Washington — Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the United States' top military officer, told superiors last month that he would not retire voluntarily, forcing the Bush administration to make a public declaration two weeks ago that it had decided to replace Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In his first public remarks since his departure was announced, Pace said he discussed the possibility of his retirement with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in the face of congressional opposition to his renomination as chairman.
His retirement would "take the issue off the table," Pace said. But the Joint Chiefs chairman said he refused to step down on his own, submitting his plans for retirement only after Gates formally announced the decision to replace Pace with Adm. Michael G. Mullen.
"I said I could not do that for one very fundamental reason, and that is that (a soldier) 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," Pace told an audience in Norfolk, Va., Thursday, according to a transcript released by his office. "That is unacceptable as a leadership thing in my mind."
Gates announced his decision to replace Pace on June 8, pointing to mounting Senate opposition to Pace's reappointment that would have led to a protracted and divisive confirmation process that the military could not afford in the midst of the Iraq war.
When Pace leaves Oct. 1, it will be the latest in a series of recent departures by senior military officers involved in the planning and execution of the war in Iraq, including Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, former head of Central Command, and Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani, the retiring vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
But Pace is the first of those officers to emotionally detail internal Pentagon decision-making regarding his departure.
In answer to a question following his address at the Joint Forces Staff College, Pace said his decision not to resign voluntarily was based on his experiences as a junior Marine officer during the Vietnam War, where the platoon he led suffered heavy losses during the battle for Hue City.
"Some 40 years ago, I left some guys on the battlefield in Vietnam who lost their lives following 2nd Lt. Pace," he said. "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."
Pace added: "I've been told I'm done."
Pace said Gates first notified him of the likelihood of difficulties on Capitol Hill in mid-May and repeatedly reported back to Pace on the negative reactions he was getting from senators. Pace said he told Gates that he was willing to fight through a difficult confirmation but that he would understand if President Bush decided against renominating him.
Democrats have criticized the administration for abandoning Pace, whom both Bush and Gates said they would have liked to continue as chairman, while continuing to fight for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who has been accused of dismissing federal prosecutors for political reasons.