As Iraq effort drags on, doubts mount at home

Recruiting falls short and polls show desire to bring troops home.

The war in Iraq is entering a critical stage, and it has as much to do with public attitudes at home as it does with boots on the ground.

Public patience appears to be growing thinner - a mood now echoed by some Republicans in Congress. The landscape of public and political opinion remains nuanced: Many who didn't support going to war say the US must persevere toward an eventual hand-off to Iraqi forces. Yet in interviews and polls, that fortitude is matched by growing doubts, with rising numbers of Americans calling for their troops to come home.

Among the recent signs:

• As US combat fatalities pass the 1,700 mark and the "global war on terrorism" stretches out longer than US involvement in World War II, the number of Americans who say the US should begin withdrawing troops from Iraq - nearly 60 percent in a new Gallup poll - is at its highest level in two years.

• Army recruiters are finding young men and women - and especially their parents - increasingly unwilling to sign up for training and what is likely to be more than one deployment overseas. Last month, the Army's original goal was to attract 8,050 new recruits; instead, only about 5,000 headed for boot camp. Applications to all three US military academies have dropped as well.

• Governors of both parties have expressed concern about National Guard troops not being available for summer fire fighting and other local emergencies. Together with reserve forces, those citizen-soldiers make up about 40 percent of all GIs in Iraq. Most of them are established individuals with families and careers, and they typically don't hesitate to send back unvarnished reports from the war zone.

All this comes as military commanders in Iraq are saying - on the record - that it's likely to take years to adequately train Iraqi forces, and some Republican lawmakers are talking about the administration's failure to anticipate the insurgency.

And yet the public - even those who opposed the war in the first place - seems not to be of a mind to "cut and run."

Like Jack Johnson, who played professional football for the Chicago Bears back in the 1950s and is now retired. "It's very discouraging that there doesn't seem to be an end in sight," he says. "It seems like we shouldn't have gotten involved, but we are involved and we can't get out."

Or Debbie Wilson, also of Chicago, a single mother of six, including two sons of military age. "I feel that we're in so deep ... that we can't just pull out," she says.

Still, all of this increases the political pressure on the Bush administration, and especially on members of Congress thinking about next year's election, as they sort their way through the fighting and negotiating and nation-building that go on simultaneously in Iraq.

"I feel that we've done about as much as we can do," says Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina, who's joining other lawmakers this week in introducing legislation calling for a timetable for US troop withdrawal.

Experts say part of this has to do with the messy and dangerous nature of counterinsurgency, and part has to do with American attitudes toward war in general - particularly since it's been a generation since the US was involved in extended armed conflict.

"It is easy to defeat enemies if our goal is simply to destroy them," says military analyst Loren Thompson at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "The military can do so quickly, and the public will be supportive. But it is nearly impossible to remold them in our image, because the military lacks the skills and the public lacks the patience."

More simply, "We are not a patient nation when it comes to war," says David Segal, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who specializes in the armed forces and society. In his talks with those close to conduct of the war, he says, he's hearing a lot more references to Vietnam now - from those in Congress of both parties as well as privately from officers at the Pentagon.

The shadow of Vietnam may be seen in recent opinion surveys as well.

Asked in a Washington Post/ABC poll last week whether the US "is making good progress" or "has gotten bogged down" in Iraq, 65 percent chose the latter. Meanwhile, the number describing US casualty levels there as "unacceptable" has risen to 73 percent, the highest point since the US-led invasion of Iraq began.

Interviewed outside a Kroger grocery store in Nashville, Tenn., Billy Vinson, an electrician and Navy veteran, says he supports President Bush and the war effort. Still, he laments the loss of American lives and says, "I wish the war was over."

"I personally probably would have brought our people home by now," he adds.

Not everyone feels that way.

Bratton DuBose, a financial adviser in Bozeman, Mont., says he's supported the war in Iraq all along, and he still does, even though the outcome is unclear. "Now that we're there," he says, "we have to see it through to the end."

Yet increasing numbers of Americans apparently disagree. Recent news out of Iraq, the Pew Research Center reported this week, "is significantly undermining support for the US military operation there."

The evidence? The level of support for an "immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq," according to Pew, has grown from 36 percent last October to 42 percent in February to 46 percent today.

Dr. Segal and other experts cite several reasons for this.

One is that what the White House dubbed "the global war on terrorism," which began with the attacks of September 2001 and has become centered in Iraq, now has lasted longer than the period from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day, ending World War II in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the all-volunteer force, begun in the wake of political opposition to the Vietnam War, means that fewer and fewer Americans have any direct connection to the armed services.

"It's not so much an estrangement as it is a distance between the military and society," says political scientist John Allen Williams of Loyola University Chicago.

In particular, says Dr. Williams, who's also a retired US Naval Reserve captain, "There is less willingness of the elites in society to have their children serve or to regard military service as a worthwhile career for movers and shakers."

As he took his troops back to Iraq last year, Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis reportedly told them, "Our friendly strategic center of gravity is the will of the American people."

Put another way, "US public opinion is the critical factor in the war, as it is in any guerrilla war," says national security analyst Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.

As Iraqis and Americans seek to prevail in a type of conflict where "victory" is hard to gauge and the time for an occupying force to leave is even harder to decide, that critical factor - for now, at least - seems to have gotten shakier.

Anne Stein in Chicago, Amy Green in Nashville, Tenn., and Todd Wilkinson in Bozeman, Mont.,contributed to this report.

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