The conviction of Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller
This past week the Marine Corps concluded its prosecution of Lt. Col Stuart Scheller, who rose to internet fame on the back of his widely circulated social media post criticizing the military’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in late August.
After “signing a 11-page stipulation of facts” that included 27 instances in which he “violated laws or regulations as a military officer,” U.S. Marine Corps Judge Glen Hines handed Scheller a fine of $5,000 dollars and a letter of reprimand.
His trial followed his termination as commanding officer of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion in Camp Lejeune and a brief period of incarceration due to his violation of an order from a senior officer to cease his public criticisms.
Striking a defiant tone at his October 14 trial, Scheller reiterated his disdain of the brass, claiming General officers “are unable or unwilling to hold themselves accountable.” Calling for “fundamental change” in the military, he concluded by returning to his original talking point: “General officers should be held accountable for their failures.”
The Marine Corps judge in the case, Col. Glen Hines, appeared sympathetic, saying that Scheller’s You Tube videos in full context showed a man who appeared “to be in pain,” “confused” and “significantly frustrated,” and not a potentially violent Marine. Hine also admonished military prosecutors for his pre-tail confinement and described alleged leaking of Scheller’s medical records to the press as potential “unlawful command influence.”
Lt. Col. Scheller was, like countless other veterans, genuinely upset and angered by the events that transpired in August. And despite the outpouring of support from rank-and-file troops, veterans, and lawmakers, he was wrong as far as the system is concerned. The trouble is, the system itself is now in a late stage of decay and dysfunction. One can be morally and tactically correct, but not in a position to speak out or create any effective change. The only way is inaction, a refusal to serve the beast.
Specifically, what issue caused Lt. Col Scheller to create his protest video? In his own words, the Marine officer was outraged that no senior military leaders had come forward to take responsibility for the then-unfolding catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan. The key word was accountability. As Scheller rightly noted, if a battalion commander of his rank presided over a live-fire training exercise mishap or fatality, usually they are removed, i.e. fired, from their position. He wasn’t exaggerating the standard that these leaders are usually held to.
Why then, do mistakes and miscalculations of much greater magnitude such as what he was watching in real time in Afghanistan go unpunished? As Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote in a 2007 essay about the failures of America’s generals, “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” President Biden ordered the Afghanistan withdrawal in April of 2021. Given full four months to plan and execute, the military’s leaders completely punted it. And now, almost two months after things went south, not a single military or civilian leader has been demoted, reprimanded, or fired.
As Thomas Ricks noted in 2012, firing generals wasn’t always seen as a bad thing in American military history. Termination was “expected” if they failed in combat and was a sign of the systems’ health. Even going back to the days of the Civil War, President Lincoln sorted through a half dozen generals before settling on the offensive, total war-minded Ulysses S. Grant. Since World War II, however, as Ricks details, things have changed dramatically. Firing generals has become much more taboo, and when it did occur, it seemed to imply the system was dysfunctional.
General Stanley McChrystal was fired in 2010 by President Obama, not for his conduct in commanding the troops in Afghanistan, but because he made disparaging remarks about the President and then Vice President Joe Biden. After cozying up to the war machine he has, along with another fallen general named Petraeus, made a lucrative post-military career writing books and giving TED talks.
As things went badly in Iraq the perception in the public was that our civilian leadership wasn’t listening to our generals. The military had become a sacred cow, immune from criticism. But generals have to be laser focused on how their strategic vision aligns with the political goals of their civilian leaders. When those visions don’t match, it is incumbent on them to recommend a change of course. If they can’t do this, why do they have stars on their collar? The last twenty years showed this wasn’t happening in any appreciable way. As Scheller said, “General officers, for the last 20 years, have given bad advice consistently.”
Despite holding the moral high ground, Lt. Col. Scheller chose a very foolish plan of attack, uphill against a legally fortified position. His offensive was easily cut to pieces when judged by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the legal framework that governs the military. His charges included “disrespect toward superior commissioned officers, willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, and dereliction in the performance of duties.” Several Republican lawmakers testified at Scheller’s trial, demanding similar punishments or dismissals for Secretary Austin and General Milley. As incompetent and clueless as these senior leaders are, they can’t be charged in a legal sense for the debacle that unfolded in late August. They followed President Biden’s orders after all.
History has shown that it isn’t a good idea to allow the troops to express and then act on their own opinions, especially those that relate to war or its prosecution. This is why Bo Bergdahl was charged and pled guilty to an Article 99, which includes desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. But digging even further into the charges against Scheller, several of the charges were encompassed by Article 92, which includes failure to obey a lawful order and dereliction in the performance of duties.
The key word is lawful. The troops do not have to follow all orders. Being told to shoot POWs would be an easy example of when to refuse to follow an order. It simply isn’t lawful. The gray area is that which encompasses things that are immoral or unethical. Usually these dilemmas don’t require a split second decision. The process of becoming a conscientious objector would fit into these zones. The military provides a legal path for honorable discharge if a soldier cannot in good conscience take part in either war or training if it violates their sincerely held religious, moral, or ethical beliefs.
Lt. Col Scheller has served for 17 years and has seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If he is just now coming to the realization that things are Fubared there might be some other factors motivating his decision to “go loud.” As with everyone who signed on the dotted line in the last twenty years, it was done freely and without coercion. At any time after that and when service obligations are met there are exits available that don’t involve violating the UCMJ. His guilty plea on all charges should leave no doubt that he understood the consequences of his actions. What should he have done? Simple, what he did a few weeks after he broke the law: resign his commission. This should have been step one.
Unfortunately, at this juncture in the decrepit state of our civil-military relationship, the only way to fight the system is to starve the system. The inertia and fiscal firepower the Blob commands, with the backing of Congress and her pork districts, powerful and well-funded defense corporations, and the press playing narration for the entire charade, are simply too powerful to meet head-on and expect anything but a rout. In the language of Marine war planners, the critical vulnerability of this system are the volunteers that make it function on a daily basis. Take enough volunteers away, the system can no longer continue in its present form. Hopefully more senior leaders will follow the path of least resistance if they truly desire change.