Growing up in the early Sixties on a military base in France, a young William McRaven devoured superhero comics. His childhood days were filled with the exploits of Batman, Spiderman, The Hulk and – his absolute favourite – Superman.
When the family returned to New York a few years later, his father, an officer in the US Air Force, caught him scouring the rooftops for signs of the superhero. He pointed to a passing police officer instead and said: “Son, that’s the man who protects New York City.”
Over the course of McRaven’s own stellar military career, which has seen him rise to the rank of four-star admiral and commander of all US special operations, experience has further formed his idea of what it means to be a hero; and he has condensed his learnings into a new book, The Hero Code.
In his 37 years as a Navy Seal, the 65-year-old admiral has had a ringside seat for much of the ‘War on Terror’, including leading the capture of Saddam Hussein and being in charge of the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden 10 years ago.
The pandemic has also reshaped the Texan’s notion of courage. He dedicates The Hero Code to the scientists, healthcare workers, teachers and delivery drivers who have kept working during the pandemic.
“The point of the book is we can learn to be heroes,” McRaven says. “You can learn courage from watching someone be courageous. You can learn humility from someone who has achieved so much and is still humble.”
His 2017 bestselling book, Make Your Bed, was an uplifting self-help guide in which he outlined how perfecting the small things allows you to achieve the bigger things.
In The Hero Code McRaven boils down the 10 qualities which comprise true heroism. Many of them, not least perseverance, sacrifice, duty and humour, he says, were embodied by the Duke of Edinburgh. “He has lived somewhat in the shadow of the Queen and that requires sacrifice, a sense of humility and acceptance he is there to support, which is something he has done magnificently.”
An avowed royalist, McRaven refuses to be drawn on the Duke of Sussex’s decision to move to America. “What I do admire about Harry was his willingness to serve,” he says. “He was a great soldier.”
I wonder what McRaven makes of the oft-mentioned criticism levelled against the young as lacking the toughness of previous generations.
“This is a remarkable generation,” he says. “I don’t agree with everything they do but I would offer where their strengths are. They believe in their friends, ask the hard questions and demand answers.”
And yet McRaven is resolutely old school. When we speak via Zoom he is wearing a suit and tie and is 10 minutes early for the occasion. He has been married to his college sweetheart, Georgeann, for 43 years, and they have three children.
McRaven describes himself as a “classic conservative: pro-life, small government, strong defence” but shortly before the recent US election he broke the unwritten rule that retired senior commanders never publicly criticise the president by backing Joe Biden. He has also spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the looming peril of climate change.
“I’ve taken criticism for speaking out and that is fair,” he says. “But I have to wake up every morning and look myself in the mirror and ask myself if I am doing the right thing.”
Our interview coincides with President Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of September 11. McRaven insists that he understands the decision and says he has it on good authority that the US top generals were each allowed to make their own presentation to the President before the announcement was made.
He writes movingly in his book of the soldiers who served under him and were killed and wounded during the war, although he insists that their sacrifice has not been in vain.
“Nothing about the outcome of this war diminishes their sacrifice, courage and patriotism,” he says. “The fact of the matter is while we were out there we were trying to do good for the Afghans.”
Does he think it was worth it? “War is a terrible thing, make no mistake about it, but sometimes nations have to assess the situation and take the best actions they can for their own national security.”
In Iraq in 2003 he was in command of the mission to capture Saddam Hussein and kept him as a prisoner at his Baghdad headquarters for around a month. McRaven slowly watched his demeanour turn, from vainglorious to desperate. “When he no longer had his palaces, and generals and handmaidens he was a pathetic old man,” he says. “He may have appeared to be heroic to some people, but there was no courage, certainly no humility. He didn’t sacrifice anything. He was a brutal dictator.”
In 2011, he found himself in charge of a similar mission, commanding the US Navy Seal team targeting the Pakistani compound where Osama Bin Laden was believed to be hiding out.
Based 160 miles away over the border in Afghanistan, he received the first phone call from the ground commander 15 minutes into the operation, confirming they had got their man.
“There was no whooping and hollering,” McRaven recalls. “My job was to get the guys home safely and there was a long way to go before the mission was completed.”
He is at pains to stress that his Hero Code is not based upon himself, but rather the men and women he has served alongside and met over the course of his career.
McRaven stresses he has made plenty of mistakes in his life – not least early on in his Navy Seals career when he was fired by his commanding officer who deemed his performance below par – but it is these errors which make us who we are.
“Where I’ve stumbled in my life I hope I’ve learnt from those mistakes,” he says. “Life is a constant assessment of where you are and how much better you can be.”
The Hero Code by Admiral William H. McRaven (RRP £16.99). Buy now for £14.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514