In Vietnam, where he flew 300 combat missions and won a Purple Heart, Michael J. Dugan was used to people shooting at him. But over the weekend, Dugan shot himself down -- he told reporters about U.S. plans to bomb Baghdad and target Iraqi President Saddam Hussein if war breaks out in the Middle East.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney fired the easy-speaking top Air Force general for talking about "things we never talk about."

Only three months after replacing a general who also ran afoul of Cheney, Dugan, who the secretary said had "an outstanding record of service to the Air Force and the nation," was sacked with the agreement of President Bush.

Cheney said he recommended Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, 54, commander of the Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii, to replace Dugan as Air Force chief of staff.

Dugan, who will retire soon instead of serving the usual two years, was tapped by Cheney for the top Air Force job and a spot on the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the relatively young age of 53, culminating a 32-year career.

Dugan took over from Gen. Larry Welch in July, after Welch irked the secretary for trying to cut a deal with Congress on strategic missile systems.

On Capitol Hill, Dugan quickly became a staunch defender of the B-2 "stealth" bomber and a strong advocate for the efficacy of air power in war. It was talking about the latter that got the four-star general into hot water. Then Dugan earned the dubious distinction of becoming only the second member of the Joint Chiefs to be fired, the first being a Navy officer in 1949.

"I sincerely regret any embarrassment that my comments may have caused," Dugan said in a statement yesterday.

Born in Albany, N.Y., Dugan earned a BA from the U.S. Military Academy and an MBA from the University of Colorado and attended the Air War College.

In 1989, Dugan became commander in chief of the U.S. Air Force in Europe. Unusually friendly to reporters and quick to speak his mind, Dugan recently termed the U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf as a choice between "patience and sweat" or "violence and blood."

Speaking to troops in Saudi Arabia last week, Dugan used words that seemed to sum up his philosophy and predicament. "When the time comes," he said, "do it right and it'll be a short tour."

McPeak -- a health-food enthusiast who has produced a fitness video for U.S. troops and takes pride in serving visiting bigwigs bean soup and dried fruit for lunch -- is responsible for Air Force activities spread over half the world, from Hawaii to South Korea and from Japan to the Philippines.

A Santa Rosa, Calif., native, McPeak has a BA from San Diego State University and an MA in international relations from George Washington University.

A 33-year veteran of the Air Force, the general flew 269 combat missions in Vietnam, as well as flying with the Thunderbirds precision-flying team in almost 200 air shows in the 1960s.