Follow Orders — or Not

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 21, 2021

The outcome of last week’s court-martial of Marine Lt. Col. Stu Scheller will reverberate in any discussion of trying to separate the nation’s military from its very divided and confrontational politics.

The case, in which Scheller pleaded guilty but won a light sentence for posting repeated videos of his disagreements with military policy, is baffling. It is also an example of a case that drew public attention for partisan users as it was pending, but almost nothing about its outcome.

It seems to say that it is perfectly fine for a senior military officer to publicly denounce his superiors — something that one would think the whole idea of a court-martial was intended to squash. But maybe only when the disagreement is wholly political, or involved military actions that embarrassed the United States, or in which politics are seen as somehow integral with what the military does.

It’s not at all clear for this outcome or for whatever partisans will read into it.

This military court procedure made domestic politics a centerpiece and had been promoted in particular by right-leaning news outlets because it was the only case of a military officer being prosecuted after the messiness of the hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Even though the substance here of a Marine officer finding fault with Pentagon decision-making had nothing to do with Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative divides, it was a showcase for all sorts of anti-Joe Biden rhetoric and testimony, as if a military court of justice is another setting for politicking rather than a question of following orders.

I’m confused about a basic directive among the military — the requirement to follow orders unless they are somehow unlawful, none of which applied to Afghan withdrawal policy.

The outcome presumably puts into question any case in which the military hammer next comes down on troops and Marines who disobey orders about hair styles, religious objections to vaccines, disagreements about recruitment or treatment involving women, gays, trans people, or anyone else who thinks the brass is a little nuts.

Videos of Protest

Lt. Col. Scheller was ordered at least four times to knock off posting videos that demeaned his command all the way to the top of the Pentagon but continued to attack both civilian and military leaders.

Scheller, a 17-year infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, pleaded guilty to contempt toward officials, disrespect toward superior commissioned officers, willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, dereliction in the performance of duties and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He signed an 11-page stipulation of facts in which Marine prosecutors detailed 27 instances in which Scheller violated laws or regulations as a military officer.

Last Friday, Scheller was found guilty on six charges and sentenced to a letter of reprimand, $5,000 in forfeited pay — and resignation with an honorable discharge, without some retirement benefits. The Marine Corps had sought harsher terms.

But the court-martial itself proved a stage for extreme conservatives, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Louie Gohmert, R-Tx., and Ralph Norman, R-SC, to “reframe the debate as not about Scheller’s actions as an officer, but about the failures and political motives of senior U.S. officials, raising some incidents that had nothing to do with Afghanistan or Scheller,” as The Washington Post reported.

Greene used her testimony to call for Biden’s impeachment, Gohmert to attack Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At one point, Col. Glen Hines, the judge overseeing the case, sustained several objections by the prosecution and said that it appeared the defense team was raising political issues rather than focusing on Scheller’s case. “I’m kind of at a loss for what I’m supposed to do with this testimony,” Hines said to testimony by Anthony Shaffer, a retired Army officer and adviser to the Donald Trump campaign.

What Result?

In explaining his decision, Hines said Scheller’s videos showed a “confused” and “significantly frustrated” man instead of a potentially violent service member the military portrayed Scheller as in charge sheets, according to The Military Times.

Hines reprimanded Scheller for his contempt of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, calling the comments very “serious” and “corrosive,” as they can “degrade public trust” in the military. The judge also called out the Marines for placing Scheller in the brig before the trial, a move that raised the “specter of unlawful command influence,” and created intense media scrutiny that doesn’t happen for “99 percent” of other courts-martial, Military Times reported.

Scheller said he was moved to his actions because of the deaths of 13 service members were killed in a suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport.

What we’re left with as an American public seems two things. First, we have confusion now over whether an officer follows his orders even while disagreeing privately with the policy governing those orders. The second, more broadly, is confusion with the military over its evident strains to separate politics from normal military procedures.

Even the Pentagon brass testified before Congress that they had doubts about the best policy recommendations as the Afghan army evaporated and the Afghan government fled, but they carried out orders from the White House — through two very different presidents — to withdraw in a hurry. That’s why we have civilian control of the military and not the other way around.

Add in partisanship to military maneuvers, and America is asking for trouble.

This is not the first court-martial in which sides are variously adopted by political forces for partisan advancement. Trump annoyed Pentagon leaders of all stripe by reaching into the military justice system to back the case of a former SEAL officer who was facing murder charges that eventually were dismissed, and many congress members are engaged in seeking more aggressive prosecution of sexual assault cases, for example.

This one was different, however, with a specific case being taken up by conservatives in a direct challenge to Biden.

It’s a warning that politics are deeply ingrained in the military.


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