How public views rising death toll
US fatalities, now over 1,000, change few core opinions on war.
WASHINGTON — As US fatalities in Iraq pass the 1,000 mark the nation remains uncertain whether the war there is right, and confused about what to do next. But in one belief Americans are united: The toll in troops, whatever it is, is difficult for all to bear.
Polls and interviews show that many individuals have fixed views of Iraq, of course. Some in the US are adamant that the Iraq war is a noble cause. Others are equally certain it is a quagmire. Many are numb to the daily news.
But taken as a whole, public opinion shows no consensus on a course of action. There is perhaps only a common feeling that events are in the saddle, and that Iraq will not be peaceful for months, if not years to come.
"It's just a heartbreaking situation," says Wes, a burly North Carolinian. "We are talking about so many families affected by this war from here on out."
Wes - who requested that his last name not be used - is a Democrat, but he's hardly a pacifist. Interviewed as he left a Barnes & Noble bookstore in the conservative town of Clayton, Wes offers that he supported the rout of the Taliban and the pursuit of Osama bin Laden "because they were 100 percent connected to 9/11."
But the war in Iraq seems a different matter. Half the Iraq population seems to welcome US troops, he says, and half either shoot at them or support insurgent violence.
Wes says he finds himself avoiding the news in favor of such fare as "American Chopper," a motorcycle-oriented reality show. He feels caught by the conundrum that supporting US troops while disagreeing with US policy has become more and more difficult as casualties mount. "We're getting to the point where we can't afford to leave," he says.
On the other hand, Raleigh, N.C., resident Bill Turner says that the level of casualties hasn't changed his support for the Iraq war.
Something had to be done to defend the US against further terrorist attack, he says. He says he doesn't want to sound harsh, but combat deaths are the inevitable outcome of a war begun, not by the US, but by Muslim extremists.
"I hate to see it happen, but the soldiers over there signed up to fight for their country, and that's exactly what they're doing," Mr. Turner says.
Asked directly whether US casualties are worth it, most poll respondents say "no." Earlier this summer 73 percent of those polled in an ABC News/Washington Post survey said the number of US deaths was "unacceptable."
But other Iraq questions reveal more ambiguous feelings. About half of Americans judge that the US was right to send troops there, according to Gallup Poll figures. There is no clear majority in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq - just as there is no clear majority in favor of sending more.
"There does not appear to be a clear-cut consensus among Americans about what the public would have its leaders do about Iraq," concludes a Gallup analysis.
Reaching the threshold of 1,000 fatalities could cause public opinion to shift, however, say some experts.
The US is not as casualty-averse as some leaders believed in the 1980s and '90s, says David Segal, director of the Center for Military Research at the University of Maryland. The public can accept combat deaths if it understands and accepts the purpose of a military operation.
"On the other hand, going into four digits makes the cost of sacrifice more apparent," says Mr. Segal.
Furthermore, the rate of US casualties has increased. Last year, 8.4 US service personnel were either killed or wounded per day in Iraq. The comparable figure for 2004 is 18 killed and wounded per day.
"The casualty rate is more than twice what it was last year," says University of Maryland-Baltimore County political scientist Thomas Schaller, who compiled the numbers from Pentagon data.
Still, some say that even in the face of this toll they trust President Bush to do the right thing. That feeling is not hard to find in Bozeman, Mont., which has one of the highest military recruitment rates in the US. "I just think that in times of war you support the president no matter what," says one Gallatin Valley woman who requested her name not be used.
Elementary schoolteacher Mary Lou Osman, on the other hand, has a clear solution: Pull out now.
"The job in Iraq will never be finished," she says. "Not in five years, not in 30 years, not in 50 years."
• Todd Wilkinson in Bozeman, Mont., and Patrik Jonsson in Clayton, N.C., contributed to this story.