For all the accomplishments in Vice Admiral William McRaven’s career, including planning and coordinating the attack that killed Osama bin Laden, the UT graduate isn’t one to draw attention to himself.
Vice Admiral William H. McRaven is a proud Texan and a proud 1977 graduate of The University of Texas. Do not expect this decorated Navy SEAL to brag about his military career, distinguished though it is. That is not his way. But I will.
McRaven is about to assume command of all the U.S. Special Operations, a position that will place him in charge of the 57,000 special forces worldwide. Since 2008, he has led the Joint Special Operations Command. Before that, he ran special forces operations in Europe, served as the first director of the NATO Special Operations Forces Coordination Centre, and directed strategic planning in the Office of Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council. Most recently, he planned and directed the attack that killed Osama bin Laden.
McRaven agreed to this interview on the one condition that it was not all about bin Laden. Intelligent, respected, and capable, McRaven has played a critical role in the fight against terrorism and is a tribute to our country’s best military traditions. Yet he deflects praise instinctively. During our interview, he was much more interested in talking about his beloved University of Texas than his own accomplishments. I wouldn’t expect anything else from a true “quiet professional.”
What are some things that stand out to you about your time in Texas and at The University of Texas?
While I wasn’t born in Texas, I certainly consider myself a Texan. My mother was born and raised in Texas, and my father was a transplant from Missouri. When the opportunity came up to go to UT on an ROTC scholarship, I jumped at it.
One thing I learned was that UT was the world in a microcosm. Late in my academic career as a journalist, I was able to sit in on lots of political-science classes, and the education stimulated a lot of thinking that you just don’t get in high school. There is nothing quite like a university experience to force a young man to mature quickly, and the University certainly did that for me.
You walked on to the track team and you were on an ROTC Scholarship. How did those experiences play a role in your developing maturity?
I started out running cross-country. The hard part was that we were running an incredible number of miles each week. At one point we got up to 180 miles per week. I was always fatigued, and I was taking 15 or 18 hours of classes and doing ROTC. I was learning how to manage my time and prioritize. Frankly, I didn’t prioritize very well the first couple of years, but the learning experience for me was that you just stick with it and figure it out.
How has your journalism degree helped you in your career?
As you get into the military, you are always writing reports or doing briefs. I tell people that a journalism degree or an English degree are two of the most important degrees you could have coming into the military. Anytime you can convey your ideas, that is an important part of leadership.
I don’t care whether you are in the military, business, or anywhere, you have to have the ability to convey your ideas in a very clear and concise manner. I started off as a pre-med major, but it was clear I didn’t have a knack for that. Then I went into accounting, and I clearly didn’t have a knack for that. Then by my junior year I knew I enjoyed writing, so I got into the School of Journalism and found out that I did have a knack for writing. I enjoyed the classes, and I had some wonderful professors.
A quote in a 2004 Newsweek article states that you are “reputed to be the smartest SEAL that ever lived.” Can you confirm or deny that quote?
I am by far not the smartest SEAL around, and you can print that! It is not, however, about necessarily being book smart. I have been blessed with a lot of common sense, and I like people. When you are put in leadership positions and you have common sense, like people, and can convey your ideas, good things happen to you.
You have written a book entitled, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. Would you like to write another book in the future?
I wrote that book as part of my thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School. I did extensive research on the special operations missions and it ended up being about a two-and-a-half-year project. There certainly isn’t going to be any time during my military career to write another book, but after my military career I would probably be interested in looking back. Looking at the war since Sept. 11, 2001, there have transpired some magnificent operations, and when they can be declassified, they will be as exciting and as heroic as the ones in the first book.
I began our interview by thanking you for your service to our country, and also recognizing the sacrifices that you and your family have made. Can you tell me about the sacrifices that all service members and their families must make?
Number one, you have to marry up, which I did. I married a good Texas girl, and that has been the key to my success. She has borne the burden of taking care of me and my three kids. We have moved 18 times in 33 years, and we are getting ready to move again. You have to have that strong bond to begin with. Candidly, I don’t think either of us understood that when we got married. I was 22 and she was 20.
Today the pressure on the families is greater than it has ever been. Everything changed after 9/11. By that time I was a Navy captain. I was making a good salary, and my kids were well taken care of. When you look at the young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have come in since 9/11 or shortly before 9/11, they have been at war for 10 years. The pressure on their families far exceeds anything my wife and I went through at a young age.
Why is it that the members of the special operations forces are so reluctant to come forward and be known for their role in combat?
It is certainly the special operations way. When you look at any of the special operations units, we like to think of ourselves as quiet professionals. Guys are doing missions every night, and the satisfaction they get is from doing a mission well and supporting their comrades in arms. It is not about the publicity.
What makes you nervous?
Certainly when you are on a mission or preparing for a mission you get nervous. I am scared a lot when we are conducting missions and when I personally go out on missions, but you have to learn to work through that fear, and that is what these young soldiers are doing every night in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places around the world. Every night we ask them to strap on a rucksack and go into combat, and they are well trained to control their fears.
What is the biggest challenge for you in your career?
One challenge I face is how to make sure that my men go on a mission and come back safely. That is the same challenge for a sergeant in charge of a squad all the way up the chain of command—making sure you make the right decisions to prepare your force to do the mission correctly and bring the boys home safely. That is the difference between most jobs and the job of being a soldier in combat: the decisions you make and the mistakes you make cost people their lives.
When you look at any of the special operations units, we like to think of ourselves as quiet professionals.
One thing I have learned over time is that you have to learn to fail. It is a natural course in combat that we will make mistakes and we will fail and people will die. If you internalize that too much or let that burden become so large, then as a leader you can’t make the next right decision. Sometimes you do the best you can and guys don’t come back alive, and that is just the nature of warfare.
How are you able to keep in touch with the University?
I keep in touch with what is happening at the University through my sister who lives in Austin, and with the ROTC program through friends who are members of the ROTC alumni program. I was able to come back in October 2010 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Naval ROTC unit, and I was asked to be a guest speaker and toss the coin at the Texas vs. Oklahoma State game. I got to be with some great friends I hadn’t seen in 30 years.
Any last thoughts you would like to share with the readers of The Alcalde?
There are various points that change the trajectory of our lives. For me it really was The University of Texas. It put me on the path to be commissioned as a Naval officer. The University taught me the great values of standing on my own, dealing with the pressures of being a student, prioritizing commitments, and dealing with the complicated and diverse situations that are part of growing up and maturing. I got a magnificent and broad-based liberal arts education. The best thing that the University allowed me to do was to meet my wife. The University of Texas forever changed my life.