In a parting shot to Bush administration opponents and antiwar protesters, newly retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace on Monday scolded Americans who use the war debate to try to debase the efforts of military leaders and civilian decision-makers.
Delivering his last speech as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pace said he is proud to live in a country in which military leaders are required to answer difficult questions from the press and Congress, but when that conversation turns belligerent and destructive, the foundation of democracy is lost.
"Our democracy is strengthened by divergent views and dialogue about those views when that dialogue is conducted in a civil manner, in a gentlemanly way, in a way that allows people to argue on the merits of what they believe and to understand that what they believe is part of the answer and if they have the willingness to cooperate to find the right answer for our country," he said during a Pentagon ceremony held at nearby Fort Myers.
"And what worries me is that in some instances right now we have individuals who are more interested in making somebody else look bad than they are in finding the right solution. They are more interested in letting their personal venom come forward instead of talking about how do we get from where we are to where we need to be," the general continued.
Pace added that he is privileged to be a member of a military whose goal is to uphold the rights of fellow citizens who object to their leaders, but "I just want everyone to understand that this dialogue is not about 'Can we vote our way out of a war.' We have an enemy who has declared war on us. We are in a war. They want to stop us from living the way we want to live our lives.
"So the dialogue is not about 'Are we in a war' but how and where and when to best fight that war to preserve our freedom and to preserve our way of life and to do so with the least damage to our own society and the least damage to those who we're fighting against so we can put the pieces back together on the end of this. We will prevail. There's no doubt about that."
Pace, who on several occasions expressed wistfulness about his departure, was not re-nominated to the Joint Chiefs after Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated in June that a reconfirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate would be too contentious and unwelcome. Pace had been criticized by several Democrats in Congress for not speaking up more forcefully on the conduct of the war after he became chairman in October 2005.
Pace also caused a stir earlier this year when he objected to homosexuals serving in the military. "I don't believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way," Pace said in March.
He later told the Senate Appropriations Committee that while wonderful Americans who happen to be gay are serving in the military, he believes gay sex is immoral. Pace also said at the time that sex between unmarried heterosexuals is wrong. But in that testimony, Pace said he'd be OK with revisiting the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy as long as a new policy clearly said sex should be only between heterosexual couples.
The general steps down four and a half years after the start of the Iraq war and two years after moving from vice chairman to chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He is being replaced as the top military adviser to President Bush by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who Pace described as a dear and longtime friend.
"Mike, although I regret to give up the reins of responsibility, I am so proud that you are the one who will take on the responsibilities of 17th chairman," Pace said, calling his friend a gifted and intelligent leader.
The outgoing general also reserved high praise for Bush for his resolve throughout the war and for listening to the advice of military brass.
"All of us, certainly all of the Joint Chiefs and all of your combatant commanders, appreciate the way that you've listened. We wish that all of America could see their president and our commander of chief making decisions after listening very carefully," he said. "And for all of us who wear the uniform, thank you for not only making tough, right decisions, but also for standing behind us and supporting us and never wavering once you've given us a mission to do."
For his part, Bush praised Pace for his four decades of military service, most recently helping craft the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"General Pete Pace is one of the most respected and accomplished military leaders I have ever known," Bush said. "He helped liberate two nations from brutal tyrannies and helped bring freedom to millions of people. ... Godspeed to my friend, General Pete Pace. Thanks for your courage, thanks for your leadership, and thanks for your service to a country we love."
The president also praised Mullen for his long and continuing service to the nation. He said Mullen will keep the military united and will set a "sterling example" to the Armed Forces by using his judgment and candor to protect the lives of young Americans serving in uniform.
"Admiral Mike Mullen comes to this post with a broad and unique range of talents and experience," Bush said, adding that despite the fact that Mullen's parents come from "show business roots, he is humble, well-grounded and filled with common sense, not exactly what one thinks about when they think of Hollywood values."
"He will demonstrate the same love of country and dedication to duty that inspired his sons to follow him into military service," Bush said.
Despite forcing his retirement, Gates called Pace one of the "last of a dwindling breed of officers" whose "extraordinary service" spanned Vietnam to the "false tranquility" of the post-Cold War to the counter-terrorism effort today. Gates said he was pleased that in the 10 months he had been defense secretary, Pace had been by his side during hearings in the House and Senate.
"The closest I've been to live combat is going to the Hill to testify, which is why I've always wanted Pete there by my side," he said.
With Pace's departure, Mullen's leadership is being viewed as an opportunity for the military to move into a new stage in its execution of the war and for the Bush administration to soften some of the criticism it faces. Mullen was sworn in as the next JCS chairman before taking the stage to address the crowd.
Mullen told the audience that it is the military's duty to "uphold the ideals of the Constitution," and he hopes to preserve the trust of the American people by developing and executing a "strategy to support our national interests in the Middle East" as well as by revitalizing the armed forces and balancing "risks around the globe."
"The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will one day end. We must be ready for who and what comes after. That's the promise we've made. We owe it to the American people and to all of you, our men and women in uniform and your families, to provide you with clear direction, outstanding equipment and focused policies you need to do your jobs," he said.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.