I have an obsession with Admiral William McRaven. Everything he does seems more impressive than his fellow man, everything he speaks seems curated and weighty in his deep baritone, and everything he writes is worth reading and re-reading and then discussing with friends.
This post, therefore, recommends a person, and all the works he is attached to. Unfortunately, the reason I am able to do this with Admiral McRaven is because his body of work, spoken and written, is smaller than I would like. As I recommend the stuff I find valuable, it ends up being the majority of his work that is accessible to us.
I, and probably you, first heard of Admiral McRaven as the guy who gave the speech about changing the world by making your bed. But I only knew it for the two-minute viral clip of him discussing the merits of making your bed every morning and how doing so can start and end your day in a way that inspires you to arise and complete tasks which leads to more tasks and more tasks and eventually leads to a better future for yourself and others. It is a tantalizingly specific task attached to almost absurd consequences. But a sign of the brilliance of Admiral McRaven is that when he says it, it doesn’t sound absurd it all. In fact, the advice sounds like just the type of detailed execution that makes a life like Admiral McRaven’s so impactful.
When I first saw that clip, I doubt I even registered the man’s name. He was just another nameless commencement speaker amidst the smatterings of videos that get released during graduation season.
Conversely, the second time I encountered Admiral McRaven was by name only. I read No Easy Day, a powerful book about Matt Bissonette’s time as a Navy SEAL, from his training to his participation in the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden. The book inspires awe and respect for what these men and women are willing to put themselves through to serve their country. Their actions make something as simple as being able to create a blog and constantly post my inane thoughts about books, TV, and movies seem both miniscule and like an important gift. We have cliched the statement that ‘our freedom comes at a cost’, but there is nothing cliched about this book and the entailing of exactly what that cost is and who pays it.
That encounter with Admiral McRaven, by name only, came towards the end of the book, after all the grueling training, after many missions, after that all-important mission to capture Bin Laden, when the men are flying back with Bin Laden’s body. They exit the plane, carrying the body bag, and they lay it at the feet of the man who organized the operation, Admiral William McRaven. Because of the significance of that moment and that act, the name stuck with me. And years later, after I read more of his work, and became familiar with what he had done, I- unrelated to any experience with him- wanted to watch that video of the ‘army guy’ who told the world to make their beds. Low and behold, they were one in the same.
That connection was significant to me, because in-between my first acknowledging the name McRaven and then connecting it to my first time hearing him speak or write, I had read his book and his NYTimes pieces and had become a massive fan of all he stood, and continues to stand, for.
It was a year or more after reading his name in No Easy Day, and the half-assed internet research that went along with it, trying to understand the importance of this man, that I eventually picked up his book, Sea Stories. I strongly recommend it to any American, especially those who appreciate stories of patriotism and sacrifice. These concepts, and what they mean and what they look like and how to do them justice is at the heart of a lot of social and political conversations. And I don’t often know how to keep America as the identifying narrative that holds together so many conversations that try to divide. But America is a thread that does hold these conversations together, its flaws, its accomplishments, its freedoms, and its struggles. Sea Stories then, for anyone who did not serve, becomes, in the minor, a memoir of a man who understands patriotism and sacrifice more intricately than I ever will, and has served America in great and terrible moments, and clearly articulates, through his own experiences and brilliance, the positive thread interwoven through all these moments. He shares, in a positive voice, what he has learned through successful raids that change the course of history and parachute jobs that literally almost tore him in half, what a patriot is, and what sacrifice looks like, and it helps put into perspective my complaints and fears as well as my privileges and freedoms. In short, he puts our conversations, that feel so unstable, on a bedrock of what it takes to maintain the liberty to have those conversations. And by doing so, it changes those conversations for the better.
The book transformed my fascination with Admiral McRaven into a form of fandom, and so, months later when Admiral McRaven wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times, I opened it and read it as soon as I could. It was political, but that struck me more, not as a negative, but as a representation of the significance of the moment. A normally A-political warrior who served under both President Bush and President Obama, and has been candid about his appreciation for each, spoke out about his fears for the Republic in October of 2019.
Unfortunately, amidst the cacophony of news, and the quantity of stuff being written, and the number of voices of dissent, I am not sure the significance of this one voice was greatly appreciated by more than leading news people, Admiral McRaven fans, and the President. But, there was no doubt about it, it was significant, not to mention well written.
More recently I listened to McRaven’s interview with David Axelrod on The Axe Files and, as listening or reading anything of his usually does, I was re-ignited with a weird sense of loyalty to this man I have never met and a stronger sense of patriotism than I am used to feeling for America.
Therefore, I want to recommend a man to you, Admiral William McRaven, and his body of work in the military, his speeches and interviews, and all he has written. Because his story and the perspective it provided him, mixed with a skill for language both spoken and written- and an amazing voice- are powerful reminders of a lot of the liberties we take for granted, and an inspiration to have the tough conversations and do the tough things, but for the right reasons and towards a more positive outcome.
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