General Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak was the 14th chief of staff of the US Air Force. BELOW THE ZONE is the second installment of a projected three-volume memoir. The first book, HANGAR FLYING, covers the 1960s, years McPeak spent in fighter squadrons, doing air shows as a pilot with the elite Thunderbirds aerobatic team and flying combat missions in Vietnam. BELOW THE ZONE picks up at the Armed Forces Staff College after the war and proceeds through the 1970s and 1980s as McPeak climbed the ladder from major to four-star general. It describes the challenges of leadership and management in an organization that had to meet high performance standards, as the US continued its long confrontation with the Soviet Union.
McPeak writes, "In formations of squadron size or smaller, everybody knows everybody else, and the leadership qualities that count are, first, you must be competent and second, you must be trusted by teammates. Now, I entered the world of medium- and large-sized organizations, a much more cluttered landscape, a zone of increasing ambiguity the world of politics, broadly defined."
BELOW THE ZONE takes readers from Virginia and Florida to Mildenhall and Upper Heyford (UK), from Zaragoza (Spain) to Börfink and Ramstein (Germany), from Texas to the blue Pacific and finally the Pentagon. In the background all the while, we read about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Watergate, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and America's involvement in Central America.
"It was during this 20-year period that we won the Cold War," McPeak reminds us, "though we should be precise about what actually happened: the Soviets lost it."
General Merrill A. (“Tony”) McPeak entered the Air Force in 1957 as a Distinguished Graduate of the San Diego State College ROTC program. A career fighter pilot, he spent two years with the Air Force’s elite aerobatic team, the Thunderbirds, performing before millions of people in nearly 200 official air shows in the U.S. and overseas. He flew 269 combat missions in Vietnam. Senior leadership assignments included command of the 20th Fighter Wing in NATO, the Twelfth Air Force (and concurrently U.S. Southern Command Air Forces) and the Pacific Air Forces. He was Air Force chief during a period of very active US involvement overseas, including Operation Desert Storm. While leading the Air Force, he conceived and executed the most extensive reorganization in its history, creating a service better suited to meet the nation’s defense needs.
In 1992, San Diego State University honored General McPeak with its first ever Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1995, George Washington University gave him its Distinguished Alumni Award, the “George.” He was among the initial seven inductees to the Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, New York City, and in 2008 was a national co-chairman of Obama for President. In 2010, President Obama appointed General McPeak to the American Battle Monuments Commission. The Commissioners subsequently elected him Chairman.
In "Below the Zone", General Tony McPeak's second book in a three volume autobiographical series, he describes his ascent from a Major in the Pentagon to Air Force of Staff, the highest ranked uniformed officer in that service; and his story of that ascent is rich with personal anecdotes, philosophy on leadership, geopolitical observations, and insightful descriptions about political wrangling that often prevailed within the Air Force and throughout the Department of Defense in general. Without question, it is a fascinating and well written story.
General McPeak admits that his rise to the top was not simple or easy. For example, he was promoted "below the zone", meaning ahead of his contemporaries, twice during a three-year period while working at the Middle East desk in the Pentagon---once from Major to Lieutenant Colonel, and a year or so later to full Colonel. Then, his career began to fade, as he endured a series of non-career enhancing assignments in Europe, particularly on NATO staffs. Eventually, his career regained its momentum, and in the end, he seemed destined to retire as a Four-Star General when his current tour as Pacific Air Force commander ended. But all that changed, when the current Chief of Staff was removed from office and in a matter of a week, General McPeak was summoned to Washington to become the new Chief of Staff.
"Below the Zone" is the kind of book that should be read slowly in order to savor all the nuances and interesting details contained therein. It is also a book that should be read carefully by all aspiring young military officers, as well as historians. I can't wait to read the third volume of this series!