Getting caught up in a typical action movie—for instance, one starring one of my own favorites, Jason Statham—demands that we step outside the constraints of literal-mindedness for a couple of hours for the sake of pure entertainment. We watch our hero perform physically impossible feats and absorb bodily harm that would clearly result in the hospitalization of any normal human being. The process is known as the willing suspension of disbelief.
Unfortunately, this process sometimes occurs in real life. I’m sorry to say it happened to me recently when I got caught up in a staged performance on Facebook. I’ll call it, “The Stuart Scheller Show.” My suspension of disbelief was not imposed by the need for entertainment, but for the desperate desire for answers. Here’s how it came down.
It was Friday morning, the 27th of August 2021. I was driving home from Springfield, Missouri, having visited my friend Morris at his establishment, Seattle Roast Coffee. I had gone there hoping the visit and a couple shots of espresso would level off the anger building up since learning of the loss of 13 service members--12 Marines a Navy corpsman, and an Army soldier—to a suicide bomber in Kabul the day before. It didn’t help.
My wife and I live in the country, forty miles east of Springfield, near the town of Marshfield. Driving on Highway A, I approached an Amish man in a horse-drawn buggy in the oncoming lane. I waved. The man waved back. For him, it’s just a normal day, I thought. He knows nothing about the Taliban or the botched evacuation. He probably doesn’t even know who Joe Biden is. For that, I envy him.
President Biden’s address the night before only exacerbated my anger. Staring intently at the teleprompter, he began by acknowledging the loss of “American service members who had been engaged in a dangerous selfless mission to save the lives of others. They’re part of an airlift, an evacuation effort unlike any scene in history, with more than 100,000 American citizens, American partners, Afghans who helped us, and others taken to safety in the last 11 days. In the last 12 hours or so, another 7,000 have gotten out.”
After boasting about the historic mission, Biden assured the grieving family members that he and Jill knew how they felt. They had lost a son to cancer. “We have some sense,” he said, “what the families of these brave heroes are feeling today.”
Unless their son’s cancer was the result of a series of inexcusable decisions made by politicians and generals, they did not have a sense of what those families were feeling. Those family members were asking the same questions many of us had been asking for days: why did you withdraw all the troops before evacuating the civilians? Why in the world would you entrust the Taliban to provide security around the airport perimeter?
“I have been fighting for seventeen years. I am willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders, I demand accountability.”
Later in the day, I saw a video that eased my anger, and doubtless did the same for many other veterans. It was a Facebook video post of a Marine wearing camouflage dungarees. He began by introducing himself:
“My name is Lieutenant Colonel Stu Scheller, United States Marine Corps. I’m the current battalion commander of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion. I’ve been in the Marine infantry for 17 years.”
Scheller explained that he was making the video because of a “growing discontent and contempt” for what he perceived as “ineptitude at the foreign policy level.”
“The reason why people are so upset on social media right now,” he said, “is not because the Marine on the battlefield let someone down. That service member has always rose to the occasion and done extraordinary things. People are upset because their senior leaders let them down.”
That much was true. What I did not notice, and should have, was the self-serving way Scheller framed his demand for accountability. I should have been suspicious when he acknowledged what would happen “if I have the courage to post this video…If I’m willing to risk my current battalion commander’s seat, my retirement, my family’s stability to say some of the things I want to say. I think it gives me some moral high ground to demand the same honesty, integrity, accountability from my senior leaders...I have been fighting for seventeen years. I am willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders, I demand accountability.”
Unlike Stu Scheller, I was not a career Marine. However, my four years in the Marine infantry was more than enough to know with certainty that 1) the Marine Corps would have the last word, and it would come in the form of disciplinary action; and 2) that no accountability would be forthcoming from Scheller’s senior leaders. Scheller knew that the moment he posted the video. He said as much in a Facebook post the following day:
“I have been relieved for cause based on a lack of trust and confidence as of 14:30 today.
My chain of command is doing exactly what I would do… if I were in their shoes…When my Marine Corps career comes to an end, I look forward to a new beginning. My life’s purpose is to make America the most lethal and effective foreign diplomacy instrument. While my days of hand-to-hand violence may be ending…I see a new light on the horizon.”
Scheller’s video generated 78,000 Likes, 10,000 Comments, and 64,000 Shares. Many of the comments came from Marines, some of whom served under him, all of whom expressed their gratitude and support. Looking over the comments, it is obvious that the majority of Scheller’s adoring fans know nothing about the Uniform Code of Military Justice in general or the rules governing chain of command. One of these non-veterans was Stu Scheller’s father, Stuart Scheller, Sr. who displayed his ignorance of military norms on Brian Kilmeade’s radio program:
“There’s two chapters to this story. The first chapter was his call for accountability for a botched withdrawal. He’s much more qualified to speak to that than you or I. But there’s a second chapter. In the second chapter, I’m qualified to speak to. I’ve been a management leadership executive coach and consultant for the past 25 years. I’ve helped Fortune 500 companies with leadership. And I will tell you, in the last two months I have never seen a more toxic work culture than I have witnessed up front and close with the Marine Corps.”
Scheller,Sr. got it backwards. It did not require a military background to weigh in on chapter one. Several non-veteran friends were genuinely puzzled by the fact that U.S. forces were withdrawn before Americans and U.S. allies got safely out of Afghanistan. As for chapter two, a leadership coach in the private sector is not qualified to judge the rules and regulations governing the U.S. military. The United States Marine Corps is not comparable to a Fortune 500 company. Scheller, Jr. made that clear in his first video post when he acknowledged that calling out the Marine brass publicly was putting his career and his family’s stability in jeopardy.
In his second video, posted three days after the first one, Scheller expressed disappointment with his fellow mentor, retired Colonel Thomas Hobbs, a man, Scheller said, he “loved like a father.” On LinkedIn, Hobbs asserted that “If Scheller was honorable, he would resign his commission.” Scheller responded by announcing, “I am resigning my commission as a United States Marine as of now.”
“Follow me, and we will bring the whole fucking system down.”
At this point, we witness the transformation of Stuart Scheller from Marine Corps officer to aspiring politician. After announcing his resignation, Scheller said the following:
“If Stuart Scheller was honorable, he would resign. You have no idea what I’m capable of doing. To all the congressmen, senators, every media station across the globe; to all the rich philanthropists, I appreciate your support, and I’m going to need your support...I don’t need a single dollar. I just need every single person that’s willing to go outside the wire every single day to wear a blue collar and just go into work every single day and feed their families. Those are the people I need. Follow me, and we will bring the whole fucking system down.”
Colonel Hobbs summed up the transformation of Stuart Scheller to a Washington Post reporter:
“Hobbs, in a brief phone interview, said on Tuesday that Scheller served under his command at one point, and was one of his best company commanders. Hobbs said that while Scheller was a top performer, he warned him long ago that his arrogance could be his downfall.
“’He hasn’t shown one speck of remorse or admitted he was wrong in any way,’ Hobbs said. ‘I 100 percent believe it’s a ploy for him to run for office.’”
While it is true that Scheller has shown no remorse, it is false to claim he has not admitted he was wrong—if not in a moral or ethical sense, at least in terms of violating the UCMJ when, in uniform, he publicly attacked his chain of command in his first video post. He acknowledged that at the time, and later pleaded guilty to the multiple offenses he was charged with. It was not a nolo contendere type of plea, either. The judge in his special court martial required Scheller to spell out the reasons he pleaded guilty to each charge. For instance:
Judge: Why do you think you are guilty for Spec I (Contempt toward officials)?
Scheller: I believed the Secretary of Defense made decisions that led to the failed withdraw of Afghanistan. Because I expressed his incompetence publicly, and since according to the UCMJ, truth or falsity of the statement is immaterial, I believe I am guilty of the charges.
Judge: How do you know these comments were heard outside a private setting?
Scheller: Because many Gold-Star families, junior enlisted Marines, and Congressman reached out in support of my statements.
Judge: Why did you think you are guilty for Spec II?
Scheller: Because in the statement General Berger made to the Force dated 17 August, I believed he illustrated a lack of understanding. I didn’t think he understood why the junior service members were frustrated following the failed Afghanistan withdraw. I believed his failure to diagnose the correct problem would ultimately lead to a higher suicide rate amongst Service Members and decreased combat effectiveness of the Marine Corps. And saying so in a public forum was disrespectful.
There were two versions of Stuart Scheller, wrote Don Lamothe in a Washington Post article:
“First, there was Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, a combat veteran who, in defiance of tradition and direct orders, took to social media repeatedly to call out senior U.S. officials for their handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This Scheller acknowledged that if he was going to call out others, he had to be held accountable for his own actions — willfully flouting military discipline.
“Then there was Scheller the conservative cause — a political vehicle for some lawmakers to attack the Biden administration and its handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Stuart Scheller did not venture into the political side of the controversy. But he should have. The people he called out, except for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, were military leaders—namely, General David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and Marine General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the U.S. Central Command. Scheller went so far as to claim he was levelling 13 charges of dereliction of duty at McKenzie, one for each of the 13 service members killed in the suicide bombing.
“I’m not saying we’ve got to be in Afghanistan forever,” Scheller said in his first video. “But I am saying: Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, ‘Hey, it’s a bad idea to evacuate Bagram Airfield, a strategic air base, before we evacuate everyone?’… What I’ll say is, from my position, potentially all those people died in vain. We don’t have senior leaders who own up and raise their hands and say, ‘We did not do this well in the end.’ Without that, we keep repeating the same mistakes,” he said.
On September 28, the senior leaders from whom Scheller demanded accountability testified before the senate. Though none of them said explicitly that they thought the way the withdrawal was handled was a bad idea, what they did say amounted to exactly that. General McKenzie said the following:
"I will give you my honest opinion, and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation to the president. I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time. I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government."
Scheller’s demand for accountability should have been directed at the Biden Administration. It was the Commander-in-Chief, President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all the troops, resulting in Taliban forces taking control of the Kabul Airport. It was the State Department’s decision to remain in Kabul, ignoring the military’s recommendation that State Department personnel leave Afghanistan when the troops were withdrawn. That decision made it impossible not to evacuate the Bagram Airfield. Why? Because Bagram is roughly 40 miles from Kabul and the American embassy was located near the Kabul Airport. The limited number of available troops were needed to assist in the evacuation of embassy personnel.
“What you believe in can only be defined by what you’re willing to risk,” stated Stu Scheller in his video post. When I first watched that video, I, along with thousands of others, assumed what he believed in was the Marine Corps and the need for accountability from its top leaders. I perceived what he did as a display of moral courage. Knowing exactly what he was risking, Scheller made a moral decision to stand up for the truth. Or so I thought. But I was mistaken. Reading his Facebook posts and watching his subsequent videos, it became clear that while Stuart Scheller loves the Marine Corps, as he stated at his special court martial, in the end, the Marine Corps became a vehicle for a brighter future. Stuart Scheller ended his Marine Corps career not as the morally courageous whistleblower, but as a grandstander
General McKenzie is a different story. Technically, he cannot be held responsible for the deaths of the 13 service members at the Kabul Airport. He stated the necessity of maintaining a force of at least 2,500 in Afghanistan, and the president blew him off. And McKenzie went along to get along. But imagine a different outcome. Imagine General McKenzie making this public announcement:
“I cannot, in good conscience, be part of such wrongheaded planning. I am, therefore, resigning from Central Command and retiring from the Marine Corps.”
Now that would be moral courage.
What about Trump's involment?
👍 Doc R.