A small town's window on a polarized US

Blanketed in snow, dozens of small American flags flap forlornly outside the town hall of this Pennsylvania valley community, a stalwart if faded reminder of support for US troops in Iraq.

Yet as residents brush off the chill of a late winter storm and gather in diners, social clubs, and living rooms, talk of Iraq is heated and fraught with reservations.

"It was all about the oil," snaps accountant Donna Burke, lunching on potato chips and a sandwich at Whitehall's City View Diner. "We were all lied to about the weapons of mass destruction. We fooled a lot of other countries to get involved."

But across the room, pet groomer Gary Henry still believes the outlawed weapons will ultimately be found. "It's basically a fight against evil," he says as his 4-year-old son, Aaron, plays with plastic dinosaurs. "We had to go."

One year after President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, Americans here and nationwide are sharply divided over whether the war was right or wrong. As violence mounts in Iraq against supporters of a new regime, US troop deaths near 600, and the US price tag for the war climbs to $120 billion in some estimates, Americans also disagree on the best way out.

Nowhere, perhaps, is that more true than in the rolling hills of the Lehigh Valley, where the township of Whitehall offers a microcosm of American sentiment on the war and the role it plays in the 2004 presidential race.

Backing troops, but thinking hard

A cluster of small blue-collar and middle class neighborhoods, this community of 25,000 sits in the heart of a classic swing district in the swing state of Pennsylvania. At the crossroads of Democratic manufacturing areas and Republican farmlands of the Pennsylvania Dutch, this congressional district backed Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore.

In a nod to the region's political importance, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry stopped by a Whitehall diner on Sunday for a plate of waffles and conversation. Then on Monday, President Bush paid a visit to neighboring Montgomery County to tout homeownership. Bush was also met by a crowd protesting policies on issues including Iraq.

Slightly more than half of Americans now back the war decision, including strong majorities of Republicans and men. Nearly 40 percent oppose it, including most Democrats and women, polls show. Overall support drops below 50 percent when people are asked if the war was necessary, urgent, or worth the loss of life and financial burden.

"There is a hard base of support, [and] hard base of opposition," says independent pollster Tim Hibbitts.

To be sure, Americans are far more united in their backing of US troops and confidence in US military strength, part of a deep strain of patriotism on display with the flags and yellow ribbons in Whitehall and nationwide. Still, the country splits again over whether or not US forces should stay in Iraq until a stable government emerges.

Indeed, while not the dominant election issue, attitudes on Iraq are helping to shape the choices of voters in this contested House district and across the country. The district has sizable military reserve and National Guard units that were recently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and military veterans make up 13 percent of its voting-age population. As of January, Pennsylvania had suffered the third-highest number of military casualties in Iraq.

This week, as snow flurries swept the valley and nearby South Mountain, the Monitor visited Whitehall residents in their homes and favorite hangouts and found no shortage of opinions - both blunt and nuanced - on the war.

Pointless or paramount?

For some in Whitehall Township, the Iraq issue is so stinging, so emotional, that they can barely talk about it.

"It's a sore point," says a recently demobilized soldier who's viscerally opposed to the war. Sitting at the counter of Riley's Pub in the tiny hamlet of Egypt, his words terse and his hair cropped short, he declines to give his name. "You see," he says, "I have a lot of friends over there."

Bartender Molly Cunningham - who also has friends in Iraq - voices freely what the ex-soldier holds in. "This war is pointless," she says with a pert glance and a white towel in her hip pocket. "The reasons we went in just don't add up. We should just be going after Al Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden."

A registered Democrat, Ms. Cunningham says Iraq will be a "huge factor" in how she and her family vote this November. "If [Kerry] can beat Bush, I'll vote for him," she says.

Patron Mardell Parenti, whose brother is a Gulf War veteran and whose friend is a soldier in Iraq, is angry over what she considers the war's meaningless human cost. "We've jeopardized a lot of young lives for absolutely no reason," she says.

Nationally, too, polling experts say casualties are a key "threshold" issue that is undermining support for the war. "I don't think American people really have the stomach for a high number of casualties," says independent Washington pollster Del Ali. If casualties exceed 1,000, "you are going to see dramatic shifts" in opinion against the war, he says.

But just inches away from Ms. Parenti, her boyfriend Justin Mander holds a diametrically opposite view.

"We needed to go. Iraq had no democracy. They needed our military to go in, take Saddam down, and liberate them," he says. "Sure, we've lost some troops - but look what we've given to millions." Mr. Mander also has friends serving in Iraq.

Mander, who happens to be from Austin, Texas, declares that he's voting for Bush despite his girlfriend's groans. "I'm from Texas - it's law!" he jokes.

Indeed, this zealousness is typical of the strongest pro-war, pro-Bush voices in Whitehall. Senator Kerry's supporters, in contrast, expressed far more tepid support for their candidate.

"It's critical to keep Bush in office," says Mr. Henry back at the diner. "He's a rock." Henry, proprietor of the pet-grooming shop Waggin' Tails, is a self-described Born Again Christian and registered Republican. Security is his No. 1 concern, and he sees the war as part of a vital global battle between the forces of good and evil.

Henry says he's ready to campaign locally for Bush, and would enlist in the military himself were he not a single father. The idea of replacing Bush is "a scary thought," he says, as his son stacks glasses and ketchup bottles nearby.

Flaws and follow-through

Yet the viewpoints in Whitehall are not all so stark.

Inside the windowless American Legion Post 367 on Fullerton Street, club manager and veteran Richard Bateman ponders whether to close early because of snow.

"Have a seat," he offers, describing himself as "chief cook and bottle washer."

With a wooden shuffleboard lane on one side and a video of Elvis crooning in a biplane on the other, the club is an apt backdrop for Mr. Bateman's historical perspective on the Iraq conflict.

Of the World War II generation, Bateman joined the Army in August 1945, two months after graduating from high school. Soon after, he served occupation duty in Korea. Next, he did a year's duty escorting the bodies of US troops from temporary graves in Europe back home for burial.

As with many of his era, Bateman considers US casualties in Iraq "relatively light for the amount of metal lying over there."

The Republican says he supported the Bush administration's decision to go to war. Today, though, he's critical of both "miscalculations" involving Iraq and Bush's overarching doctrine of preemptive war. "I'd give Bush about a B minus," he says, chiding the administration for misjudging how US forces would be received by the Iraqi people.

"We've got the bear by the tail," he quips, describing the unwieldy Iraqi insurgency and factional conflicts he worries could lead to civil war.

In Bateman's view, the United States should not go to war unless it is attacked or another country requests US military intervention.

"The American people will support you a lot better in response [to aggression] rather than holding your jacket while you start the fight," he says.

Across town, a younger US military veteran agrees. Preston O'Connor is a Whitehall patrolman and Army guardsman who returned just last week from eight months with his infantry unit in Kosovo. A registered Republican, he's not sure whether he'll vote for Bush, partly because of Bush's leadership as commander in chief.

"He just doesn't really seem to have a coherent plan for the war on terrorism," says Mr. O'Connor, who's been in the Army for 13 years.

Noting that the Army is only half as big as it was when he first entered, O'Connor says he's paying personally for Bush's heavy deployment of the guard and reserves. "I lost 50 percent of my salary" while in Kosovo, says O'Connor, who has three children and worries about being able to send his oldest son to college.

He describes his deployment as "a big chunk out of [my] life" and adds that he's not sure if he'll reenlist next year.

And while some Republicans criticize Bush's handling of the war, some anti-war Democrats in Whitehall say they would vote for the president simply to maintain continuity in a turbulent time.

"Putting someone new in there in this volatile situation would be a bad move," says the accountant, Ms. Burke. Even as she vents over Bush's strained relations with European allies, she points to Spain's change of government as a dangerous precedent that Americans should not follow. The terrorists who bombed Spanish trains "got exactly what they wanted," she says.

Despite hesitation, obligation to stay

Moreover, regardless of their political views, not one of a dozen Whitehall residents interviewed calls for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

While some express impatience for withdrawal, they say the US is morally obligated to stay the course for at least another year.

"We should stay as long as it takes to ensure the safety of the people there," says Burke's co-worker, Harley Smith.

Still, many in this old industrial region worry about the domestic economic impact of the mounting cost of the Iraq war. With unemployment in the valley running higher than the national average at 5.7 percent, and the mean wage in the valley at $32,000, job security is the top concern of factory workers like Vincent Beller.

Sitting in his living room in Egypt with his three children, Beller says his electronic car-parts factory has lost 400 of its 1,300 workers in the past two years, and Iraq isn't helping.

"The Iraq war is going to be long-drawn-out and expensive. It's draining energy and money that would go to create jobs and cut taxes and build our infrastructure."

The war on terrorism needs to be defensive, not offensive, he says. "We've pushed terrorism off shore, but we need to win by winning hearts," he says.

Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.

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