In 1925, the Army court-martialed Col. Billy Mitchell for speaking out against political decisions he believed was dangerous to our nation. Col. Mitchell was a zealous advocate of airpower, arguing publicly with Army and Navy brass who refused to learn the lessons of World War 1.
Just four years short of a century later, the Marine Corps may soon court-martial Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller for speaking out against our woke military leaders who refuse to accept responsibility for the debacle they helped President Biden create in his withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The two cases have a great many similarities because they have similar roots in military law.
Most civilians don’t understand that members of the military have lesser First Amendment rights than they do. For example, article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes it a crime for an officer to use contemptuous words against the president or congress.
Col. Mitchell proved himself as a pilot and combat leader in World War 1, achieving the temporary rank of brigadier general. After the war, he became a thorn in his superiors’ sides because of his strident criticisms of their actions. (“The general staff knows as much about air as a hog knows about skating.”) He was popular with the press, especially after his aircraft sank the captured German battleship “Ostfriesland” when the Navy said it couldn’t be done.
For him, the crash of the dirigible “Shenandoah” was a breaking point. Of that disaster and others, he said, “These accidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments.” Col. Mitchell was effectively daring the Army to court-martial him.
His statements angered then-president Calvin Coolidge, who apparently forced the court-martial. Col. Mitchell and his lawyers turned the trial into a debate on the War Department’s policies that were strangling airpower in its cradle. He was nevertheless convicted of all charges.
Col. Scheller, a Marine whose career has spanned seventeen years and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, was a battalion commander when Mr. Biden created the Afghanistan debacle. A few hours after thirteen U.S. troops died in the terrorist attack at the Kabul airport – among them at least one Marine Scheller knew – Scheller posted a now-famous video on social media.
In that video, Col. Scheller responded to the Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger’s letter to all Marines explaining why the Afghanistan War was worth their sacrifice. He said, “The reason people are so upset on social media right now is not because the Marine on the battlefield let someone down…People are upset because their senior leaders let them down. And none of them are raising their hands and accepting accountability or saying, ‘We messed this up.’”
Col. Scheller said he made the video. “…because I have a growing discontent and contempt for … perceived ineptitude at the foreign policy level.” He said, “I’m not saying we’ve got to be … in Afghanistan forever, but I am saying, ‘Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, hey, it’s a bad idea to evacuate Bagram Airfield, a strategic airbase, before we evacuate everyone? Did anyone do that?’”
He knew that posting the video and making other statements would probably result in his court-martial, but he went ahead regardless. When his superiors ordered him to remain silent and then relieved him of his command, he said that if he were his own commander, he’d probably do the same thing.
Col. Scheller resigned his commission, but that was apparently rejected while the Marines decide whether to court-martial him. His lawyers are reportedly trying to make a plea bargain to allow him to retire with an honorable discharge.
Both Gen. Mitchell and Col. Scheller proved a different kind of courage than the physical courage our troops show in battle. It is the rare moral courage that compels one soldier to speak out when the bond of trust that must exist between soldiers and their civilian commanders is broken as it was in the Afghanistan debacle.
Both Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley should have resigned on principle rather than carry out Mr. Biden’s obviously faulty plan that abandoned Americans to the Taliban. It has been twenty-four years since a general resigned on a matter of principle. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ron Fogelman resigned in 1997 when then-Air Force secretary Sheila Widnall demanded he blame an officer Gen. Fogelman believed innocent for the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed nineteen airmen and wounded more than four hundred others.
If Col. Scheller is court-martialed, he will be convicted of saying what had to be said just as Col. Mitchell was. Col. Scheller is a man of moral courage, much like Col. Mitchell and Gen. Fogelman were.
If our military leaders, such as Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley, had threatened to resign instead of blindly obeying Mr. Biden’s orders, they could have prevented the outcome that left American civilians and Afghan allies behind. They lacked the moral courage to do that, and our military will suffer greatly because of it.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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