Crisis of Command: How We Lost Trust and Confidence in America’s Generals and Politicians
My name is Stuart Scheller. I am the seventeen-year Marine Corps infantry officer who resigned at the rank of lieutenant colonel after witnessing a poorly planned and executed Afghanistan withdraw. I was thrust into the media when I posted a video on Facebook and LinkedIn from my office as a battalion commander. Wearing my uniform, I identified myself in the video with rank and title and then proceeded to criticize the decisions of my senior military and political leaders. A series of escalating events occurred following the release of the video, which resulted in my imprisonment, court-martial, and resignation.
The central question I had for my senior leaders then, and still have today: 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? I have unpopular theories to the question. I wrote this book because senior military leaders and politicians demonstrate an inability to engage or acknowledge obvious failures. I dedicated my life to this country. I led service members into battle who died fighting for the initiatives of our senior leaders. We win all the tactical battles, yet when it is time to link our tactical success to operational and strategic goals, the United States consistently fails.
This is my story. This is my perspective. Why I joined the Marine Corps. Why I love America. Why I joined during a time of war, and why I wanted combat experiences. How I progressed through my career. How my experiences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan shaped my thinking. How my military education created deeper questions about America’s foreign policy approach. And how the events of Afghanistan compelled me to sacrifice everything in my life up to that point.
The book is structured as follows: Chapter 1 jumps straight to the suicide attack at Kabul, Afghanistan, airfield on August 26, 2021. Chapter 2 starts with my enlistment into the Marine Corps in 2004, and the story progresses in a linear fashion thereafter. Chapters 2 through 9 describe my career prior to the Afghanistan withdrawal. This section is relevant for the reader’s understanding of my perspective and experiences and overlays my career within a time frame that America conducted two of its longest wars. It’s a glimpse into my generation’s struggles during those wars. Additionally, my personal and family life permeates each chapter of the story. This additional storyline illustrates an often-untold baseline for the pressure applied to families impacted by a military career.
Chapters 10 through 17 describe the struggle I endured with the Marine Corps after I posted my first video. There are many hard truths in this portion of the book, but transparency is critical for evolution. I hope service members learn something about addressing failures of the bureaucracy. More than that, I hope all Americans open their eyes to the fundamental problems facing the military. The executive branch, legislative branch, and military system have demonstrated unwillingness to make the changes required. If American citizens can’t force reform on the military, the United States’ ability to enhance power in the foreign policy arena will continue degrading. America’s evolution requires acknowledging failure and breakdowns in the system apolitically. My son’s future depends upon it.
“The great political conflict of our century, I believe, is that between a networked public and the elites who inhabit the great hierarchical institutions that organize modern life… The public, which swims comfortably in the digital sea, knows far more than elites trapped in obsolete structures. The public knows when the elites fail to deliver their promised ‘solutions,’ when they tell falsehoods or misspeak, when they are caught in sexual escapades, and when they indulge in astonishing levels of smugness and hypocrisy. The public is disenchanted in the elites and their institutions… To maintain the authority of institutions, an explanation must be provided to the public that connects events to the ideal. The moments of defeat are always instructive.”
—Antonio Martinez in The Prophet of the Revolt
The United States military’s obligation is winning wars. Period. Since World War II, the United States military has continued losing wars. Period. Military generals have insulated themselves from accountability of failed wars by deflecting blame toward politicians and adjacent foreign diplomacy departments. This excuse cannot be tolerated much longer without great risk to the American people. Addressing the American military’s problems through action will increase chances of success in a future war. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the military’s problems. Military planners would refer to it as a wicked problem. I will call it a complex problem. And solving complex problems requires pulling on one thread at a time.
The problem affecting all other shortfalls originates from how generals obtain their positions. Promotion only occurs in the military when service members receive favorable evaluations from their superiors. Military members receive favorable evaluations by reflecting the ideas and beliefs of their superiors. As service members climb the career ladder, at each step of promotion, they become susceptible to veering away from a warfighting focus. Reflecting the status quo ideology of a boss is the easiest way to promotion. Currently, warfighting capability and winning wars are not priorities for promotion. A warfighting focus may factor into the boss’s impression of a military employee, but it is a small slice at most. I witnessed several talented officers wash out of the system because their warfighting focus detracted from the peripheral tasks prioritized by superiors.
The military system heavily favors those who focus on career progression. Focusing on career progression at times develops an officer’s warfighting skills, but at other times it detracts from it. In the current military bureaucracy, promotion is not synonymous with the necessary ideals of militaristic command. Ultimately, we have people in critical leadership positions making egregious errors because they simply are not prepared for the job. Despite the systemic failures, senior military leaders must be held accountable.
To be clear, accountability doesn’t solve the problem. Fixing the promotion system, career path ladder, and culture of the military should be the long-term approach. However, accountability does cause a course correction. When Americans begin holding senior military leaders accountable, it forces acknowledgment from military leaders that in addition to pleasing their bosses they must also focus on winning wars.
The military hierarchal institution, built by the greatness of each military branch’s forefathers, is rarely questioned in terms of foundational effectiveness. Instead, the path to mediocrity is continually refined within these systems. The military officer career progression is one such pathway. Leaders now require subordinates to move through small choke points of career advancement. The “career roadmap” is yet another mechanism for conformism. Modern military leaders degrade fresh perspectives by moving service members through narrow paths designed to imitate predecessors’ experiences. While the system should replicate the experiences of senior leaders, if senior leaders consistently fail in their primary task of winning wars, then the path should obviously be reexamined. Additionally, choke points deemed essential to the organization, but absent any correlation to warfighting, have been inappropriately prioritized for promotion. When or if changes do occur in thinking or approach, they are incremental at best. The military in large part, due to a lack of fresh perspective and critical thinking, demonstrates an inability to fundamentally change at the pace required to maintain competitive advantage.
Senior generals are promoted based on their willingness to please superiors. Said another way, they are promoted because they don’t push back. Thus, when General Kenneth F. McKenzie addressed why he withdrew military forces in Afghanistan during the peak fighting season before evacuating American citizens, his justification, “I was following the orders I was given,” was not surprising. Sadly, it’s also not surprising that General Carter Ham, when ordered, stood down military response forces during the Benghazi incident. His blind obedience to orders resulted in Americans dying needlessly. There is predictability in both responses when people understand General McKenzie and General Ham became senior military leaders by not pushing back on authority. Unfortunately for Americans, courageous people are needed now more than ever in the senior military ranks. As a product of our promotion system, senior military leaders wholistically don’t have the ability to disobey orders in commonsense moments.
As you may have heard in the media, the military depicted me as the bad guy.
Yes, I did break the rules.
Yes, I should have been held accountable.
And so should every senior leader for their violations. However, they only acknowledge the failures of those below them and lack the courage, fortitude, and wherewithal to acknowledge the failures of their counterparts at the top. My story is a microcosm for the hypocrisy of the system.
The culture of “yes men” at the senior military ranks is not an easy fix. In any other industry, companies bring in new ideas and approaches by hiring professionals from other firms. The practice of cross-pollination does not exist in the military. The military promotion system is strictly time based. A commander in chief has limited military reform options within the current system. Short of legislating reform for the outdated Goldwater-Nichols system, the president is relegated to appointing a secretary of defense who understands the problems and has the courage to dramatically reshuffle senior officers.
This closed military system is further destabilized by a culture of nepotism. A large portion of battalion commanders right now are sons of other generals. Children of generals are not given a free pass. And many of them are very talented. But when people have small advantages, these advantages build up over time. These systemic advantages exist and need to be acknowledged. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers developed an example through data illustrating the parallel. Gladwell noticed that the birth months for professional hockey players overwhelmingly fell in the first months of a given year. Their birthdate provided a small size and maturity advantage. This small advantage allowed them to make all the competitive teams at a young age, which allowed them to develop at a faster pace. This development provided more opportunities to become professional players. A similar pattern occurs in the highest levels of the military. The sons of generals already have a successful battle plan mapped out for them. They are cognizant of the actions needed to make their careers more marketable for promotion. Through namesakes and a knowledge of how to play the system, they build and exploit nonlinear advantages over others. This is relevant if the military struggles with producing a new type of senior military leader with courage and fresh perspective. Not only are the heirs less likely to take risks and think differently, but their entrance into the military also immediately impacts their fathers’ thinking; senior generals with sons in the military are more likely to play it safe for their namesakes.
The gender and racial equality topics of the last decade are also addressed in this book. There was no avoiding the conversation if you served in the military for the last two decades. To clarify up front, equality and equal opportunity are two very different things, yet the distinction between these separate issues is often conflated within the military. Every American wants their sons and daughters to have an opportunity to serve in the military under one equal standard. Not every American wants their sons and daughters treated differently based on race or gender for the appearance of diversity.
In addition to the diversity priorities, senior military leaders have also increasingly placed an emphasis on a perception of ethics. On the surface, no one would disagree with the utility of ethics. Americans pride themselves on ethics, morals, and an idealistic outlook. However, these attributes are only meaningful in war when transformed into lethal power. At times these attributes can detract from, rather than enhance, America’s ability to win wars. I believe in God. I believe in good and evil. But I also believe American service members are sacrificing unnecessarily for the system’s perception of ethics. Americans need more realism injected into their foreign policy decisions. The “just war theory” is wrong. There are no “just” wars. Only wars. The “just” portion is all about spinning a narrative. I acknowledge the military is more lethal when humans fighting for a nation-state believe they are on the “just” side of the war. However, America now wages war over long timelines, debilitated by unnecessary restrictions, all without clear objectives or political end states in the name of “justice.” The system is failing the junior service member.
Moreover, the contracting, procurement, and spending processes are widely recognized in the defense industry for their inefficiencies and failed practices. There exists an oligopoly within the government contracting world reaping exorbitant amounts of money off the war industry. This small group of firms hires people like James Mattis and Lloyd Austin and places them like puppets on boards of directors, where they earn hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to garner influence with the general officer community. Meanwhile, a young, enlisted infantryman cannot receive basic technology in a timely manner due to bureaucratic red tape in procurement. Instead, the junior service member consistently and unknowingly assumes unnecessary risks because the procurement process cannot be navigated effectively by senior military leaders. The commonly used Marine Corps’ Amphibious Assault Vehicle, extended decades beyond its service life, still exists because of the problems with procurement. Yet despite these problems, the Department of Defense budget continues growing while military leaders incentivize spending taxpayer dollars as quickly as possible.
Finally, the military has tolerated a toxic leadership culture in the senior ranks for far too long. A senior leader’s opportunity during command is critical for promotion regardless of the job’s operational significance. There are many talented and compassionate commanders in the military. But far too often toxic leaders are promoted by squeezing every ounce of performance out of their men. Every commander gets one shot. A commander’s one shot is their most important opportunity for promotion regardless of operational significance. Commanders have figured out that the quickest way to success is ensuring key members in the command work disproportionate hours at great personal costs. Obviously, over a long-enough timeline, this is not sustainable for those high performers without sacrifice. Furthermore, contempt, often heightened by a lack of sleep, develops in high performers and inevitably becomes directed toward others not working the same schedules. These individuals naturally become confrontational and entitled. And often not recognized, but important to illustrate, these attributes become more pronounced the longer a service member remains in the system. It’s a systemic failure not a personality failure. Thus, any attempt to focus on these problems at the junior ranks is misguided. The commandant of the Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, acknowledged the symptom but misdiagnosed the problem. Addressing the findings of his internal 360 Review, the commandant stated to reporters, “We have to treat people like human beings instead of inventory.” However, General Berger, like all commandants of the past, focuses on the O-5 (lieutenant colonel) commander level and below. The leaders at the O-6 (colonel) and above level set the tone and have more influence than all others. They are pressurizing the field-grade officers and developing the symptoms identified at the junior ranks. The secretary of defense needs to identify toxic leadership at the O-6 and above levels in all services and remove them immediately.
The internal problems of the military should be a grave concern for the general public. National power correlates to military power. The acronym DIME stands for Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economic. These four basic tenants are a model for how a country can evaluate sources of national power. There are other complicated models, but the simple DIME model illustrates the point. The aggregate sum of America’s national power, or DIME, in relation to other nations, determines America’s influence on the global order. While military leaders’ primary concern is winning wars, they must also possess a broader understanding of the interconnectedness of DIME so they can best advise political leadership on strategy. America’s foreign policy strategy should increase national power at a pace above or commensurate with competitors, while not recklessly engaging in power draining engagements.
War materializes when a nation’s diplomacy, economic, and information sources of power are not capable of influencing an enemy to the degree that political ambitions require. The military source of power is the instrument used to win wars. When politicians set war objectives, military senior leaders should be held responsible for accomplishing those objectives. The military’s purpose can never be isolated from political objectives. Winning wars requires compelling an enemy’s acceptance of political objectives through violence. If the United States continues allowing ineptitude at the senior military leadership level, not only will the objectives of the war fail, but all other sources of power will degrade at accelerated rates. The military source of power affects all things. In an era of global competition, Americans must improve the strength of the military immediately. This starts by addressing the failures of the senior military leaders.
The time is now for Americans to demand accountability from their senior military leadership. Americans control congressional representatives. Congressional representatives control the Defense Department budget. The military can’t function without money. Americans can instantly force change in the military by demanding their representatives hold the military accountable through the budget.
If you don’t believe how bad it is, please read the rest of the story.
Table of Contents
|September 13, 2022
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