Stuart Scheller's Moral Courage
“My heroes have always been cowboys,” sang the late Waylon Jennings. As for me, my heroes have always been Marines. Naturally, since we risked our lives for each other, my ultimate Marine heroes, including our corpsmen, are the ones with whom I served in combat. Of all the famous historical figures comprising the history of the Marine Corps, however, my favorites are those who displayed exceptional courage off the battlefield.
Sergeant Gary Harlan (top right) and the squad he led in 1968
When I began boot camp training at Parris Island, South Carolina, I was issued the Guidebook for Marines. It contained a chapter on leadership in which 14 leadership traits were discussed in detail. Naturally, one of them was Courage which, the book stated, “comes in two kinds—physical and moral…As for moral courage, know what’s right and stand up for it. Marines are not plaster saints, by any means. But they serve God, Country, and Corps—in that order.” Major General Smedley Butler possessed both kinds of courage in spades.
It has become customary for retiring generals to cash in on their service by accepting huge paychecks from defense contractors. Being the recipient of two Medals of Honor, Smedley Butler would be highly sought after by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and the like. But that was not the kind of man he was. After he retired, Butler was motivated by his moral sense rather than the pursuit of his own self-interests. He published a booklet titled, War is a Racket, which clearly indicates where he stood vis-à-vis the connection between his military service and big corporations:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
General Butler had been a beloved combat leader because he stood up for his men. That did not end when he retired. In the summer of 1932, thousands of World War One veterans descended on Washington, D.C. demanding the bonuses they had been promised by the federal government. In contrast to Douglas MacArthur, Smedley Butler stood up for his fellow veterans. Disobeying direct orders from President Hoover, MacArthur burned down their makeshift shacks. Addressing the veterans afterward, wearing a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, Butler told them:
“Take it from me. This is the greatest demonstration of Americanism we've ever had. Pure Americanism. Willing to take this beating as you've taken it. Stand right steady. You keep every law. And why in the hell shouldn't you? Who in the hell has done all the bleeding for this country, for this law, and this Constitution but you fellas?”
Contrast General Butler with Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who informed us how “pragmatic and businesslike” the Taliban, our enemy-turned-partner, had been in their control of the American withdrawal from Kabul. You might have been left with the impression that Marine Corps generals are more concerned with the advancement of their careers than they are with the welfare of their troops. That was how I felt the day my Marine Corps enlistment ended in September 1968.
One week after my discharge I began my college career with two goals in mind: forget the war and earn a degree in philosophy. I would eventually earn two degrees in philosophy. I did everything I could that first semester to forget about the war. I didn’t have a television and I did not read newspapers. But I did not need any external reminders. The war raged inside of me, and it was not going away. So, I returned to the fight. Halfway through my second semester I became an antiwar activist.
Top: April 1968; Bottom: May 1969
No one spoke of post-traumatic stress disorder back then. And even if they had, I would have adamantly denied suffering from a psychological disorder—and did throughout the 80’s and 90’s—despite an existence defined by alienation, survivor’s guilt, emotional isolation, and suicidal thoughts. When American troops were withdrawn, leaving me with nothing left to protest, those symptoms only intensified—especially survivor’s guilt. I left academia and moved back to the Ozarks.
In 1980, I learned that I had been wrong about our Marine generals betraying us in Vietnam. Oddly enough, it was an Army Vietnam combat veteran responsible for setting me straight. Ron Snyder was an aspiring entrepreneur who read the December 1979 issue of the “Vietnam Veterans Advisor” column in Penthouse magazine focusing on a national organization, Vietnam Veterans in Business. Snyder thought it was a great idea and decided to establish a chapter of the organization in the Ozarks. He traveled to their headquarters in Washington, D.C. While he was there, he met with Bill Corson, the man who wrote the monthly column for Penthouse, whose office was also located in Washington.
At the time, I was not familiar with Bill Corson or his monthly column. I was unacquainted with Ron Snyder. But Snyder had read a magazine piece I had recently written detailing the positive results of a combat veterans support group in which I had participated. Snyder gave Corson a copy. “If this guy is ever in town, tell him to stop by” Corson told him.
Ron Snyder and David Carradine at a 1981 event held in Springfield, organized by Vietnam vets in St. Louis
A month later, Snyder introduced himself and invited me to help him publicize a small business workshop he had organized for some of the 15,000 veterans living in and around my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. As it turned out, Snyder’s attempt to organize a consortium of Vietnam veteran-owned businesses did not pan out. But it brought together a stubborn core of combat vets who shared the desire to reverse the public’s negative image of Vietnam veterans. We accomplished that by designing our own self-help program. Because Springfield fell short of the population requirement necessary for having a federally-funded outreach center like those springing up in Kansas City and St. Louis, we had to do it on our own. And we did. When the Ozarks Vet Center opened its doors, we offered support groups for combat vets, their spouses and girlfriends, and their kids. We maintained a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week crisis hotline.
As previously indicated, my friendship with Ron Snyder resulted in my becoming enlightened about the Marine generals in Vietnam. Snyder and I made a trip together to Washington and showed up at Bill Corson’s office. He told us to hang out while he wrapped up some business, and then we would have lunch at his usual dining spot, the restaurant at the Hay-Adams Hotel, a block away from the White House. He gave me two of the books he had written: The Betrayal and Consequences of Failure. I read enough to realize that I had been wrong about Marine Corps Command. Our generals were not responsible for the senseless sacrifice of thousands of young Americans. They opposed Army general Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy strategy from the beginning. “The real war is among the people, not the mountains,” said General Krulak, commander of all U.S. Marines in the Pacific. The top North Vietnamese general, Vo Nguyen Giap, was of the same opinion. “Pacification was a threat to the progress of the war in the south,” he told one of his biographers.
By his own account, Bill Corson grew up “a slum kid” on the wrong side of Chicago, raised mostly by his grandparents after his parents divorced when he was 2. At 10, he worked a newsstand. At 14, he toured the country as a migrant worker picking fruit and learning to gamble. At 15, he got a job at The Chicago Daily News, whose publisher saw something in him. The publisher was Frank Knox, later to become Secretary of the Navy, who was on the board of the University of Chicago. He helped the teenager get a scholarship to the university where Bill studied physics under Enrico Fermi. At 17, he dropped out to join the Marines. He was an 18-year-old private when he fought in the Battle of Tarawa. By the end of World War II, Corson held the rank of sergeant.
After his discharge in 1945, Corson returned to the University of Chicago, but decided his math skills were not strong enough to pursue a career in nuclear physics. He left Chicago and earned a master’s degree in finance at the University of Miami. He later earned a Ph.D. in finance from American University in Washington, D.C.
When the U.S. became involved in the Korean War, Bill reenlisted in the Marines, this time as an officer. He served in Korea as a tank commander. In 1966, he commanded a tank battalion in Vietnam. Prior to that, Corson taught a course on communism and revolution at the Naval Academy. Two of his students were Jim Webb and Oliver North. In the aftermath of Corson’s passing in 2000, one of his former students, Lt. Colonel Roger Charles, recalled that Corson was “responsible for a good many [midshipmen] going into the Marine Corps. By his conduct and intellectual strength and personality -- he was a Renaissance man to a lot of us."
Bill Corson in Vietnam
For much of his career, Bill Corson was an intelligence officer on special assignment with the CIA and the Marine Corps. Having studied the Vietnamese since the early 50’s, when they were a French colony, he became one of the Marines’ leading experts on Southeast Asia. In 1967, he served as the first commanding officer of the Combined Action Program, the Marine Corps’ pacification program referred to as “the Other War.” It involved small detachments of Marines serving alongside the same number of South Vietnamese popular forces in villages throughout the country. The dual purpose of the program was to provide security from the communists and win the loyalty of the people to the Saigon government. The second part was impossible. By the time he left Vietnam, Bill Corson was angry. As he told an interviewer, "The peasant sees that we are supporting a local government structure he knows to be corrupt, so he assumes that we are either stupid or we are implicated. And he decides that we are not stupid.”
A month before the publication of The Betrayal, an article appeared in Time magazine about the author: “Lieut. Colonel William R. Corson would be an unusual soldier in any man's army. He speaks Malay, Vietnamese, and three dialects of Chinese, reads Russian, French and German… Corson is about to retire after 25 years as a Marine — but his departure will be no less unusual than his career. He has written a blistering, 317-page indictment of U.S. methods in Viet Nam, which he neglected to get cleared by top Marine brass. To be published on July 1, the day after Corson retires from the Corps, The Betrayal (W.W. Norton & Co.; $5.95) is an angry book that derides the search-and-destroy strategy devised by Army General William C. Westmoreland and scorns U.S. diplomats and politicians for trusting "corrupt" Vietnamese generals who rule in Saigon. At first, Marine Commandant Leonard F. Chapman Jr. contemplated a court-martial for Corson, but he was prompted to milder punishment by second thoughts about publicly airing the long-festering quarrels between the Army and Marines.”
Watching the televised images of the downfall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, was a sad occasion for most Americans, regardless of how they had felt about America’s involvement in the war. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians trying desperately to escape; helicopters being pushed into the China Sea to make more room for them aboard Navy ships. It was a grim scene, which prompted a reporter to ask Joe Biden if there was a comparison between the U.S. withdrawal in Kabul and the evacuation from Saigon in 1975? “None whatsoever. Zero,” Biden assured him
As it turned out, it was worse, much worse, beginning with the mind-boggling decision to withdraw all the troops before evacuating American civilians and our Afghan allies, leaving the Taliban to take charge of the perimeter surrounding the Kabul airport; and culminating a suicide bombing attack that took the lives of twelve Marines and a Navy Corpsman.
Like all Marine veterans, I was furious. So was Lt. Colonel Stuart Scheller, an infantry battalion commander who stated the following in a video post:
“I’m not saying we have to be in Afghanistan forever, but I am saying, did any of you [i.e., senior officers, including McKenzie] throw your rank on the table and say, ‘Hey! It’s a bad idea to evacuate Bagram airfield, the strategic airbase, before we evacuate everyone?’ I have been fighting for 17 years. I’m willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders, I demand accountability!”
Not only was his demand for accountability ignored, Lt. Colonel Scheller was immediately relieved of his command. The reason, according to Headquarters Marine Corps, was due to “loss of trust and confidence.” When he doubled down on his demand for accountability, Stu Scheller was thrown in the brig.
It’s a shame Bill Corson is no longer with us because Stu Scheller would have a remarkable friend and ally. In a couple of his Facebook posts, Scheller seems to separate himself from previous generations, which reminded me of something I heard Bill say one day. Three of us were dining with him at his table at the Hay-Adams restaurant. I don’t recall what we were discussing, but one of the younger veterans said, “Not like the Old Corps, eh Colonel?” Without hesitation, Corson looked at the guy and said something rather profound:
“There’s no old Corps and there’s no new Corps. There’s just the Corps we’ve got right now.”
[In the next installment of Night Thoughts, I will examine Stu Scheller’s position in detail]
To view information about my book and documentary please visit garyharlan.com