I would get more than my fair share of war. Men would be lost. Innocents would be killed. Families would be forever changed. But somehow, inexplicably, war would never lose its allure. To the warrior, peace has no memories, no milestones, no adventures, no heroic deaths, no gut-wrenching sorrow, no jubilation, no remorse, no repentance, and no salvation. Peace was meant for some people, but probably not for me.



October 2001

And then I said it—words that I would regret for the rest of my traveling days.

“Sir.” I paused. “I think we need to have everyone boarding a plane bound for the U.S. take their shoes off and have them inspected. Also, we need security to check every laptop. The battery on a laptop could be used to initiate a bomb.”

Downing didn’t hesitate. “Yes! Yes!” he shouted, clearly having the same difficulty with the air-to-ground communications. “I’ll talk to the President and get him to order it right away.”(In my defense, I only thought the order would be in place for a few weeks. Sorry… )Downing hung up, and within minutes the FAA had been ordered to upgrade their security protocols. An hour later, Richard Reid was apprehended upon landing at Boston’s Logan Airport, and within days the world of airline travel was never the same again.

Throughout history, there have always been warriors who understood the risks of serving. They understood that there was a chance their lives could be lost in the pursuit of a greater goal. They understood that they could perish while trying to protect others. To some outside the military, this belief may seem like naïve patriotism, misguided loyalty, or foolish enthusiasm—reasons given to young men and women by those in power to cover for adventurism or empire building. But I have learned many times over that those who serve do so with their eyes wide open. Young and old soldiers alike are not fooled by the political rhetoric. On the contrary, they question the cause every day, but they overcome their doubts and concerns because they are inspired by their fellow soldiers who serve nobly and not for some political agenda. Those who serve are serving for their hometown, their high school football team, their girlfriends and their boyfriends. They are serving and sacrificing because they believe in the America they grew up in. They know that America and the people who live in its big cities and small towns are worth the sacrifice, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice.




He turned from the window, came and stood directly in front of me. He looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Well, you probably should have let them continue on.” It was not the response I was expecting, but in the years to come I would realize that the greatness of Dave Petraeus was his ability to shoulder the missteps and even the failures of his subordinates: to build loyalty through his personal sense of command responsibility. He knew that both Erwin and I were doing our best. We had made a mistake, one that he knew we would correct and learn from. But now was not the time for an ass chewing, but the time for understanding.



If a nation is to survive and thrive it must pass on the ideals that made it great and imbue in its citizens an indomitable spirit, a will to continue on regardless of how difficult the path, how long the journey, or how uncertain the outcome. People must have a true belief that tomorrow will be a better day—if only they fight for it and never give up. I saw this indomitable spirit in my parents and those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II—and I saw it again in the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines whom I served with in Iraq and Afghanistan. And later when I was the chancellor of the University of Texas system, I saw it in equal amounts in the young students who sat in the schoolhouses across Texas. From the battlefields to the classrooms, I have seen the young men and women of this generation, the oft-maligned millennials. They are supposed to be pampered, entitled, and soft. I found them anything but. They are as courageous, heroic, and patriotic as their parents and grandparents before them. Those who fought and died or were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are the same young Americans who are building our bridges, finding the cures, and teaching our youth. They are the men and women who are volunteering to wear the uniform, fight the fires, and protect the people. They are not like my generation. They are better. They are more inclusive. They don’t see color, or ethnicity, or orientation. They value people for their friendship and their talents. They are more engaged. They will not stand by and watch bad things happen to good people. They are more questioning. They want to know why. Why are we going to war, why are we increasing our debt, why can’t we do something new and different? They are risk takers, entrepreneurs, givers of their time and energy. Above all, they are optimists—and as challenging as the times may seem right now, this generation believes that tomorrow will be a better day. I am convinced that history will someday record that these young Americans were the greatest generation of this century, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we will all be just fine.


Clausewitz asserted that the only way for an attacking force to overcome the natural strength of the defense was through mass and maneuver. But special operations missions seemed to defy conventional wisdom—why was this? I concluded that special operations forces were able to achieve “relative superiority” over an enemy by developing a “simple plan, carefully concealed, repeatedly rehearsed, and executed with surprise, speed, and purpose.” And to compare my theory against real missions, I conducted eight case studies and developed a relative superiority model. The model showed how, in the course of a commando mission, the special operations force gained “relative superiority,” how long they maintained it, and when they lost it. What is crucial for the success of any special operations mission is to minimize the time from when you are vulnerable to when you achieve relative superiority. Unlike real military superiority, relative superiority only lasts for a short period of time. No matter how I compared each Abbottabad option to the relative superiority model, the outcome was the same. The best approach was the simplest and the most direct: fly to the target as quickly as possible, get bin Laden, and get out. Nothing complicated, nothing exotic, just like thousands of missions we had done before. By the end of the week I knew what needed to be done. What I didn’t know was, could it be done?

We set up our rehearsal command post in a small single-story building away from the main base. While the operators continued to exercise their tactical scheme of maneuver, my staff rehearsed the command and control aspect of the mission. The staff prepared detailed execution checklists, reviewed every possible scenario, and looked at every backup plan. I directed the staff to build a decision matrix, so that in the heat of the moment if something went wrong on the mission, I didn’t have to think through all the alternatives. We would work through all the possible problems ahead of time and be prepared with options. Most of my decisions were binary:

  • If we were detected crossing the border would we continue? Yes or no?
  • If we were detected one hundred miles out? Yes or no?
  • Fifty miles out? Yes or no?
  • What if we had mechanical problems with the helicopter one hundred miles out?
  • Fifty miles out?
  • Once on target, what if bin Laden was not found within fifteen minutes?
  • Within thirty minutes?
  • What if the Pakistanis converged on the target within fifteen minutes?
  • Within thirty minutes?

The list of possible problems was extensive, but the decisions were easy. Hard to make, but easy to discern. If we were compromised crossing the border we would turn around and try for another day. If we had a helo set down for mechanical problems at a hundred miles out from the target, but the helo was not detected, we would continue on with the force we had. If a helo crashed, but we still had sufficient force to move to the target, we would continue the mission, but alert the Quick Reaction Force and medevac. Everything was binary. On missions like these you don’t want emotions to drive your decisions. If we were compromised crossing the border and the Pakistanis threatened to shoot down our helos, you could easily convince yourself that the mission was so important that you must press forward. Decisions like that rarely ended well. We had a backup plan for every contingency and a backup to the backup.

By the week’s end, we had rehearsed every individual aspect of the mission multiple times, but we still hadn’t put it all together. And if my research from the Naval Postgraduate School was correct, a full dress rehearsal was absolutely necessary to find flaws in the plan. Every historical mission I analyzed for my thesis showed that when a particular part of the mission wasn’t rehearsed, that portion invariably failed.



August 2014

Admiral Eric Olson, now retired, was sitting on the right side of the aisle, waiting to officiate my transfer of the Bull Frog award, as the longest-serving SEAL on active duty.

In my journey, I found that there was always someone better than me: someone smarter, stronger, faster, harder-working, more talented, more driven, more honest, more pious—just better than I was. It was humbling, but at the same time immensely reassuring. There were so many problems in the world that I could not solve, but maybe someone else could.

I learned that life is fragile and that we should take each day as a blessing. A single round from an Al Qaeda sniper, an IED on a road less traveled, a C-130 that never returned, a head-on collision coming home from work, a parachute that never opened, an X-ray that revealed a growing tumor—nothing in life is guaranteed, so make the most of what you have and be thankful.

Many times over I found that my success depended on others. It was the simplest of lessons, one I had been taught in basic SEAL training rowing my little rubber boat. And every success I had from that moment on had been because someone helped me.

I realized that life is actually pretty simple. Help as many people as you can. Make as many friends as you can. Work as hard as you can. And, no matter what happens, never quit!

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