Politics in the Case of Col. Scheller

Is partisan politics playing a role in the Stuart Scheller case? 

The facts in this case seem pretty clear.  We all witnessed the events beginning with the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban followed by the chaotic noncombatant evacuation operation from Kabul’s airport.  It was a sad commentary on President Joe Biden’s judgment because had he accepted the advice of his military chain of command (keep at least 2,500 service members in Afghanistan to stiffen the backbone of that government and security forces) this fiasco would not have happened.  However, because Biden was evidently in a hurry to exit the Central Asian country (likely for crass political reasons), he rushed the exit process and a catastrophic situation emerged: the Taliban, our enemy of two decades, took over the country, now it will host a new wave of terrorism for years to come and the U.S. left Afghanistan with its tail tucked and lost international credibility. 

Just as that embarrassing situation emerged a Marine lieutenant colonel, Stuart Scheller Jr., at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina posted a public video on a social media website expressing criticism of senior military officials for their handling of the withdrawal and demanding they be held accountable.  His superior officers immediately relieved him of command and then incarcerated and placed him in pretrial confinement.  Although not officially charged, it appears the military laws he stands accused of are contempt toward officials, disobeying a superior officer, failing to obey lawful orders, and conduct unbecoming of an officer.

The politics of this case are widely known.  It is suspected the Marine Corps is punishing this young officer for speaking truth to power.  After all, as yet no one from President Biden down the chain of command has been held accountable for the Afghan mess, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of most Americans.  That’s understandable from a political perspective but not from a strict military viewpoint.

The politics of this case aren’t lost on some members of Congress who wrote the secretary of Defense concerned that the charges brought against the Marine may be politically motivated and a possible attempt to silence future whistleblowers criticizing President Biden. 

Representative James Comer (R-KY) and Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC) sent a letter to Defense secretary Lloyd Austin requesting information about the case. “In the wake of a terrorist attack on U.S. forces and Afghan nationals that killed 13 service members, Lt. Col. Scheller posted a public video on a social media website expressing criticism of senior officials handling the withdrawal from Afghanistan and demanding they be held to account.” They continued, “It appears that these charges would also relate to his criticism of senior military officials for their actions in connection with the withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Consider the hard facts surrounding this case.  The Marine Corps is a military branch of the Defense Department charged with executing the orders of the president and enforcing the law.  In this situation, politics aside, the Corps is fulfilling its legal obligation to charge the officer with a violation of the law.  After all, Colonel Scheller had the opportunity to resign his commission and then speak out about the Afghan fiasco and no accountability.  He chose a different course of action and for that reason, he’s now in trouble and will likely pay a high price.

Let me explain the stark reality facing this officer.  Every officer in the armed services understands the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), especially a former battalion commander like Colonel Scheller, who studied the code and was a primary enforcer of the law among his Marines.

All members of the military are subject to the UCMJ, a federal law, enacted by Congress in 1951 to establish a specialized legal system.  The president, with the constitutional power of the executive and enforcement of the UCMJ, creates and maintains the Manual of Courts Martial (MCM), which is the mechanism for carrying out the enforcement of that congressionally prescribed law.  It is to this system that Colonel Scheller, like it or not, must now submit.

The purpose of military law is “to promote justice, to assist in maintaining good order and discipline in the armed forces, to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the military establishment, and thereby to strengthen the national security of the United States.”  It’s a unique law for a special group of people with a high calling to defend the United States and to do so requires that all uniformed members maintain apolitical obedience.  That’s why, by law, military personnel on active duty are prohibited from engaging in partisan politics and criticizing senior officials which means they forfeit some of their civil liberties in order to serve.

Colonel Scheller does appear, based on media reports, to be guilty of violating at least four UCMJ laws (Article 88 (contempt toward officials), Article 90 (disobeying a superior officer), Article 92 (failing to obey lawful orders), and Article 133 (conduct unbecoming of an officer).  A courts martial will likely convene to determine whether the charges are correct and if he is found guilty by a jury of his peers, he will be punished.  This may sound unfair and undemocratic, but that’s the nature of military justice and what’s required of an apolitical military.

The military justice system depends on maintaining an apolitical foundation and the members of Congress who wrote Secretary Austin about the Scheller case smell a political motivation.  That might be true, and if politics is found to be the reason behind the Marine Corps’ actions against Colonel Scheller, then that’s tragic for our armed forces and for America.  Unfortunately, there is some justification for believing politics are at play in this case.

Last week in congressional testimony, General Mark Milley, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “I am trying to stay apolitical and I believe I am. That’s part of my professional ethic, and I’m trying to keep the military, the actual military out of actual domestic politics. I think that’s critical,” he added.

Of course, given the revelations in the same congressional hearing about General Milley’s participation in widely reported interviews with political book authors, some members of Congress and a growing number of Americans are suspicious about the general’s claim that he has remained personally apolitical.  Further, there is growing concern that others in the uniformed, hierarchy to include even some in the Marine Corps, might fall in the same category as General Milley, and that would be unnerving.

That’s why more congressional oversight is constitutionally critical at this time to protect our military and the nation.  Is the Scheller case really about enforcing the UCMJ and keeping our services apolitical?  Or has ugly politics infected the ranks of those who oversee our armed forces, and thus for the good of the country, an emergency frontal lobotomy is necessary?

Mr. Maginnis is a retired U.S. Army officer and the author of eight books. His new book, Give Me Liberty, Not Marxism, chronicles the Marxist threat and how the Democratic Party and China seek to radically transform America.

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