Acton Institute Powerblog

Withdrawing from Afghanistan: One Veteran’s Crisis of Command

(Image credit: Screenshot Stuart Scheller Jr. Facebook)

Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller’s now infamous video calling civilian and military leaders to account for the Afghanistan-withdrawal debacle cost him his career. Was it worth it?

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On August 26, 2021, Stuart Scheller posted a video on LinkedIn and Facebook in which he strongly criticized senior U.S. military and civilian leaders for the embarrassing way in which the country had withdrawn forces from Afghanistan in the preceding days. The video was shared more than 40,000 times and “liked” over 200,000 times in roughly the first 12 hours after it was posted. Scheller’s criticisms were serious ones, based on tragic outcomes: Earlier that same day, 13 American servicemembers had lost their lives in a bombing at the Kabul airport, where they were facilitating a hasty evacuation of Americans and Afghans fleeing a Taliban that had just completed a rapid reconquest of basically the entire country after more than two decades of American military presence.

The sentiments expressed in the video were widely shared by American observers. But this was no ordinary critique: Scheller was an active-duty lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he shot his video dressed in full military working uniform, clearly from his office on a military base. Scheller was both a uniquely qualified critic and restricted as an Afghanistan combat veteran from making the video he had made. After a firing, court martial, separation from military service, divorce, and no small amount of media attention, the now-civilian Scheller has written a book, Crisis of Command: How We Lost Trust and Confidence in America’s Generals and Politicians to tell his story and expand upon the views he expressed in that original video. Not surprisingly, the author’s insights on military leadership problems and the lack of accountability at senior levels form the core of the book’s message—so much so that much of the rest of the content probably should have been left out.

To say that Scheller’s focus on accountability is the strength of his book is not to overlook the fact that he, in the eyes of many, deserved to be held accountable through disciplinary action himself. If every military officer took to social media to question senior leaders every time he disagreed with a decision, the organization would stop functioning altogether. (Ultimately, Scheller pleaded guilty to contempt toward officials, disrespect toward superior officers, disobeying a superior officer, dereliction of duty, failure to obey an order, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.)

And yet, if one had taken a poll of American military officers at the unit at which I worked (as one of those military officers) after news of Scheller’s video broke, or taken the same poll at virtually any command or unit throughout the vast U.S. military enterprise, two simultaneously held opinions would have been clearly expressed by the overwhelming majority of respondents: (1) he deserved to be fired, and (2) he was right.

Indeed, Scheller himself agreed from the beginning: “I have been relieved for cause based on a lack of trust and confidence…. My chain of command is doing exactly what I would do … if I were in their shoes.” It is when he extends this accountability, however, to leaders more senior and more culpable for the Afghanistan debacle that his content becomes truly compelling: “Yes, I should have been held accountable. And so should every senior leader for their violations.” But not a single senior leader—whether generals in uniform or high-ranking civilian officials—was fired or held accountable in any way for the Afghanistan withdrawal. That makes it hard to dismiss Scheller’s passion or his point, which he makes emphatically: “If the list [of mistakes] from the Afghanistan evacuation isn’t enough, what does it take to fire a general”?

The author does well in carrying this accountability theme forward to discuss the dynamics that both create and result from an environment in which senior officers often face few consequences for their failures. Among these are military selection and promotion policies, contracting and procurement procedures, and the development of operational-success metrics. On the first subject, Scheller rightly bemoans the fact that, for military officers, the promotion and assignment system is extremely rigid, with time spent in rank being, in almost all circumstances, the primary determinant of who moves up the ladder or who lands the coveted job. He goes on to note that talented performers are likely to develop a resentment of this fact, and to seek greener pastures: “Move talented leaders up more quickly. This will do more for retaining talent than all other initiatives.”

In critiquing the government’s famously byzantine contracting and procurement processes and the poorly designed success metrics for operations in a theater of war, Scheller similarly hits the mark. As just one example: During his time in Iraq, an actual metric for success was “money spent”, and, as his unit’s pay agent, he had mostly to distribute funds to a single corrupt Iraqi businessman. Throughout all this material, the author successfully paints a picture of a broader military bureaucracy in which accountability and incentives are systemically misallocated, perhaps making the unwillingness of senior officials to take blame for the Afghanistan withdrawal inevitable. Moreover, if this is true, then those who succeed within this system and become the organizations’ leaders will naturally be those who best conform to and perpetuate it. And how could such leaders perceive the shortcomings in a selection process that declared them to be the best of the best? Why would they propose or invite changes to a system they have mastered and that has rewarded them for so doing? In Scheller’s words: “Relying on senior leaders to change systems that inherently protect senior leaders’ power is misguided.”

Just as the book’s call to accountability is as clear and convincing as Scheller’s very first video message, much of its other content strikes the reader in a manner similar to the subsequent video and social media posts that he made. Between his original Facebook message and his court-martial, Scheller continued posting on social media for public consumption, often in a way that muddied his original message and harmed his credibility. In one post, he shared his assessment of the past five U.S. presidents; in another, he infamously stated “Follow me, and we will bring the whole f—ing system down.” Similarly distracting and irrelevant content can be found in the book.

Several passages recount harsh words or treatment that Scheller received from senior officers at varying points in his career. While one envies the author’s opportunity to score-settle with such individuals, these tales don’t particularly bolster any arguments or provide important context for the book. In other places, Scheller criticizes the overly academic nature of the military’s degree-granting institutions (stating that Ph.D.s without military experience should not be working at such places), and he more than once derides just war theory as a dangerous distraction from actual efforts to win wars. This criticism of the academic approach to strategic studies and the particular critique of just war theory largely misses the point, though, as such studies and theories exist to prevent the very type of strategic-level failures and unethical decision-making that Scheller set out to expose from the start. The conclusion to the Afghanistan war was not poorly handled because officials had spent too much time in the presence of political and strategy theorists, nor because they were too immersed in the intellectual tradition of Augustine and Aquinas; very much the contrary must be true.

The fact remains, however, that many questions need to be asked and flaws pointed out regarding the conduct of American (or any country’s) foreign policy, most especially when that policy results in the application of military force. Scheller showed a kind of great bravery in asking such questions out loud, and no lack of fortitude in accepting the consequences for doing so.

In the end, Scheller’s original message from August of 2021—about accountability and what citizens should expect from military leaders—needed to be heard. To him, saying it was worth losing a career. A book that expands upon that message and explores from an insider’s perspective how the broader culture and functioning of the military may be both cause and effect of the type of system that failed to hold a single senior leader accountable for the Afghanistan withdrawal is a valuable contribution to the public dialogue on American security policy. It will remain so at least until one particular question posed by Scheller can be answered: “How can the greatest military power in the world tolerate keeping those in power who continually squander the lives and treasure of the American people?”

Kevin Duffy

Kevin Duffy is an American writer living in Spain.