Gen. Pace's somber Pentagon portrait evokes the struggles of warfare

About a half-dozen painters are regularly hired for Pentagon portraits commemorating notable military service.
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010

Hundreds of portraits of generals and admirals hang like wallpaper along the Pentagon's endless corridors.

Few of these paintings, if any, stop people in the way that the image of Gen. Peter Pace does.

Pace, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the worst years of the Iraq war, is depicted in front of a simple backdrop the color of dried blood. His shoulders are slightly stooped. His head is just barely bowed. "He looks like he is thinking about his career, the people he left behind and the Marines he lost," said Mamie Burke, who served as Pace's photographer and now works for his successor. "I think there is a lot he has lost."

In a building designed to produce swaggering displays of American power, the spare oil painting captures a rare moment of humility, honesty and even sadness.

Pace was not the kind of chairman who made waves during his relatively short tenure as the military's top officer. Congressional critics blasted him as too docile and unwilling to stand up to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. They persuaded Robert M. Gates, Rumsfeld's successor, not to nominate Pace for a customary second term as chairman in late 2007.

In the narrow confines of the Pentagon's E-ring, though, Pace's portrait outshines those of such luminaries as Gen. Colin L. Powell, who leans jauntily on his desk, and Gen. Omar Bradley, the last five-star general and the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Corridor art critics say Pace's somber portrait evokes something elemental about the pain of battle that is mostly absent from the hallways of the U.S. war machine. "I don't know why, but it is the portrait I key in on," said Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, a spokeswoman for the Joint Chiefs.

Pace chose Peter Egeli from a list of about a half-dozen painters who regularly are hired by the top brass to do Pentagon portraits. In contrast to most generals, Pace didn't give Egeli a lot of guidance. "I left it in his hands," the general said. "I thought since he was the artist, he would know best."

Instead the two men -- both of whom were Marines -- chatted about Pace's four decades of military service, which began with the battle of Hue City, one of the longest and bleakest fights of the Vietnam War. "I had to talk to him about Hue City because it is fundamental to who I have been since 1968-1969," Pace said.

The general can still rattle off the names of four young Marines who died under his command 40 years ago: Lance Cpl. Guido Farinaro, Lance Cpl. Chubby Hale, Lance Cpl. Whitey Travers and Cpl. Michael Witt. A fifth Marine, Staff Sgt. Freddie Williams, was passing in front of Pace when he was killed by a sniper's bullet aimed at Pace's chest. "His death prevented mine," Pace said.

Decades later, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Pace led the military at a time when violence in Iraq was peaking and the early gains of the Afghan war were crumbling. Egeli says he tried to capture all of those experiences.

The spare red background, which grows darker toward the bottom of the picture, is designed to focus attention on Pace. "You could say it is a troubled red," Egeli said. Pace's slightly stooped posture and the sense of melancholy in his face, the artist said, is supposed to show him thinking of ways to improve the effectiveness of U.S. forces in the two wars.

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