In US, uneasy ambivalence about Iraq

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Two years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Americans have settled into an uneasy ambivalence about the war.

The protracted military campaign has cost 1,519 American lives, thousands of nonfatal casualties, and more than $200 billion in emergency spending. And with the heavy use of National Guard and reserve forces - many of them police, firefighters, and other first responders - virtually every community has somebody in Iraq or headed there.

Yet the public, for the moment, seems to have moved on to Social Security, domestic shootouts, pop star Michael Jackson, and the price of gasoline. Even the antiwar movement is less vocal these days about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction or allegations of ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

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For one thing, says political scientist John Allen Williams of Loyola University Chicago, "President Bush has succeeded in changing the terms of the engagement in saying that it's about democracy."

And signs of democracy have indeed appeared. Americans saw the enthusiasm that many Iraqis took to the voting booths earlier this year, as well as democratic stirrings in the region from Egypt to Lebanon.

Still, many Americans, when asked, express uneasiness with - if not opposition to - the war. As reported this week in a Washington Post-ABC News Poll, 53 percent of Americans feel the war was not worth fighting, 57 percent say they disapprove of the Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq, and 70 percent think the number of US casualties is an unacceptable price to have paid. A plurality of Americans (41 percent) also believe the war has damaged this country's standing abroad, particularly as they see much of the "coalition of the willing" heading home from Iraq, leaving Americans to carry more and more of the burden there.

This is far different from when US forces charged from Kuwait toward Baghdad two years ago. Then, 75 percent approved of Bush's handling of Iraq and 70 percent thought the war was worth fighting. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans saying the number of US military casualties is unacceptable has doubled.

Yet most Americans also agree that Iraq is better off today than it was under Saddam Hussein, and they now believe the chances of democracy spreading in the Middle East have improved.

How young Americans view the war

This conflicted feeling may be especially true of young people, for whom Iraq could well influence their world view and relative trust of US leaders for the rest of their lives - much as Vietnam did for their parents.

For sure, it's made them much more aware of the rest of the world, raising concerns about their own future as well as the country's.

"I honestly try not to think about casualty levels. It causes me too much anxiety. I wouldn't be able to function if I thought about it," says Justin Holt, a third-year student at DePaul University in Chicago majoring in political science and psychology. Yet he says the recent election in Iraq "was so inspiring and a step in the right direction.

"It gave me new confidence in Bush," says Mr. Holt, a tall, slim man with dark hair. "But I'm still skeptical about his policies. I'm worried that maybe the new government [in Iraq] will want something crazy from us, something unpredictable."

Noel Baba, another DePaul University student, views the war from a unique perspective. His parents are Iraqi Christians who fled their Baghdad home in 1971 (before he was born) after Saddam Hussein took over. They lived in Canada for several years and then settled in Chicago.

Of the war, he says, "My parents and lots of people from there are for it. But I don't think that we initially exhausted every way to resolve the issues. I think we rushed into the war."

Despite the recent election in Iraq, he says. "It's still a police state with troops."

He concedes, though, "I do feel it's a better place without Saddam Hussein. When he came to power, a lot of people fled. There was a lot of Christian persecution."

No matter how they feel about the US invasion of Iraq, Americans generally have been able to separate the warrior from the war. It was not so during the Vietnam War.

Throughout metropolitan Phoenix, yellow-ribbon window stickers, displayed as symbols of solidarity with US troops abroad, have a prolific presence on vehicles with Arizona and out-of-state license plates belonging to "snow birds" down in the desert for the winter.

At a spring training game in Mesa between the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals, men and women in military uniform received a warm reception at Hohokam ballpark. Army reservists home on leave from service in Iraq say they've never encountered hostility from Americans, including those skeptical of the original intent of the war.

At a retirement village down the road, the president still enjoys high approval. But patience is waning.

Comparisons to Vietnam

For Jo Sheppard, a retiree originally from Iowa City, Iowa, the parallels between the conflict in Iraq and Vietnam are striking. She says that the US presence in Iraq "certainly seems longer than the two years we've been there," and she adds that she wishes the president would order a withdrawal.

"We're always trying to resolve other countries' conflicts but it comes at a high price," says Ms. Sheppard, whose grandson is being trained in military intelligence. "I think we should look after our own people."

Talk of a Vietnam-style "quagmire" in Iraq seems to have faded, however. Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos says it's "practically a nonissue" among students in his classrooms.

The war "has not been a traumatic event for Americans," says Dr. Moskos, who specializes in the military. Instead he sees a kind of "patriotism lite" that has not required personal sacrifices of most citizens.

Indeed, a Gallup Youth Survey last year indicated that American teenagers viewed President Bush slightly more favorably than adults - the reverse of what would have been the case when former President Lyndon Johnson was virtually forced from office by rising discontent about the Vietnam War.

Lasting impact of 9/11

Still, predicts Dr. Williams, the Loyola University Chicago political scientist and retired US Naval Reserve captain who teaches American foreign and defense policy, "Iraq will certainly affect the world view of young Americans, but not as much as [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11."

"Given 9/11, they will also be more tolerant of any errors they see in the Iraq invasion, including its wisdom," says Williams.

Recent surveys bear this out. The Gallup organization this week reported that 30 percent of teenagers worry that they or someone in their families will become victims of terrorism. At the same time, according to Gallup, three-fourths of teens say they have either a great deal (26 percent) or a moderate amount (49 percent) of confidence in the Bush administration to protect Americans.

Among the differences between Iraq and Vietnam, particularly as it affects the outlook and world view of young people: The Vietnam War lasted a decade, it threatened to involve them personally so long as there was a military draft, and it ended badly for the US.

In general, the political rhetoric over war in Iraq may have lessened, especially since last November's presidential election. But it hasn't entirely disappeared, and it's likely to grow louder this weekend.

The antiwar group United for Peace and Justice counts 583 towns and cities around the country (up from 319 last year) that are holding events to mark the second anniversary of the war. In New York, the War Resisters League is planning nonviolent demonstrations at military recruitment centers in Times Square, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, including "a civil disobedience scenario."

Anne Stein in Chicago and Todd Wilkinson in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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