WASHINGTON — Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the nation's top military officer, told superiors last month that he would not retire voluntarily, forcing the Bush administration to make a public declaration last week 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 that he and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had discussed the possibility of Pace's retirement in the face of congressional opposition to his renomination as chairman.
They talked about how his retirement would "take the issue off the table," Pace recalled, but he refused to step down on his own.
"I said 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," Pace told an audience in Norfolk, Va., on Thursday, according to a transcript released by his office Friday. "That is unacceptable as a leadership thing in my mind."
On June 8, Gates announced his decision to replace Pace with Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, saying that mounting Senate opposition to Pace's reappointment would have led to a protracted and divisive confirmation process that the military could not afford in the midst of the Iraq war.
Only after Gates' announcement did Pace submit his retirement plans, effective Oct. 1.
It is the latest in a series of recent departures by senior military officers involved in planning and executing the Iraq war, including Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, former head of Central Command, and Navy Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani, the retiring vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Pace is the first of those officers to emotionally detail internal Pentagon decision-making regarding his departure.
In answer to a question after his Thursday address at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Pace said his decision not to resign voluntarily was based on his experiences during the Vietnam War, when 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 notified him in mid-May of the likelihood of difficulties on Capitol Hill and then repeatedly reported back to Pace on the negative reactions from senators.
Pace said he told Gates he was willing to fight through a difficult confirmation but would understand if President Bush decided against renominating him.
Democrats have criticized the administration as abandoning Pace -- Bush and Gates have said they would have liked him to continue as chairman -- while continuing to fight for Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, who has been accused of dismissing federal prosecutors for political reasons.