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'We need to contemplate the wreckage'

Things have changed since the Iraq War. The American people and their military thought Iraq and Afghanistan would be quick wars — easy and cheap — then the troops would come home.

That didn't happen, and it taught us a lesson, says author Andrew Bacevich, an international relations professor and former Army colonel.

The lesson is that when we invade a country, we have to occupy it, as we did in Iraq — and if we don't occupy it, as in Afghanistan, we have to use techniques such as aerial drone attacks or commando raids, targeting key players in insurgencies, Bacevich said in a phone interview.

Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and author of "The Limits of Power," will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at the Southern Oregon University Music Building on "The Sources of American Conduct" — exploring the ideology, circumstances and geopolitics as well as "entrenched habit" behind America's elevated use of the military in foreign relations.

America needs to step back and evaluate the initial assumptions made about the "war on terror" a decade ago, including the idea that most of us assumed our high-tech military would overcome all obstacles and it would be "brief, economical and end in a clear-cut victory."

The Iraq War ended in "something less than Vietnam, and the cost was enormous," he said. "We need to contemplate the wreckage along with our small achievements."

Bacevich, who lost a son in the Iraq War, said he will ask his audience to reflect and comment on these issues.

While the two major U.S. political parties "profess to be radically different on these matters," President Obama's national security agenda is "not exactly the same as (President George W.) Bush's but similar," Bacevich said. Obama is "surrounded by a national security elite, the same people Bush had, that's committed to deeply ingrained habits that are so deeply ingrained we fail to recognize them," he said.

Chief among these habits is "global power projection" — rather than using the military in defense of the United States — and the belief that "a global presence creates stability in the world but in fact is creating instability."

The big change since the start of the "war on terror," Bacevich notes, is the discovery that "Bush failed in the Iraq War and was obligated to occupy the country. What's changed is we know we can't do that anymore," he said.

"As (former Defense Secretary) Robert Gates famously said, if anyone recommends invasion in the Middle East or Asia, he should have his head examined."

Faced with that reality, Bacevich said, "what Obama has done is embrace a different technology," as seen in aerial drone attacks.

While Obama promised to change the way Washington works, "we can see he's not going to be able to deliver on that promise. Change is not going to come from above. It's got to be a grassroots change."

There are signs of that energy in the mass of American people, he said, but we're going to "stumble along, and I hope we stumble successfully."

When polled, the American people say they are "sick of war" and want out of Mideast entanglements, but "they're not sick to the point of going and doing something about it. Their passivity contrasts strangely with Vietnam, an unpopular war — but people are not demonstrating now, because of economic stress and the need to just make ends meet."

As for the proper role of military force in U.S. policy, Bacevich said, "we should be far more cautious in the use of force — because of the cost — and we should live up to the values we profess as a democratic, liberal, humanistic society."

SOU associate professor Prakash Chenjeri called Bacevich, who is a Vietnam veteran and frequent commentator on "PBS NewsHour" and Bill Moyers' show, a "true scholar-soldier."

"He should enhance the intellectual activity of the campus," said Chenjeri, who cited a passage from "The Limits of Power" that said, "Americans need to reassert control over our destiny ... and abandon imperial delusions."

The presentation is part of SOU's lecture series on "Civility." It is free and open to the public.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.