Dan Carlin's Hardcore History: Addendum - A Four-Star Conversation

🎁Amazon Prime 📖Kindle Unlimited 🎧Audible Plus 🎵Amazon Music Unlimited 🌿iHerb 💰Binance

It’s Hardcore History Addendum.

When I was designing this Hardcore History Addendum format, I knew that we were going

to want to do interviews.

It’s a good way for us to get out content quickly that’s interesting and that it involves

other people, other voices, people that you might want to know more about.

And I knew that we would have authors on because there’s always a lot of good people writing

intriguing books because I’m reading them.

I knew we would want to have experts on from time to time because, after all, it’s a great

use of the medium, isn’t it?

And I was hoping that we could get some primary source people on from time to time, participants

in the events that we were talking about.

In other words, you know, I’m not a historian because historians chronicle, you know, things

for history and for footnotes and stuff and books, but maybe we could do a little bit

of that if we were interviewing people, you know, who were participants in these sorts

of events.

And today I have somebody that is sort of the trifecta of interviews for this program

because he meets all three of those specifications.

He’s an author, he’s an expert, and he’s a primary source and participant.

His name is Merrill McPeak.

He happens to be a four-star Air Force general.

He flew with the Thunderbirds, the acrobatic team for the Air Force.

He is a commander, a chief of staff in the Air Force, and did so during the first Gulf

War, and he flew more than 250 combat missions in Vietnam.

Imagine that for a second.

He’s also a noted author who’s got a brand new book out to add to his catalog of books.

His new book is called Roles and Missions, which goes over his time as the 14th Air Force

chief of staff.

By the way, sort of a bipartisan guy, worked for the Bob Dole Republican campaign, also

supported and was in the Barack Obama administration in terms of a military capacity.

He writes about his time in Vietnam in his book called Hangar Flying.

He’s got another one called Below the Zone, another one called The Vietnam Chapters.

If you like military history, especially Air Force history, Merrill Tony McPeak is somebody

whose books should be on your bookshelf.

We talk to the four-star general now, who was nice enough to come and talk with us.

By the way, you may have recently seen him in Ken Burns’ recent multi-part documentary

on the Vietnam War as well.

Welcome to the show, General McPeak.

First of all, let’s get started by suggesting, you know, the person we were contacting, your

publicist or whatever, was discussing the 50th year of the Tet Offensive.

When I was thinking about how to start this, I thought, you know, I grew up in that generation

where we weren’t in the war.

We were in the early 80s, middle 80s.

We were the ones learning about the war in college, and the veterans would come and speak

in our classes.

I remember 60 Minutes did a whole big thing on how here we were studying the lessons of

Vietnam and what did we learn.

I thought, now here we are decades later, and I thought I would ask you, 50 years after

the Tet Offensive, what do you think we learned, and do you think the things we learned, for

example, by the 1970s or 1980s, do you think those lessons stuck?

Well, speaking as a professional military guy, we learned a lot in Vietnam.

We learned, for instance, just as an Air Force, just as a fighter pilot, we learned we had

to hit what we were aiming at.

You know, we missed most of the targets.

I think our average missed distance in Vietnam was like 100 meters, you know, and that’s

not good enough if you’re going after a target like a bridge or a rugged vehicle like a tank

or a truck.

So we invented precision-guided munitions, and you’ve seen the results of that in the

years since.

We learned we had to be able to operate at night, and we now are—nobody wants to fight

us at night nowadays.

They don’t want to fight us in the daytime either, but we really dominate night fighting


We learned that we had to be invisible on radar, so we invented stealth aircraft.

So I mean, from the standpoint of the professional military, we learned a lot and we improved

a lot because the war lasted so long.

You know, 10-year war, all of us got to go there at least once.

We all saw what needed to be fixed, and we fixed it.

If you now ask what did we learn politically or socially, I think that by and large the

lessons were not learned at all, or if they were, they were forgotten.

We repeat the same mistakes, you know, war after war, it seems to me.

So technically we learned a lot, but big-picture-wise, I think we missed the boat.

You know, I’m thinking about the concept in business of, like, institutional memory, right?

The idea is that, you know, you have the fact that the people can come and go in a large

corporation, but theoretically when new people come in, they’re trained with the lessons

learned by the previous generation.

I’m thinking about institutional memory in the military, so if you get a guy like William

Westmoreland, who’s a Second World War veteran, knows how to fight that kind of war, has to

deal with this counterinsurgency situation in Vietnam, theoretically learns what he’s

going to learn there, but then Westmoreland retires, the people who were right below him


Is institutional memory in the military sphere a little like something like a bush in front

of your yard that you have to keep cut back because every generation comes up, we have

to relearn some of those same things?

Is there, you know, when you read, like, the Peloponnesian War and the stuff from ancient

Athens, there’s the hubris element.

Is hubris something that a good punch in the nose can teach you permanently, or do you

need to be reminded every now and then?

I mean, I look at the dominance we have right now on the battlefield, and I worry that if

we got into a major conflict right now, we don’t have anyone in the institutions at the

higher levels now that have fought, for example, in a real war against another First World


Would they almost have to do, like, the reverse of what Westmoreland had to do, where he had

to learn to go from a World War II mentality to a counterinsurgency mentality?

If we ever had to fight China in some islands off, you know, in the East China Sea, is that

relearning a kind of warfare that Westmoreland understood, but we haven’t done in so long,

we don’t know how to do anymore?

I’m sorry, that’s a really long question.

Dan, but it’s a wonderful question because, you know, you’ve always heard that we practiced

to fight the last war, you know.

I think that’s even giving too much credit.

Look, your question is, are military organizations learning organizations that can benefit through


I think they are, but remember we fought Vietnam with a draft E force, conscripted army, and

it was only after that that Nixon was really forced to abandon the draft and to create

the all-volunteer force.

The all-volunteer force is a different kind of army from a citizen-based army.

And I think it’s probably true that a professional force can be a learning organization, whereas

by and large, citizen-based armies are not, because they’re constantly taking in new guys

for short term of service, and they have to, you know, train them from the beginning every

six months.

But look, it’s a good question, it’s a profound question, it goes back to the Peloponnesian

Wars or before that, as you say, and I’m not sure, you know, that I have a totally

good answer to it.

I know that the army coming out of Vietnam was not happy with its performance, Westmoreland’s

failures in particular, and guys like Norm Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell set about rebuilding

the culture of the army.

And the army we have today I think is considerably better than the one we had in Vietnam, which

was guilty of fragging its own officers and senior NCOs and drug abuse and other forms

of indiscipline on the front lines.

I don’t think you see that kind of army anymore.

So you’d have to say I think that we did learn, you know, from that experience.

For me, the larger lessons, though, are the policy level lessons, the political lessons,

that there I see no evidence that we’ve learned very much, and there I see that this ancient

Greek problem of hubris still around, you know, in space.

Doesn’t it seem like, and again, this may just be one person shooting an arrow and painting

a bullseye around it afterwards, but it seems to me that there’s always this wonderful out,

that people who want to do something, like I want to invade Russia, and I’m the Nazi

Wehrmacht and someone who comes up to me and says, well, you know, that didn’t work out

very well for Charles XII, didn’t work out very well for Napoleon, but I want to invade


So I say, yes, but they didn’t have the Luftwaffe, and they didn’t have the Wehrmacht, therefore

those historical lessons from the past are not applicable.

And I feel like there’s a human tendency to do that even now.

For example, to say, if our military today went and rethought the Vietnam War in the

21st century, we could do that and we could win because of all this stuff we have that

we didn’t have back then.

In other words, we can go into Afghanistan and it won’t be the graveyard of empires because

they didn’t have smart bombs in those old days.

Do you think that there’s any validity to that way of thinking?

Is that a little bit of a human nature sort of thing, or is there something you can do

institutionally that says, listen, this is how human beings behave, so let’s insulate

ourselves from that typical human tendency?

Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does.

There is an element of Shakespearean tragedy to all this.

I mean, man is a failed creature, right?

And so you see these foibles pop up time and again.

I will say this, Dan.

I think the professional military, especially at the senior level, are reluctant fighters.

At least that’s been my experience.

Now, I didn’t know George Patton, but by and large, from my experience in the JCS and at

senior Washington levels, there’s nobody looking for a fight there.

Their advice uniformly has been slow down.

It really didn’t work for Napoleon.

So it’s on the civilian side.

In the case of the Middle East, the problems that we’re having still today, the neocons,

the guys who had never worn a uniform.

Rick Cheney had seven excuses for not going to Vietnam, and the people around him at those

levels were anxious to go back and do Iraq again, to really get Saddam Hussein this time.

That wasn’t military.

Those were political people.

And so the hubris that I have seen has been wearing dark blue suits, not uniforms.

Interestingly, I had met General Mattis once, and he had basically said something similar.

He was very cognizant of the limitations of military power when I was talking to him.

So then let me ask you this, then.

It seems to me that there’s an institutional bias in this country, and it’s a human thing.

I don’t blame anyone against, let’s call it the can’t-do general as opposed to the can-do


So let’s say we’re talking about the 50th anniversary of Tet and we’re talking about

Vietnam and Johnson or Nixon brings in a couple of military advisors, and out of the

five of them, four of them say, of course we can win this war.

Let me tell you how to do it.

Put me in charge and I’ll do it.

And one guy says, no, no, no, you’re not going to win this.

It’s over.

Let’s figure out a way to get out of here with honor.

Isn’t there a natural tendency to say, listen, the can’t-do guy, I’m not going to go with


I’m going to go with somebody who tells me he can get it done.

And isn’t there a sense in the military of, I don’t want to be the guy that says we can’t

do this.

I don’t want to be thought of as the guy who says this is unwinnable.

Of course, you put me in charge and I’ll get it done.

Seems to me that it’s tough for someone to stand up in that sort of situation and say,

let’s not do this.

We wouldn’t be successful.

It wouldn’t be prudent.

Does that have any, when you’re talking about the institutional failures with the people

who wear suits, is that a problem that they’re going to run into?

You know, Dan, again, you put a very deep question to me here, but let me just say that

isn’t the way I have seen the problem formulated during my time in Washington.

Now, I’m sure this changes as the cast of characters changes in Washington, but typically

the president doesn’t ask advice of five guys and four of them say, yeah, I can do it.

One says, no.

What the president says is, hey, we’ve got a problem here.

What are my options?

So he’s not looking for a yes, no answer.

It’s not a binary problem.

What he’s looking for is, you know, give me a half a dozen things I might do here.

Tell me the pros and the cons of each thing and let me make a decision.

So in that case, if you’re opposed to taking a military action, you just put it in the


You say, here’s the cons.

You know, we’re going to lose friends around the world.

We’re going to lose international standing.

It’s going to dry up or whatever.

You can put any con in you want, but the proper approach from the military advisor standpoint

is to say, OK, if you want to do this, here are a set of options and the pluses and minuses

that go with them, and then it’s up to you.

So it’s a little different formulation than the one you put.

OK, so if you’re the military advisor and you’ve been in a role of you’ve been a chief

of staff before you, you’ve been the Air Force four star general here, I mean, if somebody

comes to you, the president, I need your advice on this.

And he says something to the effect of, oh, God, I’m losing my train of thought, General.

I’m getting old now.

Fifty two.

It’s just a little old.

I know I’m getting there, aging quickly.


OK, here’s what I wanted to get with that.

So the old line about the Vietnam War was the political nature of the president, for

example, operating as a person who’s picking tactical targets for aircraft to bomb.

And yet the old argument that we learned back in military history class for why that might

have been necessary was the president’s got to worry about Soviet involvement, the threats

of nuclear war, other things happening, including maybe funding the very people you’re fighting

at a higher level to compensate.

Whereas the guys on the ground, the military leaders are worried about, OK, how do I get

victory in this theater of operations?

What is the proper balance in your mind between a president who’s got to worry about the grand

strategy across the world and the general who’s got to say, listen, if you just take

your hands off of me, I’ll win this theater for you.

How do you see the balance of the general says, you know, General McPeak, if the president

says, General McPeak, help me out here.

What do you tell them to do vis-a-vis allowing generals to have a free hand versus a Lyndon

Johnson who’s maybe more worried about the Soviet Union than he is about making sure

no more resupply ships get into Haiphong Harbor?

Well, this is a problem which is at the heart of limited warfare.

If for instance, you asked Kurt LeMay what to do about Vietnam, he would say bomb them

back into the Stone Age.

In fact, he did say that.

And we could have won.

I mean, had we nuked Hanoi, the war would have been over, right?

So the war was always winnable.

It was just a question of how limited are the means you want to use here.

So you go to the president and say, okay, I’m assuming you don’t want to use nuclear


I mean, we have an instance case right now that’s very relevant, North Korea.

So if we seek to intervene in North Korea, the first question we should ask ourselves

is, is this a limited war?

Are the means we’re going to use limited?

Not just the means, do we have a limited amount of time?

Are you going to put a limit on the amount of money we’re going to spend here?

So you have to decide all of the boundaries of the limitations you’re going to put on


And then that has to be bought by the president.

I mean, you have to tell President Johnson, okay, if I have to worry more about the Soviet

Union than I do winning, in quotes, in South Vietnam, that’s fine.

Just tell me that.

And that means I can’t mine Hanoi Harbor and blow up some Soviet boat.

Now are you willing to live with that?

So the president has to understand the nature of the war.

It’s going to be limited.

And that means we may or may not win.

If it’s unlimited, I know we can beat North Vietnam or North Korea anytime.

So the first question you have to ask are, what limitations are you going to put on me?

So we understand all that.

Now, typically today, we don’t talk in terms of limited war.

We talk in terms of rules of engagement.

What rules of engagement is the president or the secretary of defense or the theater

commander or whatever going to impose on operations?

And we need to be eyes wide open about that up front.

Now inside the rules of engagement, I would argue you ought to give the military guy as

much flexibility as possible.

I don’t want the president picking targets in the basement of the White House, you know,

because he doesn’t know much about targeting.

You know, he’s going to pick the wrong targets, or he’s going to tell me to attack them from

the wrong direction, or he’s going to tell me to use the wrong munitions, or he’s going

to tell me to send too few airplanes or too many airplanes.

Those are questions that he knows very little about.

And what he needs to do is impose rules of engagement, tell me what the limitations are,

and leave me alone.

And then as long as I operate inside the limitations, he should never have any kind of a quibble

or complaint about how I’m doing and what the result is or the consequence.

You know, the fact is we never lost a battle in Vietnam.

We just lost the war.

And I’m not a big fan of Westmoreland.

I regard him as rather dumb.

I mean, what he tried to do was stupid, in my opinion.

And not much improved when he was succeeded by Abrams, although there’s a big school of

thought that says Abrams was a much more talented officer and we were on the right track once

we got rid of Westmoreland.

But in any case, you know, the point is that there are things that politicians are expert

in and there are things that professional military are expert in.

And we need to understand who does what here.

When you’re picking targets in the basement of the White House, you’re on the wrong track

and you are going to lose, in my opinion, because you got the wrong guy doing the wrong


Let’s talk about on the right track.

I think that’s a key point.

So when I’m watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary, one of the things that just screams at you

I was reminded once again of the veterans coming into the class I was in in the 1980s

screams at you is that you don’t have any real way of determining how you’re doing at

any given time.

I mean, the classic way that was used was body count.

But we understand that if you don’t have body counts, it’s even with how do you measure

progress in a way that’s helpful to the heads of the military, the political heads and the

population as a whole?

And we could apply this to the situation in the Middle East, for example, right now.

I mean, how do you gauge progress?

And if progress isn’t going the way you want, do you double down on the efforts or do you

determine that maybe I mean, are we even capable of cutting loose?

Was there ever another choice in Vietnam?

We act like we could have just said, listen, we’re losing the war, so let’s get out.

But isn’t the most difficult thing in the world to disengage from combat with an enemy

strategic level or tactical level?

So I guess what I’m asking is, how do you gauge progress, whether or not you’re winning

or losing?

And then do you notice if it’s not in your interest to notice that you’re, for example,

not winning?

You know, can you get because in this Vietnam War, you’re looking at these people that just

seem in retrospect, they look like they know the war is over, but they can’t say it.

They can’t prove it.

They can’t they can’t operate or do anything about it.

They seem frozen in the condition.

So there seems to me to be a real need to be able to measure progress and then have

some sort of reaction to the data you’re getting.

Can you can you suggest a way maybe we could do that in the Middle East right now?

And if we decided it wasn’t going well, what do you do then?

Isn’t this the crux of the issue, right?

Are we winning or losing?

And if we’re winning or losing, what do you do about it?

I don’t think it’s going well in the Middle East, just to get quickly to the answer.

But, you know, there used to be a way of judging that was pretty easy, and that is territory.

You won if if you prevailed, if you held the battlefield at the end and the other guy left,

you were winning.


So Churchill could be very worried about what was going on in North Africa because Rommel

pushed all the way to Alamein, you know, he was inside Egypt, right?

So Cairo and the Suez Canal was threatened because the geography told Churchill that

he was losing.

So he replaced whoever it was with Montgomery.

It’s not so in a linear war where armies face each other, you can tell who’s winning by

where the front line is and what direction it’s moving.

Or at least that’s that’s one gross approximation.

You know, if you’re fighting in Gettysburg, you’re not in good shape.

Yeah, totally.

OK, so you’ve got to be fighting in Chancellorsville or someplace down south.

Now, it’s not so easy anymore with stateless actors like ISIS or, you know, suicide bombers.

How can you tell if you’re winning?

I mean, the guy doesn’t have any territory to capture.

He doesn’t have a national treasury that you can loot.

He doesn’t even really have a life worth living, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the suicide bombing


He doesn’t even care about his own life.

So in this in this kind of war, how do you judge where you are?

I don’t think we have a ready answer to that.

You know, there’s there if we had a sort of an index of violence, you’d say, well, the

violence is down and we kind of have that.

But in Afghanistan now, we have the Taliban bombing again inside Kabul, right?

And so the number you can plot the number of incidents on a graph and say, well, there

are more incidents this month than there were last month.

You’re not doing very well.

And in fact, that’s what I’m doing in the Middle East now, sort of subjectively.

I don’t you know, I don’t have a chart in my office that I keep track of this specifically.

But it seems to me I have the sense that we’re not doing very well in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And you know, I don’t know how to come unstuck from it.

This is a tar baby kind of deal where you say, gee, I wish I could figure out how to

get out of here with my pride and, you know, reputation and shape.

I don’t see a way to do it.

We’re kind of stuck to the problem in the Middle East and who knows how to judge whether

we’re doing better or poorer than we were, you know, a month ago, a year ago, five years


Hard to say.

I’m just you know, it’s funny you say that.

I wasn’t expecting that answer because it leads you to the next question, which is if

you can’t figure out how you’re doing and if you really don’t have any options, if you’re

totally stuck.

You know, I remember being told a long time ago by my stepfather who was trying to explain

to me that the wide range of presidential actions that I always assumed was possible

was a myth and that when you actually got into the office, it was really much more constrained

by what your predecessor left you, a bunch of other things like, you know, I can’t fight

the Vietnam War the way I want because the Soviet Union might get involved.

When you look at the current, let’s call it the war on terror situation.

I don’t see.

I mean, how do you get out of that when I mean, you know, the old the old equation,

which is it costs these elements that we’re fighting pennies on the dollar compared to

what it costs for us to counter them.

I mean, the long term graphing out of that situation looks horrible.

If you know, I feel like we could be doing a documentary with Ken Burns, 150 year old

Ken Burns, years from now having the same conversation about the current situation we’re

in in the war on terror that I just saw the other night when I was watching the Vietnam

War documentary.

And if that’s the case, you know, you get this feeling like deja vu all over again or

a train wreck that you’ve seen before and that it’s happening in slow motion.

But you’re finding out exactly how limited the people in the late 60s were in terms of

their options.

Does it feel like that to you at all or does it seem like because the context of the Cold

War and all that is so different.

How similar to you would you feel if you were a president in office in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s

chair versus Donald Trump’s chair?

Oh, boy, don’t ask me that one.

OK, we can go back and it makes it easier this look.

A key issue is how do you define victory?

Another way of saying that or what are what’s our purpose here, what’s our goal?

If you tell me what our purpose is in the Middle East, I’ll tell you how we’re doing.

You tell me how to define victory in the Middle East and I’ll tell you whether we’re on the

10 yard line, the 15 yard line, the 50 yard line where we are.

But I don’t recall anybody ever saying, here’s our objective.

You know, here’s here’s how we would define victory.

And if you don’t have a definition of victory, then you don’t know when to quit or when to

retire or how to get out.

You know, because you can’t tell, you know, we we’d like to I mean, George W.

Bush famously went on a aircraft carrier and stood under a sign that said mission

accomplished. Remember that?

That was how many years ago?

So at least 15, we’re still in Iraq.

If our mission was accomplished when George W.

Bush went on that boat.

And declared victory, what the heck are we still doing in Iraq?

Well, then you get back to we get to the same question, though, about I mean, OK, is this

is everything we’re facing now sort of a bit of blowback.

I mean, did did we stir up a hornet’s nest and we’re still dealing with individual

hornets? And it would have been better had we left, you know, the Hornet in chief, Saddam

Hussein in charge, because at least we weren’t the ones who had to pick up the pieces.

I mean, I guess, you know, what amateur armchair historians like yours truly do, General,

as you almost certainly know, is we look at these and we try to find meaning from the

past, which is this this this horrible fool’s game.

But but I mean, when you look at this, you go, I mean, you almost get to a point where

you say, would Saddam Hussein and the Middle East we had in 1991 be an applicable

trade that a modern politician would would trade today if they could get back to that?

Yes, in fact, I would have traded at the time I wrote op ed pieces and made

speeches against Iraq, too.

It drove me out of the Republican Party.

You know, I ended up supporting Obama in 2008.

I would in fact, I was the national co-chair of its presidential campaign.

And the issue for me was how badly that whole Iraq, too, thing had been handled,

including my buddy Colin Powell going in front of the General Assembly and making

outrageous claims, claims that I I thought I knew, in fact, at the time were wrong

about Saddam Hussein’s having weapons of mass destruction or the other lies that

were told. You know, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were good buddies, baloney.

There wasn’t any al Qaeda in Iraq as long as Saddam Hussein was alive.

They hated each other or that we would be welcomed as liberators.

You know, people would throw bouquets of roses as our guys going into Baghdad baloney, as

it turned out. So I said that at the time and, you know, a trillion dollars later and

thousands of lives later, we’re stuck with an Iraq that is much worse than what it was

when Saddam Hussein was running it.

So, you know, the real issue here is what are our purposes?

How do we define victory?

What limitations are we going to put on our use of violence to achieve these purposes?

These are very deep questions, very hard questions to answer.

And and frankly, most most presidents need as much help as possible to get to these

answers. And they need help from, you know, wise and good military advisors, which I don’t

think they they always get.

Now, you know, we were just you were just talking a second ago about Colin Powell, respected

military authority, but using that authority as part of an effort to sell the American

people and the world on on a particular foreign policy move.

And it occurs to me, you know, one of the things that that watching the Ken Burns Vietnam

documentary really brings home is the context of what a different America it was back in

the days when Vietnam was first heating up the early 1960s.

I was born during the Yadrang battle.

I mean, so 1965, when things are really heating up with ground troops, the government at that

time was assumed to be telling the truth by just about everyone.

It was a black and white, good and evil world.

You know, I always tell young people when I’m talking to them.

I always bring up the First World War and I talk about a generation of people that could

watch a unit in front of them step out of the trenches and go over the top and be machined

gun within 10 yards of the trench.

And then the next wave will do the same thing.

And I said, we wouldn’t do that today in the same way that much of the stuff that a 1962

era American would have considered a truism would be met much more skeptically by a 21st

century American.

How much did the so-called credibility gap over several administrations in that era do

lasting the boy who cried wolf type damage to our government’s ability to be trusted

with statements like how the war is going or anything else?

Did we sort of lose?

Did we lose our innocence?

I guess it’s a classic phrase from my 1980s Vietnam War military history class.


Well, I think in particular, the Pentagon Papers represented a sea change.

You know, after they were published in the New York Times and later in the Washington

Post, Americans came to understand that a succession of administrations, both Democrat

and Republican, had systematically lied to the American people.

And I don’t think that our country has ever been the same again.

The skepticism which that whole episode properly aroused has been with us ever since.

And frankly, it is a loss of innocence for us.

And if you look at our history, we were never a great power until after World War I.

So our experience on the world stage was pretty limited.

Maybe 50 years of experience as a real actor in international affairs.

And then finally, we woke up a bit.

We saw how that sort of thing happened.

It’s not that governments weren’t cynical before.

I think the British government has been cynical, you know, for a long time.

But Americans were truly children of the frontier, you know, with a sort of

Western heritage, a frontier heritage.

And we wanted to believe that our government was telling us the truth.

But we learned in the Pentagon Papers that that’s not so.

And ever since, we’ve been, I think, properly skeptical.

Why do you, I guess the logical question is, why do you think they lied?

I mean, you know, I think the tendency would be to blame some president from the opposite

political party and demonize them.

But as you said, this was a multi-administration effort to keep from the people who are supposed

to understand what’s going on so they can be informed voters from really knowing what’s

going on.

And it started with, you know, Eisenhower, even, but even to the end with Nixon and Christmas

bombings that were secret.

I mean, what was I guess, was it kept secret in your mind for for military reasons, or

was it kept secret because the reaction of the American people to their own policies

was what the government was worried about?

I think it was the latter.

Really, the government didn’t, the president didn’t want to be embarrassed.

Embarrassment is the worst possible, right, situation for a public figure.

And so the bombing of Cambodia, for instance, was secret from the American people.

It sure as hell wasn’t secret from the Cambodians, you know, or the North Vietnamese.

Or the North Vietnamese army, which was using Cambodia for sanctuaries.

They knew all about it.

So secrecy, there wasn’t a military necessity at all.

The enemy quite understood what was going on.

The secrecy was required to keep the American people in the dark.

And the only, you know, the only reason for that is the government would have been embarrassed

to admit what was going on.

That’s the worst possible reason to classify any information is to protect yourself from


But that’s exactly what was going on.

Do you think that the efforts of the media today are, I want to compare them to the media

efforts in Vietnam, which were, you know, so scrutinized and yet perhaps so influential

on what went on.

And I just, I’m not even sure we’re talking apples and oranges here in the ability to

compare them.

But how would you compare today’s media coverage of America’s conflicts and that, for example,

take 1967, 68, because it was very different in 62.

But how would you, how would you compare the media’s job, how they cover with the restrictions,

by the way, that we understand?

I mean, they don’t have the same kind of ability to show this.

I mean, the combat footage that, not to change the subject, but the thing that rocked me

in Ken Burns’s documentary the most, and I have no idea how he did it, is there’s segments

where you’ll see 35 seconds in a row of footage that looks like it was shot yesterday, high

definition stuff.

And, you know, for people like me who’ve seen a lot of that footage, I couldn’t figure out

if it’s computer enhanced or what.

But when you’re looking at what the media is able to show back then and the difference

in the coverage today, can you compare in your mind’s eye the pros and cons of the way

we did it then and how we do it now?

The media coverage in Vietnam was by and large positive, in my opinion, except for

photo coverage.

You know, the impact of a photograph or today video is so much more pervasive or influential

or shocking.

You know, you got a photograph of a police general in Saigon shooting a guy in the head

or a very young girl running away from a village that’s been napalmed with her skin on fire.

These pictures convey a message in a way that written journalism or broadcast journalism


And they were very negative.

I mean, Buddhist monks, you know, emulating themselves in the streets of Saigon.

When you show that, you show it on television, it just is merciless in the message it conveys.

And so for my money, until Walter Cronkite came on CBS News and said, hey, we’re not

winning, guys, after Ted, the coverage was pretty universally supportive, the written


But the photographic coverage just undermined everything that was being said in print.

Now, today it’s the coverage is much more visual, much more video oriented and photo


And so the bad news hits earlier, I think.

Because, you know, you don’t see a photograph of ribbon cuttings as downtown Baghdad is


You see these awful scenes of devastated towns that we’re creating in the Middle East.

And there’s no getting around it.

We’re in a large scale destructive mode there in the Middle East.

And that’s what people are seeing.

They’re not seeing any upside.

You know, you can talk about upside all you want and how well we’re doing and so forth.

But what we are seeing is awful, the consequences of the combat there.

And so I think the coverage today is much more pessimistic and skeptical and even perhaps

cynical, but because they are showing, not just telling.

And from now on, I expect that’s the way the coverage will be.

Because this, you know, younger generation is much more video oriented and won’t read

the New York Times, watch it on, you know, on Facebook.


Once upon a time, it used to be Radio Free Europe trying to get a little teeny signal,

you know, over the Iron Curtain.

Now, if we were fighting the North Vietnamese army, they would have a troll of people on

Twitter, you know, giving their side of the story or pretending to be Americans.

Complete with photographs taken with their eyes.

And maybe fake photographs.

Yes, exactly right.

Well, then let me ask you a little bit and not really changing subjects, but I can’t

have a four star general on here without mining you a little bit for some knowledge and wisdom


I’m looking at Syria and I’m looking, you had talked about, you know, in destructive

mode right now.

But to an armchair person like me, it looks like a terribly small theater to have that

many different forces operating in and us hoping to keep everything clean with no major

mistakes and whatnot.

You had talked about North Korea as well.

Can you talk to me a little about those two hot spots?

And if there’s a third one you would add to the mix of places, we need to be careful right


Well, I think Korea is the most important and threatening problem that we face anywhere

in the world or have faced for a long time.

I really think we’re up against a sort of a Cuban missile crisis.

So it’s been that long, you know, since we’ve really looked down the barrel, gun barrel.

As far as Syria goes, it is an awfully small theater of operations, especially on the air


We’re talking about aircraft like the F-22 that supercruise.

In other words, they’re supersonic, they’re running around the sky at 1.7, 1.8 Mach all

the time.

And that makes Syria a pretty small country to even do a 180, do a 180 degree turn in,

you know.

And the Russians are there sharing that airspace with us.

Now, we’ve so far been able to coordinate that air activity pretty well, even though

the Russians did lose a fighter to Turkish ground fire.

So, but the less, you know, we’re running head to head against each other in a very

small airspace.

And it’s a tribute to the professionalism of our Air Force that we haven’t already shot

down a few of those guys.

But that’s terribly dangerous.

We could be any day involved in a head to head fight with Russian aircraft and where

that, you know, that’s got the potential to escalate, to go anywhere.

So it’s dangerous.

In my opinion, it’s less dangerous than the situation in North Korea, where we have

apparently a crazy guy in charge of a government that is, that does possess nuclear weapons

and is rapidly developing the capability, if it doesn’t already have them, to deliver

those nuclear weapons against American cities.

I think that’s an awful situation.

I think we can’t allow that to continue.

I believe we must intervene and do something there.

Now, what should we do?

I’m in favor of using all the tools, you know, in the toolbox.

If you think diplomacy will work, by all means, let’s do it.

If you think we can, you know, economic sanctions will work, let’s impose them.

If you think the Chinese can help us or the Russians can help us, by all means, let’s

involve them.

At the end of the day, I think we’ve tried just about everything here.

Nothing has worked so far, because what we have to do is dismantle this nuclear capability.

We can’t allow, in my opinion, North Korea to continue to develop

threats against American homeland property and citizens and institutions and so forth.

That has to be dismantled, and I believe it has to be dismantled relatively quickly.

We don’t have forever to deal with this problem, or we’ll get to a point where we can’t

deal with it.

Now, I think we should deal with it with conventional weapons, rather than use nuclear

weapons against North Korea.

And I think we still have the capability to do that, to help them dismantle this capability.

But we need to get with it pretty soon, because, you know, time’s running out on us here.

What if, to go back to some of the constraints maybe that a guy like Johnson was operating

under, what if the Chinese or Putin’s government tell us, no, don’t do that?

Well, I don’t think, well, we’d know that already, first of all.

But remember, the North Korean nuclear capability is a bigger threat to Beijing,

a bigger threat to Vladivostok, than it is to Honolulu or Chicago.

So there’s every reason, I believe, that they would wish to cooperate with us.

If not, then so be it.

We have the means to deter China and Russia.

We’ve shown that already.

Well, the question is, we don’t, I think, know for sure or with great enough probability

that we can deter North Korea.

I mean, I’ve heard it argued that this guy, Kim Jong-un, is a rational person.

All he wants to do is hold power.

Therefore, he has something to lose.

Therefore, he’s deterrable.

And I think that’s probably right.

My question is, what if it’s wrong?

What are the odds that he’s not deterrable?

Say it’s only 10%.

So do we want to make a bet?

We want to bet Chicago or New York City that he’s deterrable when the odds are 10% say

that he’s not deterrable.

I don’t think we want to take that bet.

And by the way, the overview ought to be here about nuclear proliferation.

Where are we going to draw the line?

Is it OK for Nigeria or Honduras or Belize to have nuclear weapons?

What is the point at which we’re going to put our foot down and say, no, we’ve gone

far enough?

It’s enough that 10 or so countries that are acting responsibly so far have nuclear


But that’s enough.

The world is dangerous enough without Estonia having a full up nuclear delivery capability.

But in any case, we now have a case which I think is as clear as can be that says we

need to stop this process here.

If America possesses armed forces for any reason, it is to protect the property and

the institutions and the lives of Americans against threats like North Korea, a nuclear

armed North Korea.

I believe we ought to draw the line and we ought to give a deadline by 1 January next


Either the North Koreans are dismantling this capability under international inspection

or we will help dismantle it.

You know, it’s funny you jumped the gun and went right to my next question, which was

about nuclear nonproliferation, because I wanted to ask you, is it specifically a North

Korean problem or is it you mentioned Belize, right?

OK, is it a Belize problem?

So here’s my question, though.

This reminds me a little of like certain naval treaties between the two world wars

where we’re telling certain powers, listen, this is 70 plus year old technology, the basis

for nuclear weapons.


And when you’re telling other countries that they can never develop that capability, isn’t

that the equivalent of locking them into second power status permanently in the way that the

Japanese had to have six battleships to every 10 British battleships?

I mean, is that it seems to me the farther we get away from from when that technology

was invented, the weirder it gets to tell people, listen, you can have anything but

something that was invented darn near 100 years ago.

Is that should the foreign policy of the country be that no nuclear powers that aren’t currently

nuclear powers should be allowed to become nuclear powers?

No, the foreign policy of this government ought to be that a nuclear zero.

That we would like to see a world without nuclear weapons, we would be much safer.

I mean, our superiority in conventional warfare is so pronounced that if nuclear weapons disappeared

everywhere in the world, it would improve the safety and security of the American people


So our policy ought to be zero nuclear weapons for anybody.

Now, how do we get there?

I have no idea because a country like, say, Israel, which commonly is understood to possess

an inventory of nuclear weapons, is not going to renounce them, given its security situation

in the geography that it lives.

So I don’t know of a practical way to get to zero.

I think it ought to be our objective, and I think we ought to work on it and try to

get there.

And eventually, hopefully, we can get there.

But that ought to be our policy objective.

And in the meantime, we ought to say, yes, nobody else that doesn’t have them now is

going to get them, and it’s going to reduce them to second-class status, and that’s too


Going to have to live with it.

But the world is increasingly dangerous the more people get that capability.

And so it does freeze people into a sort of a formulaic position, like we tried to do

with capital ships at one time.

Remember, though, this is not the first time we’ve outlawed chemical munitions, right?


Worldwide, hopefully.

And we ought to enforce that.

So we can put certain limitations that we hope are universal on the kind of munitions

that are available for use in hostile engagements.


What about a conventional situation, then, of a change in power?

So you look at something like in Iran, in their region.

All of us history nuts know that traditionally Iran or Persia is one of the—we’ll call

them the regional superpowers, right?

And they wax and wane, but sometimes they dominate the region.

It seems like the policy sometimes is we’re not going to let anyone change the power

relationships that are currently in place.

Is that a viable—it seems to me a hegemonic power sort of way of looking at it, but is

that a viable way to look at something like the Middle East and say, no, you’re not going

to expand your influence into Syria, even if that’s a traditional Persian area of expansion?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

How much can we—we’ll call it the United States at the tip of the spear, but we all

represent a bunch of major powers.

How much can we be the Congress of Vienna, but constantly making sure that things stay


We’ll call them stable, for lack of a better word.

So nuclear stability, you’re all for.

What about even regional power-shifting stability?

We are, no doubt, a status quo power because we’re the top dog, right?

So we don’t want that to change, and hopefully—I hope it never changes.

I mean, if this country lasts 1,000 years and we all pray it will, we want to be at

the top of the heap for that whole period of time.

However, you can’t stand at the beach’s edge and order the tide not to get your feet

wet, you know?

So change is inevitable, and what we have to do is to find constructive ways to allow

change to occur that doesn’t threaten our position.

And there’s every reason, by the way, that we ought to be able to do that.

I mean, certainly the technical change that we see in the last couple of decades has been

led by us.

We’ve created the instability on the technological front, so it serves our purposes to be in

the vanguard of change where it’s positive.

We just have to figure out when’s it positive, when’s it negative, and that’s what we

have to do.

We just have to figure out when’s it positive, when’s it negative.

Now, in the case of Iran, I think it’s been a long time since Darius the Great, so I don’t

know how much Persian influence.

You know, Syria recently has certainly been—I mean, the Ottoman Empire was not Persian.


Syria was an Ottoman province.

It was hacked up by Sykes-Picot at the end of World War I, and by the way, Lebanon was

created separately.

I mean, Syria considers Lebanon a Syrian province.

Yeah, the Christian-French enclave, right.


So the question you ask requires sophistication in the answering.

It requires sophistication in the asking.

So statesmen are judged by their ability to recognize what change is coming anyway and

running around and getting in front of it, right?

That’s how we define statesmanship.

And cheap politicians are defined as people who don’t understand precisely that problem.

I’ve sat here, and mind you, for wisdom on current affairs and wisdom on the Vietnam


At no point did I ask you about the drama, though, of flying hundreds of missions into

that situation, and what I would assume was a more tense situation as anti-air defenses

got stronger and stronger.

This is the understated question of all time, but can you describe to me just for a second,

what the heck?

I mean, when you look back on it, I did things that were nothing like what you did, and I

think, God, I was crazy.

And do you ever look back on that and just think to yourself, was that a different person,

or is it like yesterday for you?

Do you miss it?

Yeah, I miss it.

Combat is invigorating.

I loved it.

Partly because of hubris.

I mean, I was arrogant.

Still am, probably.

I mean, my friends might say I was arrogant, but when I get strapped into an airplane,

I don’t think anybody can beat me.

So I never was—for me, it wasn’t a matter of bravery or courage to go out there because

I knew I was going to kick the crap out of the other guy.

Rather than the reverse.

So for me, combat, I flew 285 combat sorties, and I loved every minute of it.

And I miss it.

I mean, it’s really, really fun.

And it’s hard to explain.

I mean, I’m a professional warrior, you know, so that’s what I was cut out to do, and I

enjoyed it a lot.

And I’m going to recommend that people read your books to get a more detailed version

of everything we were just talking about.

General, did I ask everything you would like to talk about?

Is there anything that you’d like to bring up that I left out?


This has been a pretty wide-ranging conversation and more philosophical than I’m equipped

to deal with.

Your questions are too good.

I mean, nobody, including Herodotus, you spoke of the Peloponnesian Wars.

Nobody has answers to these questions, and it’s not good to ask a professional military


These are questions for the philosophy professor, not for me.

But certainly, it’s been as wide-ranging as I could desire and more so than I’m really

any good at handling.

General, you under-appreciate yourself.

I tailored those questions after watching you talk, and I think you’re absolutely—and

you know, what’s funny is when I met General Mattis, I thought that’s how he thought


You’re very well-versed and wide-ranging yourself.

I appreciate it, Dan.

Thanks very much.

I enjoyed talking to you, buddy.

My thanks to General McPeak for coming on the program and putting up with my traditionally

unusual and long-winded questions.

His books are available everywhere.

We will link to some of them on our website.

His latest, as I said, is Roles and Missions, cataloging his time as the 14th Chief of Staff

of the Air Force.

He’s a fascinating guy.

I think you can agree, and I appreciate him coming on the program.

The policy here is to let you hear the shows and then decide for yourself what they’re


We sort of rely on the honors system as our business model, and so far, so good.

Thanks for all your support.

It keeps the lights on around here.

Go to DanCarlin.com for information on how to donate to the show.