For the past six years, General Pete Pace has had an office not far from my broadcast booth in the Pentagon, so it was not at all uncommon to run into him in the hallway. He was always going somewhere in a hurry. Partly that's a function of the demands of being the nation's senior military officer, but partly it's a reflection of the fact that he's a driven man -- driven by something that happened nearly 30 years ago in Vietnam. That's when young Marines under his command as a green second lieutenant followed his orders and were killed. He kept a photo of the first Marine he lost on his desk and could recite from memory the names of all who had died, including the segreant who stepped in front of him and took a bullet aimed at him. He would frequently say -- sometimes choking back tears -- that he owed those men a debt he could never repay and that his mission in life was to support the troops in the field. You didn't have to be around him much to be convinced that he was absolutely sincere.
The question, of course, is how well did he fulfill his life's mission. He was the nation's second ranking military officer for four years and highest ranking for the past two -- a time in which the war in Iraq turned into a near disaster whose outcome is still in doubt. As he leaves, the troops he is so devoted to are serving 15 month tours in Iraq with only 12 months at home. No one will say it publicly, but senior officers who served with him are harshly critical of his inability or unwillingness to stand up to the famously domineering Donald Rumsfeld. Pace himself admits he made mistakes, and the reason he is retiring today is that his confirmation hearing for a second tour term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would have been a bruising battle in which all those mistakes were laid on the public record.
When I interviewed him just before he became Chairman, Pace said "whenever I'm done serving, I will leave knowing that I tried my best." I have no doubt he tried his best, never once sluffed off. It will be up to history to decide whether his best was good enough.