Admiral William H McRaven was 37 years a Navy Seal, and finished his active duty career as Commander of all U.S. Special Forces. He is now the Chancellor of the University of Texas System and author of a brand new best-seller Make Your Bed, which is built off his much watched University of Texas Commencement Speech last year. He joined me this morning:
HH: Joined now by Admiral William H. McRaven, U.S. Navy, retired. You probably know him as the man who gave the commencement speech heard round the world. He is the chancellor now of the University of Texas system. But for a long time, he was, of course, in charge of American Special Operations, 37 years as a SEAL. Admiral, welcome, it’s great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
WM: Thanks, Hugh, great to be here.
HH: Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life and Maybe the World is your brand new book. Are you surprised that a commencement speech became Make Your Bed, which has become a bestseller? Did that just come out of the blue for you?
WM: Well, I am surprised by how much traction it’s got, but I think the appeal, Hugh, is that when you look at the ten lessons, they really apply to everybody. I mean, it doesn’t make a difference whether you spend a day in uniform. It doesn’t make a difference your background, your ethnicity, your gender, your orientation. The fact of the matter is these are lessons that apply universally, and I think that’s why it’s gotten so much interest and so much traction.
HH: I’ve asked so many young people to watch the YouTube video of it. Now, I’m going to have them read Make Your Bed, because it does put in concise, and with great clarity, just the very basics that got you through 37 years of being a SEAL. I can name check a bunch of colleagues that you’ve served with, Admiral, whether it’s Rorke Denver in middle age, or Lou Bremer, or Brian Ferguson, and recently, they’re not active duty SEALs anymore. But I want to ask you first about the conversation I’ve had with them. The silent service, you know, you folks didn’t much use to talk about being a SEAL and what it meant. Now, a lot of people do, and I think it’s for the good. But you know that controversy and that conversation. What do you think about it?
WM: Actually, I think my answer is going to surprise a lot of folks, but I really don’t have a problem with guys writing books or doing the movies as long as those focus on, you know, the great sacrifice, the heroism, the family life and the struggle with the family life. These are important themes that I think the American public need to be aware of. The fact of the matter is, and I’m a little bit of an amateur historian, you know, if you go back to World War II and you look at all the books written after World War II or even during World War II, and then you start to kind of trace that from World War II to the present, I mean, there are books written by every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine, and they are great. They are what really, I think, provides a sense of heroism for the American public when you look at these great stories. The reason I got into the SEAL teams was watching the movie with John Wayne, the Green Beret. And so I don’t really have a problem with the books and the movies, again, as long as 1) they’re not giving away trade secrets, tactics, techniques and procedures, and that they really focus on the things that I think are important in terms of the sacrifice and the bravery of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out there.
HH: Well, this is exactly my view, and the one time I’ve been in a room with now-Secretary of Defense Mattis, he talked about the civilian servicemen divide, and he and Kori Schake have this book out about it. But I view Make Your Bed, your speech, and all of the other associated books and movies as bridging that divide, which is vast, and I’ll get your opinion on this. How significant is that divide? And what do we do about it?
WM: Well, I think the divide becomes more and more significant with every passing year. You know, you’re almost to the point where we have, you know, a warrior class, if you will, within the United States. They’re, because we have gone to an all-volunteer force, and it is a fabulous force. I mean, I would contend it may be the finest military in the history of militaries when you look at how long they have served, how professional they are, how much combat they have been in. But as a result of the all-volunteer force, we have less and less engagement with the American people, and I think that’s something we have to be very, very careful about. Now the American people are incredibly grateful of the service, and everywhere you go when you’re in uniform, you see people turn out. They thank you. They applaud when you’re in the airports. So we really appreciate that. But I do think we have to be concerned about losing touch with the American people, and frankly, the American people losing touch with the American military.
HH: Now Admiral McRaven, yesterday I had one of your colleagues for many years, Admiral Stavridis, on. And we talked at length about the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Before I return to the specifics of Make Your Bed, I want your take on what it means, if in fact it’s true, that three carrier strike forces, we know the Vinson’s there, and we are told in some reports that it’s going to be joined by the Reagan out of Japan, and by the Nimitz off of the West Coast. What does that message to you about the seriousness of the situation there?
WM: Well, the situation is clearly serious, and I think we have to be careful about being a little bit too bombastic and a little bit, you know, too much of the saber rattling. This is a situation we, the United States, have been dealing with for a very, very long time. I don’t think we want to get on to a mano y mano with Kim Jung Un. You know, he is not a rational actor. So sometimes, when you saber rattle, you can afford to do that if you think the person on the other side of your rhetoric really is a rational actor and will play according to kind of international norms. But I don’t see that with KJU. I mean, the fact of the matter is I think he is a madman. I think he will do anything he can to get a nuclear weapon, and therefore, you know, trying additional sanctions and threatening him may not be the best approach. Having said that, I do agree with the Trump administration that we can’t allow this to continue unabated, so we need to make sure we are working with our allies in the region. We need to make sure we’re working with China. We absolutely need to make sure that we are in lock step with the South Koreans and the Japanese, and I do think we need to continue to pressure North Korea to stop their nuclear ambitions, and certainly when we look at the ballistic missile program. But I want to also caution folks that we’ve got to be a little bit careful about, you know, painting the North Koreans into a corner in which they can’t get out of, and the only reaction then is military on military confrontation. And we want to avoid that.
HH: It’s very bracing to hear you say I think he is a madman. Yesterday, Admiral Stavridis told me we can’t let the streams cross, the streams being miniaturization of his nuclear capability and acceleration of his ICBM capability, that that’s a line that we really cannot allow him to breach. And what you say underscores that, that we are, and he put the timeframe at 18 to 36 months to get this fixed. Do you agree with that assessment?
WM: I do. I always agree with Jim Stavridis.
WM: (laughing) He’s probably the smartest admiral we had during my time in the service, so, but understanding the general’s timeline without getting into specifics, I would say that that’s a good calculation on Jim’s part.
HH: Now Admiral, we have become very used to Special Warriors doing amazing things, whether it’s saving pirated ships or going into and getting the worst of the terrorists, Zarqawi in Iraq. All over the world, they do special things. The North Korean conflict, does that have a Special Services component to it? Obviously, they’re part of anything, but it’s really a much bigger issue than what a Special Forces group of warriors can do, isn’t it?
WM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this would be a conventional fight of, you know, unheralded proportions not like we’ve seen since World War II, and probably even more devastating. Having said that, there is always a role for Special Operations forces. Of course, the North Koreans have a very, very large special operations force in the tens or hundreds of thousands. They would not be kind of the quality that we see in our Special Operations forces. But we clearly have a role, we the Special Operations forces if we got into a conflict with North Korea. Having said that, it is predominantly a conventional fight in light of the fact that you know, they are postured right across from the DMZ, and we have about, I think, 28,000 U.S. soldiers, along with a large South Korean army.
HH: Now Admiral, would you talk for a moment about the fact, we’ve got lots of different Special Operators in the United States. But I think civilians like me often don’t understand they are inter-operable to a great degree. Would you explain to the civilians listening a little bit about that, that the various tips of the spear are actually pretty easily combined and used?
WM: Well, a lot of this goes back to the Goldwater-Nichols Act back in the mid-80s when the U.S. Military writ large was required to become a kind of a joint service, if you will. Everybody had to go and get joint qualified. So this meant if you were a fleet sailor, you know, as an officer, at some point in time, you needed to go serve with the Army or on the joint staff, and this was about kind of bringing the Army, Navy, the Air Force and Marine Corps together. Well, in the Special Operations arena, you know, we understood that early on. We understood that in order for us to fight as a Special Operations force, we really did need the support of the Army, Navy and the Air Force, and of course, we needed the support of our Army, Navy, Air Force Special Operations brothers. 9/11 really accelerated the whole process. Now we have been kind of a joint team for quite some time, really since, again, Goldwater-Nichols in the mid-80s. Having said that, 9/11 really accelerated the process. You know, when you’re on the ground as a young Ranger, you are going to have Navy aircraft overhead. You’re going to have Air Force C-130s taking you into the target. You know, you’re going to have Marine helicopters picking you up. I mean, it is very inter-operable. It is very joint. And frankly, today, we could not operate as a single Special Operations service. We would have to have our joint brothers alongside us.
HH: Thanks for making that point. Now I want to go back to the book, Make Your Bed. And I don’t want to give it away for everyone, but there are three or four things I want to deal with specifically to tempt people into understanding it’s not by a SEAL for the SEALs. It’s by a warrior for anyone who has to deal with life. And I think we start with Lt. Martin Moki, I believe I pronounce it.
HH: That’s a bracing, that’s, I know an individual in the same circumstance. Would you tell his story, because I think it’s really one of the most inspiring stories in a book of inspiring stories.
WM: Oh, well thanks. It is inspiring, and the story starts off, Lt. Philip L. referred to as Moki Martin, born and raised in Hawaii, he was really one of the great SEAL officers of my time. And as I was going through SEAL training, he was one of my instructors. And Lt. Martin was revered by all of the trainees. But like a lot of SEAL instructors, he could be pretty tough on you. And routinely, Lt. Martin would turn me into a sugar cookie. And of course, the sugar cookie is when a SEAL trainee has to run out into the ocean, he’s got to jump in the ocean, he’s soaking wet, he comes out, he rolls around in the sand until you’re covered head to toe with sand. And the reason the sugar cookie was so frustrating for the trainees is because there was no real rhyme or reason to it. It wasn’t because you had necessarily failed an event or had not done things well. It was really at the whim of the instructor. Just if the instructor felt like making you a sugar cookie, you have to hit the surf and you’d roll around and become a sugar cookie. And so I tell the story, and it starts off with one of the many times when Lt. Martin turned me into a sugar cookie. And at one point in time, he asked me you know why you’re a sugar cookie? And I said no, Lt. Martin, and he said because life’s not fair. It was a simple statement. Life’s not fair. And I was all of 21 or 22 years old. Well, fast forward a couple of years, and Moki and I were now serving in Underwater Demolition Team 11 together, and he was in a very serious bicycle accident, a head on head bicycle accident which left him paralyzed from the waist down and with limited use of his arms. And that was about 35 years ago. In all those 35 years, I never once, never once heard Moki Martin complain about his lot in life. You know, he never blamed his circumstances on anything. He realized that he had a serious accident, but it was time to move on. Life wasn’t fair. And he knew that. And Moki went on to father a beautiful daughter. He became a very well-respected painter. He continues to organize the SEAL triathlon. So he has gone on and made a great life for himself even though life was not fair to him.
HH: That’s a remarkably inspiring story, and one that I hope people read Make Your Bed just, if only for that story, so they realize from the very worst of circumstances, determination and attitude will determine what comes of it. Admiral McRaven, I had a SEAL on a couple of years ago. Twice a year, I do a Semper Fi Fund fundraiser, lost his legs in the war. And after the Boston Marathon bombing, immediately flew to Boston and he took his father with him so that he could tell the people who lost their limbs that life was ahead of them, and so that his father could tell their parents that life was ahead of them. How often have you had to make those calls and encourage people with those sorts of wounds that there’s a lot of living left ahead?
WM: You know, the remarkable thing, Hugh, is we had a lot of, unfortunately, a lot of serious injuries over in Iraq and Afghanistan. And when one of my troops would get hurt, or frankly, just in the course of the week, I would go over and visit troops in the combat hospitals, and many of them had lost legs from IED’s. And I can tell you again never once did I hear them complain. All they really wanted to do was get back to their unit. So I never had to inspire these great young soldiers. The soldiers were inspiring to me. I mean, to listen to these young men, and in some cases, women, who had these severe, severe injuries, you know, they were going to make the best of life. And I think it was incredibly motivating. Now the reality, of course, at some point in time sets in. And what you find in the military community, and I saw it a lot at Walter Reed, you know, when they finally get back and they realize that they have lost legs and lost their arms, and now life is going to be a lot harder than they had anticipated, boy, their military comrades come around, and they link arms and they tell them we’re going to make it, we’re going to make it together. And there is a level of, again, comradery and teamwork. And it is remarkably inspiring to be around these young men and women who have had these serious casualties, and just are going to fight through them.
HH: Second major story I wanted to deal on from the Make Your Bed book, Admiral McRaven, is in July of 1983. I was taking the bar in July of 1983, having graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. I thought I had it tough. But I wasn’t getting fired. And I’m A) amazed that you told this story, but very glad you did. And would you recap it just as a tidbit for people to know what sort of book, you don’t hide the warts in Make Your Bed at all.
WM: Well, I don’t think you can afford to hide the warts if you’re going to talk about how you overcome difficult times. And this was a difficult time for me. It was 1983. I was part of a very, very elite SEAL team, and my commanding officer and I had some disagreements. He was the commanding officer. And as a result of those disagreements, he fired me. Now he was gracious enough not to kill me on my fitness report, if you will, although it wasn’t a great fitness report. It didn’t completely end my career. But whenever you get fired, it’s never a good thing. When you get fired in the Navy, it’s particularly a bad thing. And I really realized I had two courses of action. One, I could decide that I was just going to leave the Navy, because frankly, I didn’t know whether I had a career after that. Everybody in the SEAL teams knew I had been fired, and so you have to kind of live with that burden. Or the other things was you know, you kind of buckle down and you say I’m going to show folks that I’m a better officer than this event would indicate. And I also tell you, you know, it helps to have a great partner going through life. You know, my wife stood beside me and said look, you are better than this. You can overcome this. You know, let’s hang in there, and we did.
HH: You know, Admiral, I don’t know of a single, maybe they’re out there. Maybe you just don’t hear about it. But I don’t know of anyone in the service, and I’m a civilian, but I know a lot of people in the military who have ever had that kind of a downgrade or a run in with a commanding officer who then reached the level that you did and the success that you did. Is that more common than I know about?
WM: Well, I don’t think it’s common. Again, I was very fortunate. I moved on to my next command, and the commanding officer there, knowing the predicament I was in, he immediately gave me a SEAL platoon. I deployed, you know, six months after getting this SEAL platoon, and went on to have a very successful deployment. So you know, after this failure of mine, coming back, having an opportunity to very quickly get back on my feet, have a successful deployment, and then that was followed by a number of other successes in my career. And although it took several years to kind of get beyond this, at some point in time, people recognized that I was a good officer, and that you know, we could put this behind me and move forward. And again, I had a lot of friends that helped me out, and a lot of senior officers that had a lot of faith and confidence in me.
HH: I have heard of that concept, of having make good jobs in the military where if you’ve had a collision with something, you could make good by going and doing a very hard job very, very well. I guess being a SEAL platoon commander would be one of them. Let me wrap up talking about Make Your Bed, Admiral McRaven, by talking about the transition that you’ve made that is so vital to a society like ours where we depend upon a professional military. You’ve gone from the top of your profession as a warrior to the top of the education profession, as chancellor. Not a lot of people in the military get that opportunity to do that. Speak to the larger audience today of folks who are considering hiring veterans about what they get when they do that.
WM: Well, it’s been a great transition for me, Hugh. The fact of the matter is, I love the idea of service, and as I was getting ready to retire in 2014, the University of Texas approached me about the possibility of being the chancellor of the University of Texas system. We have 14 institutions, 220,000 students, 100,000 employees, 7.3 million patient visits. I have a very large health-related institution. So it was a very large job, but I’m used to doing large jobs. But really what attracted me to the position was the fact that I could help young men and women as they began to make their way through life. And there is, again, you know, there’s probably nothing more inspiring than watching a young soldier, sailor, airman or Marine work through a challenging time in combat. But I’ll tell you, you know in life, there are a lot of challenges out there. And I look at these young men and women that are first in their family to go to school. And you realize that being the first in their family to go to school, they are changing the entire trajectory of their life and generations to come, because statistics show us that if, you know, if you go on to college, chances are your children will go to college, and their children will go to college. And everything about going to college will make your life better. You are healthier, you will earn more in the long run, you will be a better citizen. I mean, this is just what the facts and the statistics show us. So having the opportunity to be part of this great organization and influence the lives of young men and women, and older men and women that are coming to school, I mean, this is one of the reasons why I thought this would be a great bit, and I have loved every minute of it.
HH: Admiral McRaven, what do you make of the clichés about the millennials and the sub-millennials, the next generation, that they drift a long time, they hesitate about commitments, they postpone decisions? Have you found that to be the case? And if so, what are you doing about it?
WM: Yeah, I absolutely have not found that to be the case. I am one of the biggest fans of the millennials out there, and I think part of it, Hugh, is I watched these millennials as they served in the military. And you know, they’re different than my generation. They’re different than our generation. You know, they’ve got tattoos and they’ve got earrings, and they listen to music that I don’t understand. But I’ve got to tell you, those ones that I served with in the military, they come in, they have a sense of purpose, they are as patriotic, as hard-working, as focused, and as I tell folks, you know, their parents and their grandparents before them would be incredibly proud. Now as I have kind of had an opportunity to see the millennials in this environment, it is exactly the same thing. Again, they do things differently than our generation did, but when you take a look at, I’m living here in Austin. I see the startups and the entrepreneurship that’s occurring in Austin. I see the brilliant, young kids that are coming to school that are going on to become great lawyers and doctors and anthropologists and musicians. So I’ve got to tell you, I am a huge fan of the millennials, and I tell you, when we look back, I think, over the course of this century, we will look at the millennials, and certainly those that served in the military, and say that they were the greatest generation of this century.
HH: Admiral McRaven, on that note, thank you for your 37 years in uniform. Thank you for the commencement speech. And thank you for Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life and Maybe the World, great bestseller, and I appreciate you taking the time to visit with me today.
WM: My pleasure, Hugh, thanks very much.
HH: Thank you, Admiral.
End of interview.