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The Botched Afghanistan Withdrawal Exposes a Dangerous Fault Line in Our Democracy

5 minute read
Ackerman is the author of several novels, including Red Dress in Black and White, the memoir Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning, and The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan. He served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.

“The baby boomers’ turn is over,” said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller in a video this past Friday. “I demand accountability, at all levels. If we don’t get it, I’m bringing it.” His post, which quickly went viral, was in response to the previous day’s suicide bombing at Kabul International Airport, which killed 13 U.S. service members and over 150 Afghans. In his nearly five-minute-long post, Scheller laments the Biden Administration’s handling of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and calls out senior military leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. “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.’” But Scheller’s remarks go one step further than a simple demand for accountability. He goes onto quote Thomas Jefferson who said, “every generation needs a revolution.”

When I finished watching the video, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. My first instinct was to categorize it as a rant. The Biden Administration has handled the evacuation of Afghanistan with an unprecedented degree of incompetence, so a rant—even if inappropriate when delivered by an active-duty officer—seemed understandable. However, after more thought, I concluded that what I had seen was something else: an act of self-immolation.

Before his swift relief by senior officers on Friday, Scheller held battalion command. The Marine Corps is very selective about which officers it grooms to become battalion commanders; the fact that Scheller held that job means he was—before this past week—well-regarded, a Marine with a future in the Corps. Furthermore, Scheller is seventeen years into a twenty-year career. At twenty years, he would have been eligible for retirement at half his base pay with other benefits, like healthcare for life. It took him exactly four minutes and forty-five seconds to throw that all away. Scheller is a husband and a father. Why did he do this?

Until the past two weeks, Afghanistan was not a place, or an issue, most American cared about. In 2018, 42 percent of the country couldn’t even say whether or not we were still at war there. Over the past two decades, the war in Afghanistan has been waged by an all-volunteer military and funded through deficit spending. Unlike other wars, there has been no draft and no war tax. It’s often been said that while America’s military has spent the past twenty years at war, America itself has been at the mall. This has led to a massive civilian-military divide.

This botched withdrawal, in which many active duty as well as retired members of our military are receiving hundreds of phone calls and texts daily from their Afghan allies and their families who are now left to fend for themselves against the Taliban, has only deepened this sense of alienation among many who’ve served. One only need to look back through history—from Caesar’s Rome to Napoleon’s France—to see clearly that when a republic couples a large standing military with dysfunctional domestic politics, democracy doesn’t last long.

President Donald Trump, trailed by a group that includes Gen. Mark Milley, walks to St. John's Church after security forces cleared Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, 2020.
President Donald Trump, trailed by a group that includes Gen. Mark Milley, walks to St. John's Church after security forces cleared Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, 2020.Doug Mills—The New York Times/Redux

In the past eighteen months we have witnessed a politicization of the U.S. military with few precedents, from General Mark Milley marching across Lafayette Park in his fatigues with former President Donald Trump, to the Congressional testimony of senior officers—on everything from January 6th to right-wing extremism to critical race theory—becoming fodder for late-night cable news anchors who seek to position those in uniform on one side or another of the Democratic-Republican divide. Our military is, historically and ostensibly, an apolitical organization, but this has never meant military members do not have political views. Of course they do. But the military stays out of politics because it practices a code of omerta. Scheller’s video breaks that code.

The Marine Corps is a small community. As a lieutenant, Scheller served in 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (or “one eight” as we call it) a year after I did. I received his video from a friend, a lieutenant colonel who also served in 1/8. And one of the two infantry battalions guarding the North Gate at Kabul International Airport was 1/8, too; their current commander was a classmate of mine at Quantico. The all-volunteer military, the men and women who fought the post 9/11 wars, has become increasingly insulated from the broader American culture. The model of the citizen soldier that characterized the American military for generations has been replaced by a professional soldiering class, one that is increasingly closed, insular and subject to living in its own atomized reality—just like the rest of America does. This is dangerous.

It is particularly dangerous when military members feel misunderstood or even betrayed by the society they serve. Does everyone feel like Scheller? No, of course not. But after twenty years of war culminating in the botched evacuation of Kabul, I have heard his sense of betrayal echoed by many others.

So how we think about Scheller’s video matters. It’s important to understand that it was not so much a rant but an act of total self-immolation. And acts of self-immolation, if not heeded, have historically preceded catastrophic breakdowns in society. Remember Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor? Or Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk? One resulted in a rallying cry for the Arab Spring, and the other remains the iconic martyr of the Vietnam War. Read about them. You will notice that each burned for approximately four minutes and forty-five seconds.

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