Forty Years of Leadership

As a fresh-faced rifle platoon leader in February 1968, second Lieutenant Peter  Pace came across as a rather tentative leader.  Quiet and unassuming, Pace was  dropped into Hue City (the South Vietnam city serving as ground zero for the Tet  Offensive), and at first, his men didn’t quite know what to make of him. 

"I remember early on the guys were filling sandbags for a position and I-trying to find my way as a new leader-went down and started filling sandbags with them," Pace recalled in a 2004 interview with American Forces Press Service. "One of the squad leaders said to me, ‘Lieutenant, we’ve got this.  We need you to be thinking about the next patrol or the next thing that we have to do.  We can do the sandbags.  We need you to do what you’re supposed to do.’"

It was perhaps the last time that Pace appeared unsure of his duties as a military leader.  Peter Pace-known in Pentagon circles as "Perfect Pete" for his immaculate military bearing-went on to become a four-star General, then, in 2005, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the United States Armed Forces.  As chairman, Pace became an effective advocate for President Bush’s military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Last week, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that he would not be recommending Pace for a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Though Secretary Gates insisted Pace’s termination had "absolutely nothing to do" with his performance (in fact, Gates told Pace that he would have liked to have re-nominated him), Gates said, "I have decided that at this moment in our history, the nation, our men and women in uniform and Gen. Pace himself would not be well-served by a divisive ordeal in selecting the next chairman."

The question is: why?  Why has the Bush Administration taken the nearly unprecedented step of firing Pace after only two years, making his the shortest chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in over 40 years?

There is a rumor circulating that the administration’s refusal to re-nominate Pace stemmed from his recent remarks about homosexuality. 

What did he say that was so offensive? 

Pace-committing the only sin left in Washington, D.C., that is, making a  personal moral judgment about sexual conduct-revealed that it was his personal belief that homosexual acts are-wait for it-"immoral."  It was rumored that some Democrats were prepared to make Pace’s remarks an "issue" had he been re-nominated, and that this fueled the administration’s decision to dismiss him.  I pray that Pace’s comments did not enter into the administration’s calculus.  Either way, the furor that followed Pace’s remarks last spring proves that even at a time when cheating politicians and congressional scandals are so
commonplace as to become cliché, political correctness rules the day.

Speculation aside, it’s clear the administration dismissed Pace because it feared a fierce confirmation battle.  In fact, Pace has since said he was urged to retire months ago in order to, as Pace recalls, "take the issue off the table." It was assumed that Senate Armed Forces Committee Democrats were preparing to use Pace’s confirmation hearings as an opportunity to dredge up old battles, and that Gates therefore urged the president to dismiss Pace in order to avoid "contentious confirmation hearings," which, according to Gates, would not be in "the best interests of the country."  A defense official close to the
debate went further, telling the Washington Times that, "the administration’s view was that this would not be helpful to protect America’s security." 

But these excuses ring hollow.  If Gates and President Bush truly considered Pace the best man to lead the military, why would they back down from a fight, especially given the administration’s tendency to stand up for its high-ranking appointees (such as Attorney General Gonzales) and policy priorities (such as "comprehensive" immigration reform)? 

Moreover, how does jettisoning General Pace make the politics of Iraq any less "contentious"?  Pace’s dismissal won’t assuage the anti-war set.  Rather, it will embolden congressional liberals to step up efforts to thwart the administration’s Iraq policies.  

But, the manner in which General Pace left his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reveals as much about the man as it does about conditions on Capital Hill. 

When notified that he would not be re-nominated for a second two-year term, Pace was given the opportunity to resign so as to avoid making it look as though he had been fired.  But Pace refused, and later explained, "…I could not do that for one very fundamental reason, and that is that [a service member] in Baghdad should not think – ever – that his chairman, whoever that person is, could have stayed in the battle and voluntarily walked off the battlefield. …That is unacceptable as a leadership thing in my mind." 

Pace’s decision derived in part from his experiences forty years ago in Vietnam when, according to Pace, he "left some guys on the battlefield in Vietnam who lost their lives following 2nd Lt. Pace.  And I promised myself then that I will serve this country until I was no longer needed – that it’s not my decision.  I need to be told that I’m done." 

In a recent interview about his career, Pace, with the humility that comes with four decades as a Marine, said, "If you think you’re a good leader, then you’re probably not."  Though Pace, the first Marine Corps officer to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may not consider himself a good leader, he is a great credit to the United States Armed Forces, and an honorable example for the men and women who have put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers who have expected, needed and received great leadership from "Perfect Pete."