Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller posted a video statement “To the American Leadership” of the Afghanistan withdrawal that went viral on August 26th. In it, he said, “I have been fighting for 17 years. I am willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders: I demand accountability.” He questioned brass by asking, “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?”
Scheller says he was “relieved for cause based on a lack of trust and confidence” the next day.
The planned withdrawal from Afghanistan and associated evacuations by the U.S. Military was completed on Aug 30. UncoverDC reported yesterday that the Pentagon’s spokesperson puts the total number of evacuees at 122,000, with 5,400 of those being Americans.
Controversy has surrounded the withdrawal. The U.S. Air Force Base in Bagram was 40 miles north of Kabul and was the largest U.S. military base in the world before being closed in July, leaving the Hamid Karzai airport to be used—which requires Taliban cooperation.
A bipartisan chorus in the media has been critical; even Biden’s most loyal allies have chosen expressive words such as “risky,” “chaotic,” and “disaster.” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the withdrawal one of the “worst foreign policy decisions in American history, much worse than Saigon.” At the same time, the top Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, Michael McCaul, said Biden will have “blood on his hands.”
Through a CENTCOM Public Affairs / Communication Integration department designed to provide public-facing information, Commander General Frank McKenzie stated on August 17 that he “saw firsthand” a “secure” airfield. A gunfire exchange and a “complex” attack at the airport gate by suicide bombers are among incidents that have occurred since, and these have been used to justify military actions that include Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) strikes, which the U.S. military maintains have successfully prevented more.
The pre-emptive “counterterrorism operations” are part of the over-the-horizon initiatives that have had U.S. forces providing training, advice, assistance, support, and intelligence from remote bases—until recently, against Taliban forces. They are being called “defensive” and include the most recent strike on a vehicle in Kabul which CENTCOM Public Affairs says disrupted “an imminent ISIS-K threat to the airport.”
In July, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that “Our commitment to the future of a stable and secure Afghanistan has not changed. It’s just going to look different. We’re just not going to be on the ground the way we are now.” He also stated the Department of Defense had been in “discussions with the State Department regarding the nature of what [the over-the-horizon] capability will be” in the region.
Scheller’s perspective is that the lives lost during the occupation of Afghanistan since the initial October 2001 attack are at risk of being in vain if “we don’t have senior leaders that own up.” Accountability for mistakes is necessary to avoid repeating them in the future and help understand and heal soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the post that accompanied his initial August 26 video, Scheller gave some additional explanation of his actions:
“America has many issues, but it’s my home; it’s where my three sons will become men. America is still the light shining in a fog of chaos. When my Marine Corps career comes to an end, I look forward to a new beginning. My life’s purpose is to make America the most lethal and effective foreign diplomacy instrument. While my days of hand-to-hand violence may be ending. I see a new light on the horizon.”
He followed up on the 27th with a Facebook post that acknowledged those fellow Marines who had asked that he take down the first video. He explained his decision not to while encouraging his supporters to join:
“If you all agree, then step up. They only have the power because we allow it. What if we all demanded accountability?” He closed the post with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “Every generation needs a revolution.”
On August 29, Scheller posted a longer video titled ‘Your move’ that he says was filmed from an undisclosed location in Eastern North Carolina from inside an abandoned school bus. Sitting in front of a chessboard with the pieces set out in a famous opening position called the “Trompowsky Attack,” Scheller announced his resignation from the Marine Corps. He explained the implications and said he would forfeit retirement entitlements and healthcare from the Veterans Administration.
After reiterating that his only request was for accountability, saying that “clear, obvious mistakes were made” in Afghanistan, his speech turned dramatic:
“For the over two million dollars that I would potentially receive in retirement for the rest of my life, for the however much extra the disability would be, I think that money should go back to all the senior general officers. When I am done with what I am about to do, you all are going to need the jobs and the security.” To those who doubt him, he says, “You have no idea what I’m capable of doing.”
Scheller then calls out for support from media, politicians, the Bellwether Alliance, and “every single person that’s willing to go back outside the wire every single day, to wear a blue-collar and just go into work every single day and feed their families.” He says, “follow me, and we will bring the whole fucking system down.”
In response to the feedback he has received publicly, he says, “I am honorable, and you can ask any Marine who served with me for 17 years; I dare you to ask them all and find out what I’m made of. We’re just getting started.”
On August 30th, Scheller posted that his commanding officer had ordered him to go to the hospital for a mental health screening. He said that his traumatic combat situations and ensuing “post-traumatic growth” have made him stronger. He said PTSD should be no excuse for the actions of a service member and that accountability from senior leaders would treat feelings of guilt or shame in those affected better than individual counseling. He went on to note veteran suicide deaths are statistically more significant than COVID deaths.
Then again, Scheller’s words turn dramatic:
“Everyone is scared that the weight of the system is crashing down on me. But I know something you don’t. It’s the system that’s going to break. Not me. I am moving forward with my resignation. I, like many of you, am very scared. But courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the ability to overcome it. At the end of the day, if I stand with accountability and integrity, the system can’t beat me. We can’t ALL be wrong. They only have the power because we allow it. Every generation needs a revolution. Bxf6”
The signature provided at the bottom of that post, ‘Bxf6,’ is a clear nod to the ‘Trompowsky Attack’ chess opening that he had staged in his previous video—it is the standard chess notation that would be used for one of the few logical moves possible from that position.
The ‘Trompowsky Attack’ is a fairly common opening that describes the choice to move the white bishop to the g5 square, which threatens the black knight on the f6 square. This is an aggressive response to the ‘Indian defense,’ which describes black’s choice to move the knight forward. The Indian defense is itself a response to white’s choice to create a ‘Queen’s Pawn’ game with an opening move of d4. ‘Bxf6’ means “Bishop takes Knight on f6,” with f6 referring to the square on the 6th rank and 6th file of the chessboard.
Recently, grandmasters of chess that have played in games with the ‘Trompowsky Attack’ opening include Azerbaijani’s Mamedyarov, Russia’s Kramnik, China’s Liren, and America’s Philippine-born So. There are approximately 2,100 professional games on record that included this exact position, with white winning 27%, black winning 32%, and the rest resulting in a draw, though the powerful open-source chess analysis engine ‘Stockfish‘ determines this position to provide equal opportunity for a victory by each side.
In addition to referencing chess in his first video, Scheller’s later use of the signature ‘bxf6’ shows that he is certainly riddling with the board; it confirms that it is an intentional prop rather than a decoration on the set of his video. The meaning of Scheller’s inclusion of the chessboard, the ‘Trompowsky Attack’ position, or symbolism thereof, has been the subject of much speculation.
But few question Scheller’s authenticity. In his Aug. 29 video, Scheller provided his wife’s PayPal and Venmo addresses for donations but urged those willing to provide financial support to give it to the families of fellow soldiers lost during the Afghanistan withdrawal, while saying there would be a future time that helping his cause would be more appropriate. Even so, speculation remains as to the potential incentive to leverage the symbolic mystery of a chessboard.
Given the rich history of chess in military application and among those inclined toward thought in the realm of military strategy and intelligence, it is also plausible that a Marine might use chess as symbolism, riddle, or code independently. Chess has long been a focus for military strategists throughout history and has, at times by some, been superstitiously regarded as a microcosmic representation of life and geopolitics.
“Chess is believed to have originated in India, where its early form in the 6th century was called Chaturanga, which translates as ‘four divisions of the military.’ These divisions were known as the infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, which were represented respectively by pawn, knight, bishop, and rook. The game was used as an exercise in military strategy, with the victor winning at all costs. In Persia around 600, the name became Shatranj, and the rules were developed much further. Shatranj was taken up by much of the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia.”
Jose Raul Capablanca y Graupera is one of the men considered to be among the greatest chess players of all time. He learned the game among the military acquaintances of his father, who was an army officer in the Spanish Army, and is quoted in a Bohemia Magazine article in 1918:
“Chess is often played on the battlefield. In trenches taken by the French, a chessboard with the pieces set up were found; apparently, the officers who were playing were taken by surprise by an attack and did not have time to put the set away.”
Wargames and Game Theory have considered the potential that Chess and other “perfect information” games could have implications for military strategy, while technologies such as the chess-playing computer ‘Deep Blue‘ have been studied for its potential to aid in war.
“This, perhaps, is why German military officers in the 19th Century devised a peculiar board game known as Kriegspiel—or ‘wargame’—as a training tool,” explains a 2015 BBC article, “[that] was later adapted into a variant of chess in which three boards are used, with neither player seeing the opponent’s board or pieces, and the third board controlled by an umpire who executes the moves called out by each combatant.
But in the modern age, it is in the field of computer programs that chess—of the conventional sort—has captivated some minds in the military establishment. In the final year of the Cold War, 1989, I investigated this, having discovered that Prof Donald Michie, then the leading British authority on chess artificial intelligence, was being funded in his work by the US Army Research Institute.
Michie was the chief scientist at the Turing Institute at Glasgow. Turing, now most famous as the man who helped break the Nazis’ Enigma code at Bletchley Park, was accompanied in that work not just by Michie but by almost the entire English chess team. The best British chess player of the day, Hugh Alexander, went on to become head of cryptoanalysis at GCHQ while doubling as the Spectator’s chess columnist under the pseudonym Philidor.”
As reported by the Washington Post and Fox News, Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal deployed an information warfare tool originally funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to fight ISIS propaganda into an initiative that aimed to target pro-Trump social media accounts and benefit Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential run.
The BBC article continues:
“Michie, who died in 2007, said that his ‘two bishops versus knight’ chess tutorial machine had ‘enormous’ military application. I then discovered that the Deep Thought chess computer program—which in a later version called Deep Blue sensationally beat the reigning human world champion, Gary Kasparov, in 1997—was being partially funded by [DARPA].”