The Fish Rots from the Head: My Q&A with Admiral William McRaven

Admiral McRaven in 2012 (Wiki)

Admiral McRaven in 2012 (Wiki)

Daniel N. White

A strange turn of fate now makes Admiral (retired) William McRaven, formerly head of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), a neighbor of mine.  He’s the new Chancellor of the University of Texas (UT) system, and consequently he gives the occasional public speech.  I went to his latest, one for the UT Liberal Arts Honors Program, the Plan II alumni, to see what the Admiral was saying these days.

The lecture itself was no great shakes.  McRaven recycled one of his stock presentations he gave to civilians back in his four-star days about what SOCOM is and why special ops are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Not. He relied on PowerPoint slides, with some home-grown graphics every bit as ugly as home-grown sin.  A four-star command not using the talents of a graphics artist for their PowerPoint artwork shows a profound artlessness and indifference to audience.  That’s about par for the course in the military, but not in civilian professional settings, a fact that doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone at UT.

Worse than the graphics was the lack of content.  McRaven droned on about chain of command, how special ops can supposedly get things done quickly and get out quickly, with a light footprint, and how that allegedly gives ‘flexibility’ to US policy makers.  He also averred several times how special ops is about instructing the host nation’s armed forces about military authority always being subordinate to civilian, and the importance of the rule of law, and how important it was for US military assistance to spread those ideas.  It all stunk of bullshit to me.  McRaven did claim that the ongoing war in Syria involves our helping good guys (without specifying who they were) to fight against the ISIS/ISIL threat.

McRaven finished his talk, the floor was open for questions, and I got to the microphone first.   I asked him the same question I’d stumped Congressman Mike McCaul*, head of the House Intelligence Committee, with at another UT event recently:

Just why exactly are we at war with the Republic of Syria?  What sort of injury have they done to us or our country’s interests that warrant our waging a war on them?  What are the objectives we seek with our war against them? Who are these good guys you say are fighting against the Assad regime?  Every fighter, every organization out in the field in Syria fighting Assad pledges allegiance to ISIS or Al Qaeda—who are these so-called good guys?

McRaven bloviated about how important it was for us to be over in the Middle East because otherwise the threat of ISIS would spread from one country to another, and before you know it the Straits of Hormuz would be closed.

I’d stayed at the microphone, so I came back with:

Excuse me, Mr. McRaven, but didn’t the Vietnam War put an end to the domino theory, not just in Vietnam but everywhere else?  And just what are our war objectives in Syria?

More bloviating by McRaven about what bad people ISIS were and what a threat they were to our interests in the area.  Still not seeing anyone behind me at the mike, I asked him:

Then why are we at war with the Assad regime, which is the agency doing most of the fighting against ISIS and Al Qaeda?  Why are we fighting them instead of supporting them?

Even more bloviating about what a bad bunch of people the Assad folks are and how badly they’d treated their own people, which was a genocide.

So I pressed my case with one last question:

Excuse me, Mr. McRaven, but there isn’t anything I’ve ever read about any sort of good guys out there fighting against the Assad regime.  Every single article for the past two years has said that ISIS and Al Qaeda run the show.  Nor can what the Assad regime is doing in its war prosecution be called genocide, not from anything in the public prints.  It’s ugly, but it’s war.

McRaven ended by saying, “Well, you just haven’t been reading what I have, from the right sources.” He said this in that belligerent tone people in authority always use when they play this, the final card in their deck of pat answers.

McRaven hadn’t expected tough questions from the audience.  Other questioners brought up the failure of US efforts in Libya and how unpopular our wars were making us in the Muslim world.  They were good questions, but they didn’t go for the jugular—too much deference; not a lick of outrage. McRaven made a joke about being put on the spot about the wars, and I’d bet this was the first time any UT alumns had ever challenged him on them.  Says something, that.

Even so, nobody challenged McRaven on Camp NAMA, and nobody other than me challenged him on our latest stupidity in Syria, a stupidity that’s about to have its fourth birthday.  Anyone who was paying attention to my Q&A with McRaven should have realized that McRaven, and by reasonable extension the entirety of the US military senior staff, has no idea of military strategy and no real knowledge of the countries we are at war in.  McRaven could no more answer why we are at war with Syria than he can speak Klingon.

Any war without a clear objective is one doomed to failure—no objective, no victory, it’s that simple.  Any senior military officer who doesn’t understand this shouldn’t be commanding troops.  Recycling the domino theory from the scrapheap of history to justify our current wars.  Hunting for ‘good guys’ to fight ‘the bad guys’ as a war strategy, as a policy of state.   Jesus.   It’s collective US military brain death.  Rotting from the head—that’s the US military today.

There’s more to learn here about McRaven, and, by extension, American culture.

As to McRaven, you have to ask why he was hired by UT to be Chancellor.  He has no background in education, and everybody knows how maladroit most retired military officers are in civilian employ, so why? There are two reasons:  1) Money. US intelligence agencies spend in excess of $100 billion annually.  That’s more than twice what any other country, with the exception of China, spends on their intel agencies and their entire militaries combined.   That’s serious money.  UT wants to get their share of it so they brought in McRaven for his connections.  2)  Deep Politics.  McRaven is getting ready for something bigger, a likely next stop being Ted the embarrassment Cruz’s replacement in the Senate.  He’s being groomed by the powers that be in this country, the folks in the top floor corner offices in 50-story high-rises.  In his case, however, UT Chancellor isn’t so much a stepping stone as it is a laundry operation for him.

Back when McRaven was theater commander for special ops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he ran his own chain of Abu Ghraib prisons/torture mills, e.g. Camp NAMA, and he got away with it.  Doing this makes him a Class-A war criminal.  Put him in a black SS uniform in ’46 and he’d be in the dock there at Nuremberg with all the concentration camp commanders, looking at an appointment with the short end of a rope for doing this shit.  Jeremy Scahill** lays it out in his book, and Anand Gopal** gives plenty of firsthand reports in his book too.

Nobody in the US news media has paid any attention to this.  They missed the story of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) misconduct for all these years and instead gave McRaven large amounts of undue credit for capturing Bin Laden.   Nobody at UT on the faculty was smart enough, or concerned enough, to object to having an at-large, if unconvicted, war criminal as Chancellor.  If they had any brains, or decency, or self-respect, they would have.  They didn’t, not a peep.  Nope. McRaven is being washed of all his special ops dirt so that he’ll be clean and shiny for his next assignment.  The newsmedia will continue their polish job on McRaven, and hell, if the Texas Longhorns win the NCAA football championship anytime soon look for a “McRaven for President” bus to start rolling.

That’s why McRaven is at UT.  He’s sharp in a salesman-type way—talkative and presentable mostly.  He’s there to sell the UT system to the national security state while getting the blood and dirt and evil washed off him from his days in our fraudulent dirty war on terror.

Yet all his sales presence and surface respectability and shiny gold braid can’t hide the truth of that old Sicilian folk saying: the fish rots from the head.  And turning your eyes away and holding your noses, America, can’t hide that truth.***

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at

*Michael McCaul had no answer to this question; he just gasbagged for three minutes.  Apparently he’d never considered it before.  Draw the appropriate conclusions.

**Jeremy Scahill’s book is Dirty Wars:  The World is a Battlefield.  Look up Camp NAMA.  Anand Gopal’s book is No Good Men Among the Living.  Both excellent.

***The head-rot is by no means confined to the US military.  Just look at this story.  The Plan II Alumni who return to UT are the best educated souls the Texas educational system produces, and they didn’t hammer McRaven about his leading role in our lost, pointless, evil, and apparently neverending series of wars.  The faculty here didn’t bitch one lick about McRaven, and none showed up at this event to hammer him on the wars.  The Regents, the sharpest folks in the US business community, hired McRaven the military failure.  Hell, back in ’69, the Plan II’ers would have savaged William Westmoreland had he made a similar speech to them.  Half the faculty would have up and quit had Westmoreland been hired as Chancellor, and even LBJ couldn’t have strong-armed the Regents into hiring Westmoreland for some Texas university job ‘cuz they were smart enough back then to spot Westy as a moron.  These days, our elites are showing all the signs of extensive brain rot – or total spinelessness.  Take your pick, the result is the same.

10 thoughts on “The Fish Rots from the Head: My Q&A with Admiral William McRaven

  1. Some people might argue that the abuses at Camp NAMA documented by Scahill and others can’t be pinned to Admiral McRaven. After all, it wasn’t he who was abusing prisoners. But this argument quickly falls down for two reasons:

    1. In the military, when you’re in charge, everything that happens under your command is ultimately your responsibility. “The buck stops here,” as Truman said.

    2. Laws regarding crimes against humanity: As Hannah Arendt explained in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1964), Adolf Eichmann, a desk-bound executioner and “Jewish expert” for the Third Reich, may have argued he was less than fully responsible for the murder of millions. But his judges reached a far different conclusion: “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.”

    In crimes against humanity, degrees of separation from the dirty work only add to the offense.

    See more at:

  2. It is not at all surprising UT would consider McRaven a trophy bride, a prize catch to be figurehead honcho of their system. Doubtless they would’ve pursued Gen. Petraeus had he not taken his tumble from “grace.” The Military-Industrial Complex has had its talons deep inside the Educational-Corporate Complex for a long time. I’m sure students in the UT system will be encouraged to pursue independent thinking/analysis of current events on the admiral’s watch. Uh-huh. “Hook ’em ‘Horns!!”

  3. My question for the retired admiral or any official of the American government: “How many negligent homicides do you get to write off as inconsequential “collateral damage” before you must restrict yourself to only the murders you actually intend to commit?”

  4. A comment from b. traven:

    There is a much more dangerous reason behind the appointment of military flag officers and national security operatives to leading public college and university leadership positions. The political elites, who usually appoint their likeminded allies to the governing boards of these institutions, see students in these public institutions of learning as potential activists against the status quo as they were during the Vietnam War era. The governing boards usually vet the candidates for this office and thus want the candidate to mirror their own views of “national interests.” Those “interests” definitely don’t include critical thinking or the idea of questioning authority.

    Appointing a proven supporter of the elites’ view of “national interest” in times like these, when their “interest” involves issues at variance with the common good, is looked at as a judicious decision. That means putting people into these offices who support the Patriot Act and its assault on citizens’ rights of free speech and assembly. It also means appointing people who support the government in its pursuit of perpetual war.

    McRaven’s appointment to the University of Texas and the ridiculous appointment of Janet Napolitano, former head of the police state agency known as “Homeland Security,” as President of the university system of California are prime examples of this tendency. These selections show absolutely no interest in education but rather in administering a sheep-like faculty and student body in these important institutions that otherwise could and should foster the serious questioning of our government.

    The elites know that stuffed shirts like McRaven and Napolitano can be counted on to foster bland conformity and blind compliance. That’s exactly why they’re hired for these offices. They also work to ensure the subservience of higher education to the national security state. Think about it. California and Texas are two of the biggest public university systems in the country, and they are controlled by Napolitano and McRaven, both agents of the national security state.

    Not only does the national security state conspire to control higher education but sports as well. Consider the payments to NFL teams for on-field ceremonies in honor of the troops. These ceremonies, used for recruitment and propaganda, were meant to seem free and spontaneous on the part of the participating football teams, even as behind the scenes the Department of Defense was feeding the teams taxpayer money in the millions. That’s the real NFL scandal of today, not Tom Brady’s “Deflategate.”

    Be afraid, America, as the National Security State reaches out to control the message in higher ed and professional sports, two huge pieces of American culture.

  5. Pingback: The National Security State’s Tentacles Are Strangling Our Lives | The Contrary Perspective

  6. Pingback: Daniel N. White: The Fish Rots from the Head My Q&A with Admiral William McRaven | Vox Populi

  7. Wikipedia says red McCombs is a board director of the company that bought blackwater from Erik prince. Academic I think it was called. Odd I thought. Congressman mccaul’s wife’s name was Mays. Daughter of red McCombs business partner at clear channel. May or may not explain mcravens appointment.

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