WASHINGTON – When President Bush introduced the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year, he declared, "The first thing America needs to know about Pete Pace is that he is a Marine."
Gen. Peter Pace is, in fact, the first Marine to hold the top job in the military, an important milestone for the few and the proud. And that must make the unfolding allegations that Marines massacred unarmed civilians in Iraq last November especially painful for him.
Bush himself has called the allegations about what happened in Haditha particularly troubling for the Marine Corps and for Pace, "because he understands that the Marine Corps has got a proud tradition of upholding rules of engagement."
Just as the Marines expect much of their elite troops, so, too, Pace "holds himself to high standards. He's not going to prejudge anything," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, who has known Pace for four decades but has not discussed the Haditha situation with him.
"The thing that bothers me, and I think the thing that bothers him, is: Don't prejudge people, don't prejudge the service, don't assume that Marine Corps training led to this," DeLong said. "That's a terrible assumption that some people have made."
DeLong also stressed that while Pace loves the Marines, "he's very joint right now," meaning he is committed to the smooth and integrated functioning of all branches of the armed forces.
"I'm sure General Pace would be just as sad if this was an Army unit, he would tell you, or a Navy unit or an Air Force unit," DeLong said.
Although Pace commands no troops and is not in the chain of command, he has been peppered in recent days with questions about the Haditha killings and the unfolding investigations. He has acknowledged widespread concern about the allegations at home and among Iraq leaders while cautioning against a rush to judgment.
"You don't want to have the emotions of the day weigh into the process," he told the AP. "We need to stick with our judicial process. We want to be sure that it moves forward without any influence."
Pace, 60, first experienced the emotions of the battlefield in Vietnam. He keeps a photo on his desk of the first Marine killed under his command when he was a platoon leader in there. Among other assignments, he was in Somalia in 1993-94 helping to supervise the withdrawal of U.S. forces after the "Black Hawk Down" firefight.
After four years as vice chairman of the joint chiefs, Pace was sworn in as chairman last September, making him the senior military adviser to the president and the defense secretary.
In November, as many as two dozen Iraqis were killed during a U.S. attack that now is the subject of two investigations, one a criminal inquiry into whether the killings were justified and another into whether there was a cover up.
According to a timeline released by the White House, Pace himself was not notified of the case until March 10.
"We've never had a Marine as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, so no doubt that compounds his pain that during his watch something as horrible as this comes up," said Alex Roland, a military historian at Duke University. At the same time, though, Roland said, "all those years in the Marine Corps sort of position him to understand what's going on here and to deal with it intelligently."
As for the investigation, "I'm sure he will do the correct thing and stay out of it," Roland said. "He has to just sit and watch this."
Pace has a reputation as an even-tempered, reflective leader that sets him apart stylistically and intellectually from the stereotypical Marine, said military analyst Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute. That should stand him in good stead as he tries to avoid prejudicing the outcome of the investigations, the analyst said.
"Hold his temper and hold his tongue — those are the two things he can do," said Goure. "He cannot say a whole lot. It is hugely painful."
Goure, raising the prospect that Marines at Haditha had "snapped" and overreacted, said it also is appropriate for Pace to ask questions about whether troops deploying to Iraq have gotten the proper training to deal with an insurgency.
"You have to ask the question, did something go wrong with the training," Goure said. "A lot of military training is about not snapping, not overreacting in a crisis."