PHILADELPHIA – The fog of war has settled over the home front.
Bedeviled by the mounting casualties in Iraq and increasingly confused by the mixed messages emanating from war leaders, Americans in large numbers are losing confidence in the mission.
New polls report that, for the first time, a majority of Americans reject President Bush’s contention that the war over there is making us safer over here. Barring major immediate progress in Iraq, 2005 may well be remembered as the year when public opinion went south and never came back – a mood shift roughly analogous to 1968, when domestic confidence in the Vietnam war began its irreversible slide.
There has long been public frustration about the gap between administration pronouncements and battlefield realities; witness Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s prewar prediction that the fighting “could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months,” or the fact that 92 percent of all U.S. military deaths have occurred since Bush declared May 1, 2003, that “major combat” was over.
But for a long time, the restive Americans tended to be Democrats who already disliked Bush or who never bought his war pitch in the first place. What’s new today is that frustrations about the war are being voiced by those who backed the mission at the outset. These Americans – as evidenced in interviews by reporters from Texas to New York City during the past week – are increasingly alarmed by the facts on the ground and confused about the best course of action in the future.
Consider Pennsylvanian Eric Zagata. He’s 24, and he served in Iraq last year as a member of the 109th Field Artillery’s Bravo Battery until he was injured by shrapnel. He was luckier than the 92 Pennsylvanians slain thus far – in battle deaths, Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation, behind California and Texas – but he’s a changed man.
“Going into it,” he said Tuesday, “I just felt it was my obligation. Now I feel bad. I think we’re in such a spot. We can’t pull out of there because if we do, it would just be a waste of all our people’s lives and all their people’s lives. I think it’s a real Catch-22.”
His sentiments shifted after “seeing all these guys getting killed every day for nothing, really. We went over there and we’re fighting this war, and we’re still paying $2.40 a gallon for gas. Eighteen hundred people have died, and nothing has been accomplished.” (The U.S. military death toll on Saturday was 1,847.)
These sentiments are reflected in the polling trends. When the war was a year old, in March 2004, roughly 65 percent of Americans were supporting the decision to wage it. But in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, support has sagged to 44 percent. Meanwhile, 57 percent now say that the war has made the U.S. “less safe from terrorism” – a Gallup record high and a key finding because it undercuts a core Bush argument for launching the war in the first place.
Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, an expert on war and public opinion who now teaches at Boston University, said: “At this point, the president has nearly exhausted the extra moral authority that he was granted after 9/11. It’s hard for people to accept battlefield deaths when they can’t see where a war is going.”
Many have grown weary of waiting. Debby Boarman, a 58-year-old retiree from Evansville, Ind., voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but you’d never know it now. During a visit Wednesday to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, she said: “I don’t think he’s doing as good a job as he said he was going to do. I don’t like the way he is handling (Iraq) – well, he isn’t handling (it). … It’s more of a lack thereof.”
Bush, of course, can still count on staunch support from millions of Americans, people such as Greg Henning, an Ohioan who was visiting ground zero in New York on Tuesday. He said, “If we had done this (war) in the 1990s, I don’t think (9/11) would have happened.” He sees the Iraq casualties as an acceptable sacrifice, because “if thousands of soldiers hadn’t died (in previous wars), we wouldn’t have been here right now” living in freedom.
The public’s growing bewilderment stems in part from the perception that Bush and his war leaders are communicating poorly, and often in contradiction.
In the latest poll conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 64 percent say that Bush is failing to articulate a “clear plan” for winning the war, the highest negative share since the start of the conflict. In Bacevich’s words, “In the absence of the president making a persuasive case, many people don’t know how to judge what’s going on there.”