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.”