Doubt on war grows in U.S.
Even supporters say the effort isn't worth loss of American lives
By Mark Silva and Mike Dorning, Tribune national correspondents. Mark Silva reported from Pennsylvania and Mike Dorning from South Carolina; Tribune national correspondents Tim Jones, Vincent J. Schod
August 14, 2005
CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- As surely as sweet-corn stands and rolling farmland give way to the boxlike tract housing of new suburbs here, President Bush is losing ground on the battlefield of public opinion when it comes to the war in Iraq.
Even among Republicans who cheered the invasion of Iraq two years ago, and some who supported Bush's re-election and his exhortation to "stay the course," the ongoing loss of American life without a clear course for withdrawal is taking a toll.
Growing opposition to the conflict, as well as a diminishing sense that it is making Americans safer from terrorism at home, is reflected in an array of recent opinion polls.
It also resounds in a series of interviews with voters from the blossoming suburbs and withering steel-mill warrens outside Pittsburgh to the old cotton-mill country and military-minded precincts of South Carolina. Frustration and perplexity are voiced from Southern California to Terre Haute, Ind.
"Two or three years ago, when everything started, I thought it was a good idea," said Laura French, a Republican from Evan City, Pa. "But now I think enough is enough. It's time to come home."
It is not only the growing death toll that has eroded American support for the war, according to those interviewed, but also the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And it's the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"A couple of years ago, I thought the invasion of Iraq was justified," said Victor Diaz, a 30-year-old consultant in Los Angeles. "I believed the reports that stated Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and figured it would only be a matter of time before they were found."
Growing doubts could make it difficult for Bush to maintain support for a continuing presence of nearly 140,000 troops.
Down the road from the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he is spending August, Cindy Sheehan, mother of a 24-year-old soldier who died in Iraq, has set up camp to demand a troop withdrawal. "I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan . . . and I've thought long and hard about her position," Bush said last week. But he reaffirmed that pulling out "would be a mistake."
Progress hard to define
There are few clear markers for success in Iraq, such as territory gained or a new government secured, to convince the public that things are going well.
"This is a war where progress is very hard to define, and because progress is hard to define, Americans aren't seeing enough of it," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
A majority of Americans--54 percent in the latest Gallup Poll-- now say the U.S. made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. That's up from 46 percent who called the invasion a mistake in March.
A minority--just 34 percent in a Newsweek survey earlier this month, and 38 percent in a similar Associated Press-Ipsos survey--approve of Bush's handling of Iraq. That's down 10 percentage points since March in Newsweek's polling and down 8 points in AP's polling.
Steady numbers of Americans surveyed--59 percent in the latest CBS survey July 29-Aug. 2, and 60 percent and more in CBS surveys since May--say the result of fighting in Iraq has not been worth the loss of American life or other costs of the war.
At the outset of the invasion in March 2003, an overwhelming majority of Americans backed the war.
Now, even among war supporters, a shift in tone is emerging. Country music has celebrated the war effort with songs of patriotism, but the new hit making its way up the country charts, Trace Adkins' "Arlington," is a mournful tribute to the sacrifice of a new generation.
In the gentle hills of upstate South Carolina, a deeply conservative bastion, the tradition of military service runs strong, and voters instinctively rally to support the troops. But the duration of the conflict in Iraq and the continuing casualty toll are stirring unease even there.
Rural Pickens County has produced an extraordinary four winners of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest tribute for combat valor. And last year, people lined streets and waved flags for another local hero: Army Capt. Kimberly Hampton, 27, a former student body president from Easley High School, killed when the helicopter she piloted was shot down near Fallujah, Iraq, in January 2004.
Outside a new red-brick library named in honor of Hampton, Steve Howard, a 33-year-old printer on his way to prepare a Sunday school lesson, allowed that mounting casualties and slow progress in Iraq have given him pause.
"I got my doubts about things. But I still support the president," Howard said.
Beth Padgett is editorial page editor for The Greenville News in South Carolina, which editorializes in favor of the war.
"There is some unease" in the region, she said. "Everybody wants it to be over. There's been more sacrifice than most people, including me, thought there would be 2 1/2 years ago."
In this region, which maintained strong support for the Vietnam War even after much of the rest of the country turned against it, Padgett said, most people remain determined to see through the mission in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Bush's job approval has sunk to below 50 percent, with voters expressing discontent with his handling of Iraq and the economy at home. Republicans worry--and Democrats hope--that dissatisfaction with the war will spill into the 2006 congressional elections.
"It was an issue in the last election, and it will be in the next election," said Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican representing a six-county swath of western Pennsylvania who reported hearing concern from constituents but insisted they have not abandoned the cause.
"In light of the casualties and other concerns, people have an expected level of concern," Hart said. "But I never hear anything suggesting that we should pull out. The president has outlined his expectations for what we need to do, and I think a significant number of people understand that we are preparing the Iraqis to form their own government."
Impatience in Wisconsin
But Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who in June proposed a resolution calling for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, spoke of a growing impatience even across conservative rural regions of northern Wisconsin that initially showed strong support for the war.
"It's one of the things I'm most certain of in my 23 years as a public official and after over 900 listening sessions or town meetings over 13 years," Feingold said. "This is one of the clearest messages I've ever received."
Yet polling and interviews suggest that while many support an eventual withdrawal of American troops, few favor an immediate pullout.
"I believe the U.S. can win, but we have to stick to it," said John Esparza, 45, a computer specialist and conservative Republican from Marietta, Ga., near Atlanta. "If we pull out, they will start showing up here."
"We need to be there and we need to finish the job," said Debra Mathew, an office manager for a satellite television company in Terre Haute whose support for the war is unwavering.
Yet Mathew would find plenty of disagreement from passersby on the grounds of the old limestone courthouse in downtown Terre Haute, where more than 400 names are chiseled into tall memorials commemorating those killed in two world wars, Korea and Vietnam--plus one name, that of 29-year-old Kyle Childress, who was killed last January in Iraq.
"I'm not sure going there was the right thing to do," Richard Liston, a 58-year-old Vietnam War veteran in Terre Haute, said of Iraq.
Just a couple of blocks away from the war memorial, Indiana State University student Beth Shaw, 26, who served stateside as a Middle East linguist in the Army for five years until a medical discharge in 2002, said there is "no way we can win, or whatever it is we call winning."
Calls for withdrawal are coming from some of Bush's staunchest supporters. Clyde Graham, a retired trucking industry salesman in Wexford, Pa., twice voted for Bush.
"At the time, I felt we should stay the course," Graham said of the 2004 election. "I'm questioning that now."
The war cost Bush the vote of Graham's wife, Margaret, also a Republican, who supported Bush's election in 2000 but not his re-election.
"New things are cropping up all the time to frighten us," she said. "They don't frighten me, they annoy me--sending all our boys over there in a useless war."
Pennsylvania has lost 87 soldiers and Marines in Iraq.
One, Army Sgt. Carl Morgain, a 40-year-old National Guardsman, was killed by a car bomb on May 22.
He came from fast-growing Butler County north of Pittsburgh.
Another, Army Spec. Shawn Davies, 22, died of a non-combat illness last year. He came from Aliquippa, in Beaver County west of Butler.
Beaver and Butler Counties are very different. In Beaver County, home to hulking remains of steel mills along the cliff-lined banks of the merging Ohio and Beaver Rivers, jobs have vanished and vacant stores line the long main boulevard of Beaver Falls.
In Butler County, the strip malls and franchise sandwich shops of Cranberry Township sprout across the street from old red barns.
The population of Beaver is shrinking, the population of Butler growing. Beaver voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, Butler for Bush.
`Dying for nothing'
Yet voices questioning the war can be heard in both places.
Ruth Carlson of Aliquippa, a Navy veteran, voted for Bush in 2000. So did her husband, an Air Force veteran. But neither voted for Bush in 2004.
"We usually vote Republican," Carlson said. "Come around this time, we couldn't vote for [Bush]. . . . If they came after my son, I'd have to get him out of the country. We don't want our child going over there and dying for nothing."
Vern Derryberry helps his daughter with a dusty antique shop in Beaver Falls when he's not working at a warehouse in Cranberry Township.
"I was all for Afghanistan," he said. "But they went in looking for bin Laden, and they never finished that. Then they started the war in Iraq. Everybody said it would turn into a quagmire, and it's turned into what everybody said."
The death toll has started to wear even on those who maintain the war was not a mistake.
"It's hard to sit and watch the boys come home in body bags," says Rod Vingle, a banker in Cranberry Township.
"I originally supported [the war] and have wavered back and forth."
Across the country, it's the absence of the threat that Iraq was supposed to pose that most troubles Dale Blake, 42, a Los Angeles construction worker.
"When it all started, we were hearing about nuclear weapons, gas, biological weapons, all sorts of stuff," Blake says. "Of course I thought we should get rid of stuff like that. But now we know that was all bull, and so I now believe I was wrong. But maybe wrong because I was lied to from the start. How are we going to get out? That's what I want to know."
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