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Military grumblers vs. Clinton

Shane Sellers has been a Marine for 20 years. He worked his way up through the enlisted ranks to the grade of major. And now he’s risking this career so he can let the world know what a low opinion he has of his commander-in-chief.

The major’s crusade began in October, when he published a column in Navy Times titled “Time to Send Clinton to the Showers.” In it, Sellers described the president as an “adulterous liar” and “a criminal,” then went on to argue that impeachment hearings are “warrant[ed].” The column prompted a Marine Corps investigation to determine whether the officer violated a military law that forbids “contemptuous” public words about the commander-in-chief. But Major Sellers, unintimidated, dug his foxhole deeper. In a November 2 Navy Times column, Sellers wrote: “I have strong opinions. So be it.”

Shane Sellers is not alone in his disdain for the president. Indeed, at around the same time Sellers’s columns appeared, a group of Marines was reportedly circulating an e-mail petition calling for Clinton’s resignation. (The Wall Street Journal publicized its existence, but the Marine Corps could never confirm it.) Of course, Clinton has always had a hard time pleasing the military—not only because he lacked military service but because some of his first acts in office were to cut the defense budget and attempt to allow gays to serve openly. But, after five years in office, it finally looked as if the military had forgiven all of that: the troops had come to respect Clinton’s grasp of national security policy, and they appreciated all of his heartfelt visits. Now, Clinton is back to square one. The military prides itself on “honor, courage, and commitment,” and senior officers say it will be difficult for the president to regain the genuine respect of those who now serve. In the words of one officer: “People fight because they believe in what they are doing; they believe in the people who send them into battle. Bill Clinton has broken the faith. We’ll still abide by orders, but it breaks the faith.”

What really makes some in the military angry is the perception of a double standard. Clinton is not bound by the same rules of conduct that apply in the armed services (although at one point he tried to fend off the Paula Jones suit by arguing that an obscure 1940 statute granting immunity to military officers on active duty applied to him because he was commander-in-chief). And it’s lucky for him that he isn’t. Violations of military law can ruin careers and even bring jail time for consensual sexual conduct—even conduct that many consider less offensive than Clinton’s fling with a 21-year-old intern.

Ask retired Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, the B-52 pilot forced to leave the Air Force in 1997. She was threatened with court-martial over an adulterous affair about which she subsequently lied when ordered to end the relationship. Ask retired Major General John Longhouser. In June 1997, Defense Secretary William Cohen allowed Longhouser, the commander of the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, to retire early after he acknowledged that he had had a relationship with a civilian woman five years earlier, while separated from his wife. Or ask the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Joseph Ralston. Ralston was the Pentagon’s 1997 choice to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, until he admitted that he had carried on an affair with a civilian woman 13 years earlier, while separated from his wife. In the aftermath of the Flinn and Longhouser cases, Ralston withdrew from consideration, saying a prolonged fight in the Senate for confirmation would distract from serious national security issues. Clinton and Ralston met to discuss military readiness just weeks after the president’s August 17 speech about the Lewinsky affair. It couldn’t have been a comfortable encounter for either man.

Now, having endured years of such embarrassments in the name of “good order and discipline,” military personnel are being asked to accept what they perceive as presidential indiscipline. Says Charles Gittens, the attorney who represented former Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney against sexual misconduct charges: “People in uniform rightly question, `How can you hold a young enlisted man to a higher standard than the president of the United States?’” Adding to the indignation is the timing of the president’s dalliances: during the week in 1997 when Clinton called Kelly Flinn’s punishment “appropriate,” he was still meeting secretly with Monica Lewinsky. And, as retired Army Colonel James McDonough noted in a recent hard-hitting Wall Street Journal column, the president in November 1995 was talking on the telephone to a congressman about deploying troops to Bosnia—while “simultaneously receiving sexual favors from Monica Lewinsky.”

But, while Major Sellers may speak for many in the Armed Forces, few will join his crusade openly—and that’s undoubtedly for the best. No matter what the troops think of the president’s behavior, it’s not their place to criticize him for it publicly.So says Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the same code that bans adultery for servicemembers: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” Fortunately for Clinton, it doesn’t matter if the “contemptuous” words are accurate. “The truth or falsity of the statements is immaterial,” the regulation states.

Military order and discipline depend on showing respect for one’s superiors, and, in a democracy, it is particularly important that military officers obey their civilian commanders—except, of course, when the orders themselves are illegal. As Marine Corps Judge Advocate Major Brett D. Barkey explained in a letter to Navy Times, officers need not “like our civilian leaders, approve of their conduct, or accept their example as the standard of behavior permissible in our Marine Corps or our families, but we must obey them. And for the good of our 200-plus-year-old experiment in democracy, we must suppress the urge to broadcast any disgust we may have with them.”

In 1993, Air Force Major General Harold Campbell ignored that dictate—and paid a price. Campbell was apparently looking for laughs at a military awards ceremony when he took aim at newly elected President Clinton. Speaking before an all-military audience, the former fighter pilot called his commander-in-chief a “pot-smoking, skirt-chasing, gay-loving draft-dodger.” Campbell’s attempt at humor fell flat. So did his career. The two-star general was fined, reprimanded, and forced to retire early for his “contemptuous” public comments.

His dislike of the president was undoubtedly shared by others in the room in that first year of Clinton’s term, but, in the military, private sniping is one thing—and public comments quite another. Campbell’s words were met with scattered boos and hisses. Merrill McPeak, then the Air Force chief of staff, was so appalled by the incident that he issued a personal apology to the American people on behalf of the Air Force, saying Campbell’s behavior was “wrong” and could not be tolerated. The military, McPeak said, must understand the need for “absolute respect up and down the chain of command.”

The brass has adopted a similar posture in reaction to Major Sellers’s letter and other signs of disgruntlement over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In an October letter to all Marine Corps general officers, prompted by the e-mail petition, Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Terrence Dake wrote, “You must emphatically discourage any such action. It is unethical for individuals who wear the uniform of a Marine to engage in public dialogue on political and legal matters such as impeachment.” Sellers says, “I am stuck in a whirlwind that would force me to choose between speaking my conscience as a responsible American and keeping quiet like an idiot.” That would be his right as a civilian, of course, but it’s one of the rights he forfeited when he put on the uniform. Sellers may or may not be correct that the president’s behavior is so bad that it warrants removal from office. But, even if it is, it is an occasion for democratic, civilian repudiation—not a military rebellion.

Martha Raddatz is Pentagon correspondent for National Public Radio. This article appeared in the November 30, 1998 issue of the magazine.