By Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez
Best Defense guest columnists
The inspector general's sign said to contact him in case of fraud, waste, or abuse. We laughed cynically about which issue he might find most egregious.
Would it be the non-alcoholic beer shipped around the world into Afghanistan? The civilian contractors who slept all day in their hootches and ignored the war going on around them? The ostentatious Post Exchange at the Marine Corps's headquarters in Helmand Province, with its aisles lined by televisions, air conditioners, and stereos?
Or maybe it would be the money-losing commissaries back in the United States, a system of grocery stores receiving $1.5 billion in federal subsidies every year? Or perhaps the Semper Fit girls in Camp Lejeune, who acted like personal trainers but seemed like little more than beneficiaries of a welfare program for Marine dependents?
Our brainstorming went on, but we never did find out. At the time it wasn't our place. We had to pick our battles, and we weren't military planners, we weren't financial management officers, we weren't whatever military occupational specialty handles budgeting. We were just two infantry officers looking around every day at all the bloat and wondering how it had come to this.
If we've seen such excess in the Marine Corps -- traditionally the most frugal service and one that receives just 4 percent of the defense budget -- we can only imagine the extent to which it takes place in the other branches. And as sequestration slowly comes into effect, it's worth asking: Might a budget cut actually be a good thing for our military?
It could be, if our generals can make smart fiscal choices. And although our top military leaders have spent months decrying the potential effects of sequestration, it's worth noting that the Department of Defense budget has just about doubled in the years since 9/11, that this figure doesn't include money spent conducting the wars, and that what our leaders are bemoaning is just a 7 percent cutback on the baseline budget.
As former Marines and members of the service that has always prided itself on doing more with less, the discussion thus far has been frustrating to watch. Very few people seem willing to question whether America has gotten its money's worth from the ever-expanding military-industrial complex.
Meanwhile, we aren't convinced. It's just too easy to call to mind examples of questionable spending or hours of productivity lost due to outdated systems. Meals at the dining facilities in Afghanistan cost more than $25 per plate. Back in America, many of our computers still had floppy drives. And all of these examples don't even get at the murky process of weapons procurement and acquisition, in which no-bid contracts have become all too common.
No question, when we were deployed we enjoyed those meals tremendously on the rare occasions we visited large bases, and we were the beneficiaries of new gear and weapons that came from some of those contracts. But it is simply unbelievable that there isn't money to cut, that every dollar spent goes to a worthwhile program.
Leaving Camp Lejeune for the last time a few months ago, we drove by a series of newly-constructed LED billboards. On the screens, a digital version of the American Flag waved in an imaginary wind. It felt obscene, and as we passed each caricature, we couldn't help reflecting on all the times our junior Marines had been forced to scrounge for necessary supplies or to pay for better gear out of their own pockets.
Why was it that we had money for such frivolities, but sometimes not the slings for our rifles? Why was it that every contractor we talked to bragged about his six-figure income? Why was it that the new two-story chow hall had a Mongolian barbecue, but there were never enough spots to attend humvee training?
How did it come to this?
Our military leaders can do better. We believe that the budget cuts will instill some much-needed fiscal discipline. We believe it's possible to cut back without hollowing out the force. And we believe that it's time for our generals to prioritize, something that has fallen by the wayside in this era of military-industrial excess.
In the end, all we are asking is that our senior leaders take some of the advice we were given as young lieutenants: Stop pointing fingers elsewhere. Figure it out. Improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez are former infantry officers in the United States Marine Corps. They served together in Helmand Province, Afghanistan during the summer of 2011, where they embedded with the Afghan Uniformed Police and the Afghan National Army. The views presented here are their own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the United States Marine Corps.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.