A few weeks ago, when we learned that Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller had posted a video to social media critical of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and calling for someone to be held accountable, it was obvious that he knew he was putting his career on the line. In fact, he was quite candid about it, recognizing that it would likely cost him his career and his retirement benefits. Sure enough, shortly thereafter, he announced that he was resigning his commission effective immediately. After that, it seemed that all that was left to do was to finish up the departure paperwork and pack his things to head home. But as Jim Geraghty reports in today’s Morning Jolt, that’s not what ended up happening. Scheller may have been done with the Marines, but the Marines were not done with him. Lt. Col. Scheller is now locked up in the brig and awaiting court martial because of his criticism.
The Pentagon is indeed holding someone accountable in connection to the national humiliation in Afghanistan and abandonment of U.S. citizens, green-card holders, and Afghan allies to the Taliban. Unfortunately, that person is . . . a Marine who demanded someone be held accountable for our national humiliation in Afghanistan:..
Scheller indisputably criticized his chain of command publicly, and that is no doubt a violation of his oath. A Marines Corps statement released after Scheller was relieved of his command declared that, “There is a forum in which Marine leaders can address their disagreements with the chain of command, but it’s not social media.” Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that, “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” Scheller literally said he felt “growing discontent and contempt.”
But the larger questions remain: Was what Scheller did morally wrong? Was it a failure of leadership?
The Marine Corps confirmed that Scheller is “in pre-trial confinement in the Regional Brig for Marine Corps Installations East aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune pending an Article 32 preliminary hearing.” As Jim notes, they will very likely take him to Court Martial on an Article 88 charge under the UCMJ, but there are a few more they could probably tack on for good measure if they’re feeling vindictive.
I’ll address the two questions that Jim asks in the excerpt above before getting to the unpleasant conclusions. Was his public criticism morally wrong? Hardly. As far as I’m concerned, he was spot on in his criticism and since the welfare, safety, and success of his troops is his responsibility, seeing a bunch of them die because of the botched nature of the withdrawal was more than sufficient motivation for some righteous outrage and a desire for accountability.
Was it “a failure of leadership?” That question gets a bit more sticky because of the nature of the military and the demands of the chain of command. Leadership comes from the top down. Scheller was up near the top of the chain of command, at least at the local level, but not at the top. As I discussed here when his story first broke, the military runs on the chain of command and it immediately fails when any link in that chain is broken. By going after his superiors in public the way he did, Scheller at least weakened the chain even if he didn’t break it entirely. And the military doesn’t take that lightly.
As I also explained at the time, Scheller knew that he could be facing more repercussions than just the end of his career and the loss of his pension. The military has the ability to look the other way sometimes when someone speaks out of school like that, particularly if the target of their ire is someone who is already unpopular with the brass. That wasn’t the case here, however.
I can already hear some of you saying ‘but what about his right to free speech?’ Nope. We covered that point here last time also. When you sign up for the military you sign away significant chunks of your fundamental rights, including that of free speech. In the military you can be punished for the things you say to a vastly greater degree than you could be as a civilian.
In terms of what sort of punishment Scheller can expect if a Court Martial finds him guilty, that’s a complete unknown. You can read the specifics of Article 88 for yourself (it’s literally only one sentence long). All it says is that he “shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” There are almost no limits as to what they could do, though he would have the right to appeal anything that seemed to be excessively harsh. If they are really looking to throw the book at him they could put him in prison for a while. If he’s fortunate, he’ll get off with a reduction in rank and forfeiture of pay. The latter shouldn’t hit him too hard since he was already in the process of resigning and forgoing any future compensation anyway.
I completely understand the impulse to denounce the actions of the Marines in this case and rally to Scheller’s defense. He said what many of us were already thinking and he said it from a position of direct knowledge and involvement. But he also said it from a place where he knowingly put himself in jeopardy by doing so. Hopefully the Marines will see more value in a lighter sentence and the chance to simply make this problem go away than running the risk of trying to make an example out of him and turn him into some sort of cult figure and martyr.