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The View From Olympus: The Scheller Affair And Moral Courage

Several weeks ago, a Marine battalion commander at Camp Lejeune, Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, went public in a big way in a video with a demand for accountability at high levels for our disastrous flight from Afghanistan. The Marine Corps responded as he knew it would, by immediately relieving him of his command, which ended his Marine Career. There is no bigger sin in the U.S. military bureaucracy than committing truth. Lt. Col. Sheller, who sacrificed his pension by his initial act, made a second video resigning from the Marine Corps and saying he wanted no benefits from his seventeen years of service. Both videos have circulated widely on the internet.

What it comes down to is that Lt. Col. Scheller had the moral courage to say what is being said widely in both the Army and the Marine Corps from the ranks of captain to colonel. But so far, only Lt. Col. Scheller has had the guts to go public with his demand. Where are the other voices asking for the same? Do the Marine Corps and the Army put together now have only one officer with moral courage? So it seems.

From before the dawn of history, courage has been recognized as the most essential virtue of the warrior. American soldiers and Marines, including their officers, are today noted world-wide for their physical courage. More than one European officer who was in combat alongside American units has told me that American officers sometimes have too much physical courage, taking unnecessary risks.

That is a high compliment to American officers. But there is another kind of courage, no less necessary in military officers: moral courage. As the Scheller Affair demonstrates, it is possible to have both, as Lt. Col. Scheller clearly does. But a person can also have one without the other. The fact that only one American officer, to my knowledge, has gone public with a demand for accountability — not just for the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, but for the whole incompetent conduct of the war over a twenty-year period — suggests moral courage is as rare among American officers as physical courage is common. That is, indeed, my observation over almost fifty years of working with the U.S. armed forces.

Why is that the case? Because the American military personnel management system penalizes moral courage. The system’s rule of “up or out,” which requires officers to continually get promoted or leave the service, compels everyone to be a careerist at an early age. Many young officers find that distasteful, but they know their only choices are to bend to the system or get out. So those who plan a career, most of them anyway, bend. In doing so, they get their first lesson in moral cowardice.

More quickly follow, because the promotion process relies on officer fitness reports in which even a small mistake often ends a career. This teaches a CYA mentality in which safety of career depends on never taking initiative and always following every rule, even when the result will be defeat. Anyone who objects to a stupid order, process, or procedure, puts his future on the line — and, from my long observation, is often forced out. Driving out young officers who show strong character and moral courage is so common that if we really wanted to reform our armed services, asking them to come back would be an effective first step — especially if we then used them to replace the careerists.

The personnel system’s war on moral courage breeds inward focus, where gaming the career system and rising in rank replaces getting the results the battlefield demands as officers’ lodestone. That inward focus in turn means the American armed forces cannot get beyond Second Generation war, a war of processes for putting firepower on targets. Third Generation war, also called maneuver warfare (and official USMC doctrine), demands outward focus on the situation, the enemy, and getting the result the situation requires. That in turn requires moral courage, because it often means acting against rules and orders. A maneuver warfare military promotes officers who do that and thereby get the necessary result. Our armed services get rid of them.

And so we lose wars like that in Afghanistan, because a Second Generation military cannot win a Fourth Generation war.

The real meaning of the Scheller Affair is that the American armed forces need lots more Lt. Col. Schellers. The Marine Corps Commandant has said there will be a full accounting for the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan (although not, so far, for the lost war). If he’s serious, there is an easy way to show it: refuse Lt. Col. Scheller’s letter of resignation and put him in charge of the investigation. Does the Commandant have the moral courage to do that? Or should Lt. Col. Scheller be staying and the Commandant resigning?

This article was published: September 18, 2022 on

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