OUTSKIRTS OF BAGHDAD — Pvt. Mario Rodriguez has advanced to within a few miles of Baghdad in recent days. But even as the 3rd Infantry soldier pushes ahead with his mission in Iraq, he worries about what he will face back home.
"In Colorado, in my town, people are protesting the war, so I'm stuck," says the young private. "Are people going to thank [me] ... or are they going to look down on me?"
Across the battlefield in Iraq, US troops are asking the same question: What do Americans think of the war?
Soldiers for generations have sought public approval for executing a war, with sensitivities reaching new heights during the Vietnam conflict and its anguished aftermath. Today, the intense public scrutiny of the war in Iraq, combined with vocal domestic and international criticism, has some troops wondering if all the risks and toil may earn them only scorn.
"I've seen these kids busting their humps. I don't want us to get involved in another Vietnam. I want us to be involved in a good cause not a stupid one," says Staff Sgt. Timothy Roberts of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1-3 Air Defense Artillery Battalion.
"Everyone remembers or sees news clips of soldiers returning from Vietnam, and some of those images still linger," agrees Capt. Will Griffin, of the 3rd Infantry Division support command. "We look for validation of what we do," he says. "We want to know what the public thinks."
But finding out what Americans think isn't easy in the remote encampments of Iraq.
Largely isolated from the world beyond the Army, the soldiers snatch at tidbits of news, read between the lines of the rare letter or call home, and pick up rumors and hearsay.
The fact is that recent polls, including a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted this past weekend, show Americans supporting the war by a 7-to-3 margin. But, looking for signs of assurance, troops here in Iraq are often getting mixed signals instead.
Some take their cues from pop stars. "I heard Madonna was protesting the war, making a CD, and all these people are buying it," says Rodriguez. His tent comrades nod. Also circulating among the troops is a letter from country singer Charlie Daniels lambasting what he calls the "Hollywood bunch," including actress Barbra Streisand, for leading antiwar protests.
An infantryman guarding a US Patriot missile battery south of Baghdad said that he believes even if the public is against the war, it will back US troops. "My wife went to a prowar rally in Centennial Park in Atlanta, and 25,000 showed up," says Capt. Stephen Norgard of the 3rd battalion 1-24 infantry, a Florida National Guard unit. "And I truly believe that if people don't agree with the war, they support the soldiers who are fighting it," says Captain Norgard after stopping two suspicious Iraqi vehicles at gunpoint.
"My mom has reassured me in letters," says 1st Lieut. Jeff Brizek of the 3rd Infantry Division's 123rd Signal Battalion. "She says, 'Yes, there are a lot of protests, but I'm all behind you.' That makes me think, wow, there must be big protests."
As he cleans his face with baby wipes one morning, Lieutenant Brizek of Reading, Pa., says he worries about "going into a war that doesn't have a lot of meaning."
Indeed, the reasons for this war remain nebulous to many troops, interviews with more than a dozen soldiers of varying rank and age suggest. And even as they work long hours under harsh, dangerous, conditions, several soldiers volunteered that they privately hold doubts about the necessity of the war.
Many believe it boils down to a personal vendetta that President George Bush holds against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Others, albeit a minority, think the war is about oil and American influence in the Middle East.
Regardless of the political rationale for the war, however, by far the most powerful motivation for many soldiers here is the belief that they will improve life for the Iraqi people. "It makes me feel better that they call it 'Operation Iraqi Freedom,' because it sounds like we're liberating the Iraqis," says Pvt. Maggie Carter of Clio, Mich.
Many troops deployed in Iraq have never before visited a developing country, or even left the United States. Again and again, they describe their shock at the mud-brick homes and ragged clothes of Iraqis, and the reward they feel when they see children waving and smiling at them on the side of the road.
"When I see the poor, hungry kids on the road, I think, we're here to help these guys," says Sgt. Richard Gooding, of Castle Rock, Wash. "They've been so mistreated by their president."
Many soldiers and marines here draw confidence from the simple duty to follow orders.
"If the president leads, the Marines will follow. We don't work for public opinion," says Lance Cpl. Joseph Snyder of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who is with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion of the 1st Marine Division near Baghdad.
"I read that people in the states thought this was a good idea," he adds. "It feels better that we are doing something they want us to do." To him, the need for regime change in Iraq is obvious. "Saddam had the power to mess us up. I think the president did what he needed to do."
Staff Sgt. William Sutton of San Diego, with the same marine battalion, doesn't hear much about public opinion but says he has heard polls are about 50-50. That, he claims, doesn't affect him. "In the long run, I have to do what I have to do."
"Some people are definitely set in their ways. But maybe if they see what's going on they will change their minds," he says. Talking with one of the locals, they were happy to see us. I told them having smiles on their faces means we are doing a good job."
Marine Cpl. Spartak Martirosyan of Riverside, Calif., says he hears Americans think the war is taking longer than expected and are divided. "People over there are talking about stuff but they're not the ones over here sitting in the hole. If they say bad things it affects me a little bit. It has to. Good things motivate me."
In the end, soldiers say they must simply obey their commanders, regardless of any private reservations.
"We don't want to kill these people. But your job is to defend the country and beyond that you have no control over what happens," says Private Carter.
Sergeant Roberts agrees. "The president made a decision, right, wrong, or indifferent," he says, standing next to his Avenger anti-aircraft truck. "I'm just a soldier - if I have to shoot someone, it's nothing personal, it's just a job."
• Andy Nelson contributed to this article from near Baghdad.