War Stories

Pete the Parrot Departs

Good riddance to the last of the Rumsfeld generals.

Outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace
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Outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace

Somehow I missed Gen. Peter Pace’s Oct. 1 farewell speech at the Fort Myer parade ground, replete with a “full honor review” and four fighter jets streaking overhead. The New York Times didn’t cover it, except in a photo caption. The Pentagon’s Web site didn’t bother transcribing his address, though it did post the introductory remarks by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

And yet Pace’s departure was a significant event because it marked the end, finally, of the Donald Rumsfeld era. Pace was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the last two years. Gates decided not to renew the general’s term, despite Pace’s request for another. The public rationale was that Gates wanted to avoid “very contentious” confirmation hearings. There’s clearly something to this. Not only was Pace the last senior official still associated with early decisions on the war (he was the JCS vice chairman at the time of the invasion), he also recently said in public that gays shouldn’t be in the military because homosexual acts were “immoral.”

But the larger import of Pace’s forced retirement—the message that many officers heard clearly, whatever Gates’ intention—is that the sorts of generals who behave as Pace did the past few years are no longer desired in the Pentagon’s inner sanctum.

Pace was a decorated Marine who by all accounts fought valiantly in Vietnam and treated his troops well. But when he entered the Pentagon, he adapted all too eagerly to the ways of the “political general.” By statute, the chairman of the JCS is supposed to offer independent military advice to the secretary of defense and the president. Yet Pace became, in essence, a suck-up. His underlings mocked him, behind his back, as “Perfect Pete.” He was exactly the sort of chairman that Rumsfeld wanted—and, apparently, Gates does not.

A now-retired general who served on the Joint Staff told me about a high-level meeting that Rumsfeld once held in the Pentagon. All the chiefs, the Joint Staff, and several assistant secretaries were there. Rumsfeld was expounding on some issue at great length. Pace interrupted and asked, in a tone that suggested disagreement, “Mr. Secretary, may I speak frankly?” Rumsfeld nodded. Then Pace recited almost verbatim what Rumsfeld had been saying.

The general who told me the story said that he was aghast, as were many others in the room, judging from the nervous glances and the eye-rolling. Pace was the first Marine to be named JCS chairman. The general told me that he expected a Marine to act more independently.

In State of Denial, the third and best volume of his “Bush at War” series, Bob Woodward describes a conversation between Pace, when he was vice chairman, and Gen. Jim Jones, a fellow Marine who at the time was commander of NATO. Pace was on the verge of rising to chairman; Jones advised him not to take the job. “The Joint Chiefs have been systematically emasculated by Rumsfeld,” Jones told Pace. “You should not be the parrot on the secretary’s shoulder.” Pace took the job anyway, knowing full well the parrot’s life in store for him.

There was one time when Pace dared to disagree with Rumsfeld in public. It was at a press conference on Nov. 29, 2005. The tortures at Abu Ghraib had recently been revealed. The following exchange took place:

Q: Gen. Pace, what guidance do you have for your military commanders over there as to what to do if—like when Gen. Horst found this Interior Ministry jail?PACE: It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it. …RUMSFELD: I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to stop it—it’s to report it.PACE: If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.

Within a week, Pace publicly backpedaled, saying he endorsed Rumsfeld’s call for a “clarification” of the rules about a soldier’s obligations upon witnessing torture. He never publicly raised the subject, or any other dispute with Rumsfeld, again.

If any doubts lingered about the wisdom of letting Pace go after a single term, they should have been dispelled by his speech last Monday. (Though no transcript was made, Dana Milbank wrote it up in the Washington Post. Fox News also broadcast it live, and the video can be seen on the Web site of someone trying to “draft” Pace into running for the U.S. Senate.)

Much of the speech was standard farewell boilerplate, but, with both Gates and President Bush on the dais, he couldn’t resist another round of political toadying. Anti-war protesters were rallying outside the base, and their voices could be heard. Pace paid lip service to the glories of a free press and a diverse society with divergent views, but then said, “What worries me is that in some instances right now, we have individuals who are more interested in making somebody look bad [and] … letting their personal venom come forward, instead of talking about how do we get from where we are to where we need to be.”

As for “where we need to be,” Pace said, “I just want everyone to understand that this dialogue is not about ‘Can we vote our way out of a war?’ We have an enemy who declared war on us. We are in a war. They want to stop us from living the way we want to live our lives.”

There it was—pure Rumsfeld, which is to say pure Bush, though a bit less eloquent. All criticism of the war is motivated by partisan venom; the war in Iraq is the global war on terror; Sept. 11, Bin Laden, the insurgents in Iraq—they’re all fundamentally the same.

There, by the way, was also pure Pace. Woodward writes in State of Denial that when he asked the general if he had any doubts about the war in Iraq, Pace replied, “I have no doubts at all. None. Zero. … We did not do this. When we were sitting home minding our own business, we got attacked on 9/11.”

Pace’s successor, Adm. Michael Mullen, seems more capable of drawing distinctions. At Pace’s farewell ceremony, the admiral said: “The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will one day end. We must be ready for who and what comes next.” The same day, before the Senate armed services committee, he expressed concerns about the war in Iraq. “I worry,” he said, “about the toll this pace of operations is taking on [our troops], our equipment, and on our ability to respond to other crises and contingencies.”

Adm. Mullen was the officer who testified, at his confirmation hearing back in August, that the “surge” would have to end in mid-2008 because the surge troops’ tours of duty would expire, and we simply had no more to replace them.

He, like Gates, seems to possess a finer-tuned—a more realistic—view of the world, its threats, and our available courses of action than Rumsfeld or Pace ever articulated. The question for the next 15 months is this: If pressures build to attack Iran, will Adm. Mullen give his unvarnished military advice to Secretary Gates, and will both of them present their conclusions to President Bush? Or will they sail with the winds and say what the masters want them to say? That’s the ultimate test of whether anything has really changed, of whether Peter Pace might as well have stayed around.