Marine Corps Officer Stuart Scheller: Accountability and Free Speech

Everyone agrees America should leave Afghanistan and it was the previous president who negotiated the original deal after all, so it’s not the strategic Afghanistan pull out that’s up to debate. Rather, it’s how it was done tactically and hastily from a position of weakness that shows American lack of political will and poor planning that emboldens China and scares our allies into questioning out commitment, which are far more consequential strategic and geopolitical issues relative to Afghanistan.

It was jaw-dropping to watch a recent 5-minute video (1 of 2) by Stuart Scheller, an “active-duty” Marine Corps Lt. Colonel (O-5) with 17 years of experience, demanding accountability of senior leadership in the Marine Corps, across the military, and in the civilian leadership in their severe mishandling of America’s tactical withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Specifically, top-level military commanders and civilian bureaucrats, advisors, and strategists were extraordinarily moronic to evacuate Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Afghanistan before the hasty and sloppy withdrawal of American troops driven by not accounting for or planning for such a quick collapse of the Afghan government, leading to the events on the ground with a hasty exit and the deaths of thirteen US service members and +170 Afghan civilians. And in general, the lack of leadership and accountability from the military and civilian leadership.

Scheller was immediately relieved of his command of a battalion after the video was posted and went viral. At that time, he was not subject to legal action and still retained his officer’s commission and full pension, though his career prospects upwards might have been severely diminished.

However, he quickly posted a longer 10-minute video (2 of 2) announcing the far more serious decision to resign his officer’s commission.

Laying it all on the line for your beliefs may mean speaking the truth just as much as shooting on the battlefield, so his actions gives me chills. How many people would do what he did? An active duty O-5 resigning his commission 3 years from the 20-year mark gives up full benefits and a full pension, which amounts to guaranteed $60k-$70k per year for life with total value of about $2-$3 million, and more if you include potential medical expenses. This is pretty extraordinary courage to give up so much for your beliefs

But I’m conflicted.

  • On one hand, I completely agree with Lt. Col. Scheller’s position about accountability and the overall points about military-political-industrial complex, and he is truly inspirational.
  • But on the other hand I’m not sure I agree with the manner in which he’s doing it outside the Chain of Command as a commissioned officer and outside proper channels.

At the time of his posts, there was still an active evacuation operation at Kabul Airport with Marines plus other US military still deployed and highly-exposed to danger at Kabul Airport. I don’t think posting publicly on Social Media is the correct way of bringing up these issues, especially if our adversaries can see it and are emboldened.

Importance of the Chain of Command

The military Chain of Command is crucial regardless of how much you’re convinced of the correctness of your views or the incorrectness of your superior’s views are. It has nothing to do with values such as “Freedom”, but is the foundation on which the entire military system or any large organization operates, in our case an entirely voluntarily military system in defense of a democratic system.

Of course, the phrase “I was just following orders” was used by Nazi criminals and others as justification for atrocities and to absolve individual responsibility, so there do exist various channels for conscientious objection and to challenge leadership regardless of official orders while still in uniform or publicly out of uniform, and of course out of uniform as citizens not in the military Chain of Command protected by the 1st Amendment and represented by our elected officials.

When taking an oath to the military, whether as enlisted and especially as a commissioned officer, you voluntarily choose to take on additional responsibilities, restrictions, and abide by higher standards including restrictions on Freedom of Speech.

I can see both sides in this Scheller case in terms of the correctness of his views on one side and the “burn all bridges” manner in which he did it on the other side, including the valid point that it gives him the moral high ground due to his skin-in-the-game relative to the superiors he believes are guilty of dereliction of duty and accountability in their higher ranks or office.

But I’m finding I strongly disagree with the manner in which he communicated. If he were not an officer but a citizen, this would be a non-issue since he’d be protected via Freedom of Speech.

Correctness vs. Context

We need to make the distinctions:

  • Correctness of Ideas — Personally, I strongly believe Scheller’s ideas are correct.
  • Manner/Process of Communication of Ideas — It’s the manner that those ideas that were communicated outside the Chain of Command that may be incorrect, especially since correctness of ideas can be relative to political ideology or larger societal/cultural factors.

American culture values open debate and even outright vigorous conflict may be viewed as healthy, as an asset and strength. However, other cultures and nations including America’s adversaries may view it as a source of weakness and thus open debate of military decisions may act to embolden them since it may show weakness.

USS Theodore Roosevelt

Another case comes to mind on this topic of Chain of Command, that of US Navy Captain Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the US Carrier Theodore Roosevelt. Crozier sent a memo about the severity of the Covid crisis on the Aircraft Carrier he commanded and it leaked to the press, thus bypassing the Chain of Command. This lead to him being relieved of his command and ended his Navy career.

Although he too might have had the best intentions for the lives of his subordinates, the method in which he brought this publicly affected the mission of a deployed aircraft carrier to deter America’s enemies, and thus presented a tactical liability affecting far bigger strategy and geopolitics, since CCP China and other adversaries knew that one of our Aircraft Carriers were out of a fight.

There was a tension and optimization between the health of his crew and the overall mission, and his going outside the Chain of Command resolved the (arguably) lower-priority former but jeopardized the (arguably) higher-priority latter.

My views can be modified upon better arguments, but wanted to articulate some distinctions between correctness of ideas vs. the context of correctness and method of communication. And for the record, I agree with all the points that Mr. Scheller brought up in his videos.


AI/full-stack software engineer | trader/investor/entrepreneur | physics phd

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Kevin Ann

Kevin Ann

AI/full-stack software engineer | trader/investor/entrepreneur | physics phd