Hours after 13 American soldiers, including 11 Marines, and scores of Afghan civilians were killed in a suicide attack at the Kabul airport, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller posted a video to Facebook in which he demanded accountability from military leadership.
He singled out Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley for failing to provide better advice to President Joe Biden about how and when to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He later warned that their failure to take responsibility would contribute to mental health problems and even suicides among veterans.
Scheller was relieved of duty and ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation. He has indicated that he is resigning from the Marine Corps and faces an investigation and possible court-martial for his action.
Why the outrage over one man standing up and demanding accountability?
Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) bans officers from using “contemptuous words” against civilian authorities, and Article 89 prohibits any person in the military from behaving with disrespect towards a superior officer. The military argues that it is a unique social system with a unique mission – to conduct warfare – and so it must forbid speech which might bring discredit to the services, be “prejudicial to the good order” of the military or incline service members to disobey orders.
Scores of retired senior military officers have also called for the resignation of not only the civilian and military leaders of the Defense Department, but of the president himself. So why can the retired generals call for Biden’s resignation, but not Lt. Col. Scheller? Article 88 only applies to active duty military members.
We’ve seen this before. In 1993, Air Force Maj. Gen. Harold Campbell was forced to retire for criticizing President Bill Clinton for “draft dodging” and “pot smoking.” Marine Corps Major Shane Sellers got in trouble in 1998 for calling Clinton an “adulterous liar” and a “criminal.” Shortly thereafter, a Marine Reserve Major Daniel Rabil published an editorial titled, “Please, Impeach my Commander in Chief” and was transferred and demoted.
It is not an open-and-shut case that Scheller violated Articles 88 or 89 in the initial video. Superior officers have a fair bit of leeway in assessing the situation, interpreting the rules and measuring their response. Scheller does not ridicule his superiors, or charge them with crimes, but does say that he has “contempt” for “ineptitude at the foreign policy level.”
However, he followed that video with another that seems to go much further. “Follow me, and we will bring the whole [expletive] system down.” Those are dangerous and inflammatory words for a commissioned officer.
The dividing line in American politics is evident in the responses. An op-ed for The Washington Post called Scheller’s ideas “a dangerous strain of thought inside the military about civilian control.” Republican Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a retired Navy SEAL, tweeted “This guy is all class.”
Scheller is correct that top Pentagon leadership has not taken responsibility for the debacle. They evacuated the spacious, well-developed, heavily reinforced Bagram air base, which led to the terrible security situation at the Kabul airport and the deaths of soldiers and civilians there. They compounded those mistakes by leaving billions of dollars of military equipment in the hands of the Taliban. While President Biden has said “the buck stops with me” a number of times, he continues to defend and deflect, avoid questions and blame the Afghans, former President Trump, military planners and intelligence officials, and even the Americans who are still stranded in Afghanistan.
Yet Crenshaw is onto something. He adds in his tweet: “His concerns are not wrong. Many people feel the same lack of accountability. When the dust settles that accountability must happen.” Although there is work to be done to get the remaining Americans and Afghan allies to safety, the dust will settle quickly – in part thanks to instant revisionism by main stream media outlets.
We have a system of accountability built into our republic. Both Houses of Congress can and must exercise their sworn duty to uphold that Constitution, including opening hearings into the decision to withdraw and the disaster that sprung from it. Lt. Col. Scheller is absolutely right about the need for accountability, and it will happen when citizens hold their representatives of both parties accountable for asking questions and demanding answers.
But Scheller made his concerns public in the wrong way. Resign first, then speak. He has announced that he is resigning, but he did so after his video went viral.
Scheller has the right to speak boldly as a man, and as an American citizen, but, as per his contract, not as a Marine in uniform on a military facility. Scheller doesn’t honor codes by breaking them.
Dr. Tom Copeland is Director of Research at the Centennial Institute and Professor of Politics at Colorado Christian University. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Centennial Institute and Colorado Christian University.
Jimmy Graham is the CEO of Able Shepherd, and the Director/Lead Instructor for the Active Shooter Response Training Center in Centennial, CO. Jimmy spent more than 15 years with the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, earning the rank of Chief Petty Officer (E7).