The announcement Friday that Gen. Peter Pace would not be returned to the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, initially made my heart sink. Other Marines felt — and feel — the same. I know, because I’ve received their e-mail messages.
To us it’s not so much because of who Pace is as a man and a four-star Marine general, though that certainly has something to do with it. But it’s what he represents to the history of our Corps as the first-ever Marine to lead the JCS.
We Marines are fiercely proud of that history, and for good reason.
Every single one of us who has ever worn the eagle, globe, and anchor is a part of that history. We’re taught that from day-one at boot camp or officer candidate school, and it’s something that creates a lifelong bond between Marines as well as a special appreciation for the accomplishments of our fellow Marines.
For instance, all Marines know that the first American to orbit the earth was Marine Col. John Glenn. The current director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, is a former Marine; as is New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. When Hollywood needed an actor who could play one of the Army’s toughest, most celebrated battlefield commanders, Gen. George S. Patton Jr.; they picked former Marine George C. Scott for the title role. And if I were to continue, this would not even be a warm up.
So when Pace became chief of the chiefs (In fact, he was the first Marine to become vice chairman.), we Marines were all thinking, “It’s about time” and “What finer man could there be to represent us?”
Dubbed “Perfect Pete” by fellow officers, Pace graduated from the Naval Academy in 1967, rising through the ranks from a Marine rifle platoon commander in Vietnam to the highest-ranking American military officer in the world in 2005.
Pace’s not being renominated has nothing to do with his performance as chairman of the JCS. It has everything to do with what he symbolizes (American leadership while fighting a difficult war in Iraq) to the usual salivating suspects on Capitol Hill. And it was clear to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and surely to President Bush, that Pace’s reconfirmation hearings would have been turned into a congressional circus: With poll-driven politicians focusing less on Pace’s performance and plans for the present and future prosecution of the war, and more on what has gone wrong in Iraq for the purposes of “show” and heaping blame, regardless of whether or not it is deserved, on any symbol of the Bush White House.
Pace is such a symbol. So he’s out. In his place, Gates has tapped Admiral Mike Mullen, also a Naval Academy grad (Class of ’68) and a Navy surface-warfare commander currently serving as Chief of Naval Operations.
Mullen too is a good man, and brave indeed to accept the nomination knowing the scrutiny he’ll have to undergo.
But for men like Pace and Mullen, it’s not really about courage or self. It’s about service to country, and winning this country’s fights no matter where, when, against whom, and how long it might take. They’re cut from completely different cloth than their inquisitors who hope to trip them up and find reasons not to let them do what they best know how to do.
You can be sure, those who question Mullen during his forthcoming confirmation hearings — though most of them know little about the Navy, the Marine Corps, any other branch of service, or what is actually taking place in the backstreets of Iraq or the backcountry of Afghanistan — will look hard for chinks in the armor. They’ll use loaded inaccuracies to describe what is happening in Iraq: Words like “escalation,” “occupation,” “tragedy,” and “failure.”
Beyond Capitol Hill, some on the Left fear Mullen, suggesting that he would eagerly expand the Iraq war into a much broader Persian Gulf war. Not sure I buy that. Then there are those on the Right like Elaine Donnelly — who I almost always agree with — who would argue that Mullen is “an ardent advocate of ‘diversity’ quotas and other controversial goals for the military.” She makes her case here.
“MARINES DON’T TALK ABOUT FAILURE”
My take is that Mullen will almost assuredly be confirmed because he’s well-suited for the job, as Pace has been, as U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus is for his job as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. You’ll remember, Petraeus was unanimously confirmed by Congress earlier this year, and is currently accomplishing everything his responsibilities demand, and then some: Despite the fact that those accomplishments are publicly distorted by the very men and women who confirmed him.
But that’s okay, because America continues to produce military leaders like Pace, Mullen, and, yes, Petraeus, who will continue to do what they’ve always done.
Earlier this year, Pace told a group of governors at a White House meeting, “I’m a Marine, and Marines don’t talk about failure. They talk about victory.”
Last month, Mullen told a group of sailors at Pearl Harbor: “I honestly believe this is the most dangerous time in my life. The enemy now is basically evil and fundamentally hates everything we are — the democratic principles for which we stand. … This war is going to go on for a long time. It’s a generational war.”
So it’s not really that Pace is out, and Mullen is in. It’s more like one good Annapolis man will be relieving the watch of another in order to thwart the non-constructive criticism from those who would have us raise the white flag even as Petraeus is on the threshold of taking the high ground in Iraq.
– A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.