Best Defense

Vol. 2 of General McPeak’s memoirs: An overweening officer’s remembrances

It is a truth universally acknowledged that life as a general officer is no fun.

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By Brian D. Laslie
Deputy Command Historian, U.S. Northern Command and NORAD

Below the Zone is the second in a proposed three-volume set by former Air Force Chief of Staff, General Merrill McPeak.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that life as a general officer is no fun. There is a good reason many Air Force officers look back fondly on their time as a squadron or a wing commander. After those assignments they leave the tactical world of fighting for the bureaucratic staff realm. After wing command, the chances for command at a numbered air force or higher are limited, and come only in between other staff tours. Thus a career of a general officer is one of various staff assignments on major commands, at the air staff, the joint staff and other headquarters. Most general officers are also not really in charge of anything and there’s always someone else higher up the food chain. From a certain point of view, being a general officer is less about being a celestial overlord and more about starting over on the bottom rung. It is also a life further and further removed from the troops. It does not make for the most exciting reading, but this is where McPeak’s career took him: away from the tactical world and into the operational and strategic realm where tactics mattered less and “command and control” became the sport of kings.

If you’ve ever served in the military or Department of Defense, the title of McPeak’s latest book certainly calls to mind some pre-conceived notions. For those who haven’t served in the DOD, a bit of context is needed. “Below the zone” is the term used when an officer is promoted ahead of schedule and ahead of his peers usually to the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel. Because every officer year group has a primary zone in which they should normally be promoted, to be promoted ahead of time, sometimes as many as two years ahead of schedule, you’re known as a below the zone or “BZ.”

There are generally two schools of interpretation on BZ. The first, is that the person is a “fast-burner,” who is being promoted ahead of their peers for performance. The second is that the person is a careerist who will do whatever is necessary to accelerate their careers over their peers. I have on numerous occasions heard someone say, “They’re BZ, but he/she is actually a really great person.” One should certainly never refer to themselves as a BZ, lest the second notion be confirmed.

And therein lies the problem with the title of the book. While McPeak probably meant to indicate how the second half of his career was significantly better than the first, the average military reader would approach the book with some trepidation. In fact, when I discussed the book with several majors at the Air Command and Staff College, one jokingly said his biography would be titled “Always In the Zone.”

Below the Zone covers McPeak’s experiences from the rank of major through his appointment to the Air Force Chief of Staff. The book begins with fair warning. Gone is the “incorruptible voice of the fighter pilot. Instead, a seasoned executive speaks of trade-offs, of large and small compromises made getting to the top of any sizable organization, and then keeping it from jumping the tracks.” The book is not a difficult read, but gone are the tactical aspects of flying fighter aircraft and no one would argue that staff assignments make for less interesting reading than flying with the USAF Thunderbirds or with the Mistys in Vietnam. Even McPeak acknowledges his time in the cockpit lessened with each promotion and those killer skills atrophied when not used.

Mid-career McPeak entered into the bowels of the Pentagon as a staff officer working Middle East issues. By his own admission, he “usurped responsibility” from a fellow officer and in the process left the other officer behind. McPeak admits this was a personal failing. This sort of honesty is one of the great highlights of his memoirs. After attending National War College, McPeak meandered through assignments to the First Fighter Wing and an the Council on Foreign Relations, where he again had the chance to look into Middle East issues including an article on Israeli border security, but these are only interludes to other staff assignments.

Perhaps the most fascinating assignment for McPeak was his time at “The Bunker.” At Börfink, West Germany, McPeak headed a skeleton crew to maintain what would become the headquarters for the Air Force commander in Europe and his German four-star counterpart should the Cold War turn hot. Again, the Cold War necessity of hardened underground bunkers has been lost to distant memory in recent years, but the idea of war in Western Europe was a very real possibility during the 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly enough the bunker still stands, but has been converted into a data-storage center.

After 20 months of spending his days underground, McPeak took command of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing. In his own words, it was the last “important Air Force position I held that let me believe I knew precisely what I was doing,” but it was a job one could only hold for two years at the most. However, on the other side of wing command for those that were successful, were the stars of a general officer.

As a one-star general, McPeak served under Generals Charlie Gabriel in Europe and Bill Creech at Tactical Air Command. He covered his rise from one star to four stars in less than 30 pages. This is a blessing to the reader because it is impossible, and no fault of McPeak’s story-telling abilities, to make some of these jobs overly exciting. McPeak advances through Air Staff assignments (a purple water fountain sighting), numbered air force command, and takes command of Pacific Air Forces.

At the end of this tour McPeak would either take command of TAC or become the next CSAF. By his own admission, no one would describe him, “as a warm and cuddly personality,” and despite being interested in the job of Chief of Staff of the Air Force, it was not in the hand that he was dealt. Besides, “One doesn’t really ‘run’ for senior military posts… one does so carefully, feigned indifference being part of the job specification.” McPeak came up short with long-time friend General Mike Dugan selected as the 13th USAF CSAF. However, the unlucky number 13 struck Dugan who lasted only two months in the job and was fired by Secretary of Defense Cheney during the build-up to Desert Storm for giving away too much of the probably air campaign to reporters after visiting troops in theater. Fortune smiled on McPeak who was nominated and became the 14th Chief of Staff of the USAF on 7 November, 1990. The job came with a warning, “keep a low profile.”

If nothing else, McPeak has built significant anticipation for his third volume detailing his time as Air Force Chief of Staff. I look forward to Volume III of the trilogy, as it will give him the opportunity to answer his critics. I look forward his side of the story.

Dr. Laslie is Deputy Command Historian, United States Northern Command, U.S. Air Force. He graduated from The Citadel in 2001 with a B.A. in history and served six years in the USAF. He earned his Ph.D. from Kansas State University in 2013 and is the author of The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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