Always At War

Always at War is the story of Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the early decades of the Cold War. More than a simple history, it describes how an organization dominated by experienced World War II airmen developed a unique culture that thrives to this day.

Tell me a little about your book Always At War.

Always at War tells the story of Strategic Air Command (SAC) from its inception through its performance in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  SAC was ‘the’ organization tasked with strategic deterrence during the initial decades of the Cold War until the Navy fielded their nuclear-powered submarines and sea-launched ballistic missiles.  SAC’s first commanding officer, General Kenney, was not successfully leading SAC as the Air Force tried to meet the national security objective of deterring the Soviet Union.  A new commanding general, Curtis LeMay, was brought in to fix SAC.  When General LeMay first took over, he wanted to assess its readiness. In January 1949, he flew every bomber in SAC against a target near Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Not one bomber successfully completed the mission he ordered.  Having gained the attention of his airmen, LeMay told them they were no longer preparing for war, but they were “at war.”  This is the origin of the book’s title. Every day that SAC members came to work, they were at war.  During those almost eight years of LeMay’s command, SAC developed an organizational culture that lasted until it went away in 1992.  This book tells the story about the inception of that organizational culture.

What is the backstory behind Always At War? And why did you decide to write this book?

After graduating from pilot training in 1989, I began B-52 training and joined SAC.  From the day I entered SAC, everyone talked about how SAC was different than other commands in the Air Force.  While flying bombing missions in support of Desert Storm, I noticed how SAC did things just a little differently than other commands.  In 2004, the Air Force sent me to UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue a Ph.D. in American History.  I took that time to focus my dissertation research on why SAC was distinct from other commands.  That is how the book came about.

How has writing helped you personally? And changed the way you think?

Writing is in no way ‘like’ physical training, but some aspects are analogous.  There are days when it comes easy and other days when it is difficult to do even one sentence.  Perseverance is the key to finishing.  Writing is not just about communicating ideas, thoughts, or information.  It is doing so in a format that makes it accessible to a wide audience.  That is a challenge. 

Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?

One of the most interesting aspects of Gen LeMay is the reputation that preceded him as his tenure at SAC grew.  LeMay became almost mythical.  There is one story of LeMay attempting to penetrate a security zone at an airbase when an airman attempted to shoot his car hitting it on the second shot.  LeMay supposedly got out of the car and took one of the airman’s stripes saying, “That is for the one that missed.”

Is there anything that you had to Edit OUT of Always At War that you wished was kept in?

As part of my research, I sought not only the view from above, SAC leadership, but I wanted to get the opinions and views of those who served at all levels of SAC.  I attended many different types of SAC reunions (bombers, missiles, airborne controllers, etc.) and spoke with many former SAC warriors.  I regret that I could not include all the stories I heard, but I tried to include those that captured the essence of SAC’s culture.

What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from your book?

The further removed we get from the Cold War, the more people forget the sacrifices many made to keep and preserve the peace at a time when the world lived in fear of nuclear armageddon.  Those weapons are still with us and people still sit alert every day, but our deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective due to those who came before and worked to get deterrence right.  This book details how the first SAC warriors operationalized strategic deterrence and the hard work that went into that effort.

What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

Personally, I am used to reading multiple books at once, because I may be in the mood for a different book when I find time to read.  I try to find a good history book, a good leadership/inspirational work, and a professional development book to plow through.  Currently, I am reading Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, and Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies.  I just finished a book that was given to me that I would like to mention.  Bryan Doerries’s The Theater of War was an incredible read.  It details how Bryan introduced war veterans to Greek tragedies to treat PTSD.  Not only is it an inspirational read but any fan of Thucydides will find insights from the book that are not in most historical works.

In terms of influences, I would turn to Rick Atkinson and David Hackett Fisher.  I will never attain their acclaim, but Rick Atkinson has a gift to paint a vivid picture and detail historical accounts with words that are unrivaled.  Dr. Fisher once gave a talk I attended where he said that even though historians are writing about events where the end is known, we can still write a suspense-filled history that captures the reader’s attention.  Historians can write page-turners.

What books had the most impact on you and your development?

As a historian, I certainly feel that history books provide insights into the past, but, more importantly, inform current and future problems.  The Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey famously said, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve, first one and then the next and then the next until at last, we die.”  As we deal with a worldwide pandemic, a struggling economy, and geopolitical challenges, the past is a good reminder that others had plowed this type of soil before and survived.  We can learn from their success and failures

What are your favorite books to give — and get — as gifts?

My favorite book to give is Always at War!  Books that challenge my thinking or challenge the thinking of those I am gifting are the best.  I never thought that a book on Greek plays and PTSD would draw my attention, but it did.  I tend to fall into the history genre when it comes to a book selection, but invite works that challenge my worldview or comfort zone.

Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?

I can’t say there were any surprises, but I must say that any writer must have ‘tough skin.’  Rejection is part of the process.  Some publishers will simply not like what you write or the way you write.  If you are interested in writing and publishing, you should find an outlet that is a fit for your style and subject.

General Mattis talks a lot about using reading as a tool to learn from other people’s experiences. Can you provide a specific example or story where reading has helped you learn from others’ experiences? 

I think we can all relate to the idea that something we read in social media, a post, or a tweet gets our dander up and we want to respond immediately out of emotion.  I am reminded of reading about President Lincoln was under a lot of criticism in the Union press.  Lincoln would respond on paper to the story but place in a draw and let his ire die down.  While therapeutic, he resisted the urge to publicize his emotional filled retort.  There is a lot to be learned from his example.

Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.

  1. I hold a world record for the longest ‘combat’ mission in history (44.3 hours).
  2. I have flown two different bombers in two different wars.
  3. I was a rocket scientist (astronautical engineer) before I became a historian

What is next for you?

In terms of publication, I would like to further research and write more about Strategic Air Command.  The first book only detailed two of the nearly five decades it was in existence.  There is a lot more to be told about the command and those who served in it.

Purchase Always At War Here

Melvin G. Deaile is an associate professor at the Air Command and Staff College. Dr. Deaile is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, with a Ph.D. in American History from UNC-Chapel Hill, who flew the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 Spirit. He has flown combat operations as part of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, including a record-setting 44.3-hour combat mission. Dr. Deaile is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and is a distinguished graduate of the USAF Weapon School.

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