Polls: Rate of troop deaths in Iraq high

Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 9:43 p.m.
A four-figure number hovers 50 feet over a busy Philadelphia street, visible in an office window. It changes maybe once or twice a day like the cost of something.
A janitor once stopped, just to stare. ''I see that number, and it makes me cry,'' he told Celeste Zappala, who keeps the running tally.
It is a number that strongly moves American opinion: the U.S. military's death toll in Iraq. Zappala's son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, is one of the dead.
Other makeshift memorials rise up across the country as reminders of the war's human cost: flags planted in honor of the dead on the National Mall in Washington, symbolic tombstones at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, signs with fallen soldiers' names plastered to telephone polls outside Boston.
Americans may question this war for many reasons, but their doubts often find voice in the count of U.S. war deaths. An overwhelming majority - 84 percent - worry that the war is causing too many casualties, according to a September poll by the nonpartisan research group Public Agenda.
The country largely kept the faith during World War II, even as about 400,000 U.S. forces died - 20,000 just in the monthlong Battle of the Bulge. Before turning against the wars in Korea and Vietnam, Americans tolerated thousands more deaths than in Iraq.
Has something changed? Do Americans place higher value on the lives of their soldiers now? Do they expect success at lower cost? Or do most dismiss this war as the wrong one and not worth the losses?
The Associated Press recently posed these questions to scholars, veterans, activists, and other Americans. Their comments suggest the public does express more pain over the deaths of this war.
A death toll of 3,000 simply sounds higher to Americans in this war than it did in other prolonged conflicts of the past century, for a number of reasons, the interviews suggest.
''As fewer Americans die in war, their loss is more keenly felt, not necessarily at a personal level, but at a collective and public level,'' says historian Michael Allen at North Carolina State University.
In the weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, public backing was powerful. But opinion began to shift quickly once the Iraqi army was beaten, its leader was forced into hiding, and chemical, biological or nuclear weapons were not found.
  • By late 2003, public support for the occupation began to seesaw around 50 percent, according to Richard Eichenberg, a political scientist at Tufts University.
  • In September 2005, 55 percent of Americans favored stronger efforts to withdraw because of the losses, a Gallup poll found.
  • In October, 54 percent of registered voters believed the war wasn't worth the U.S. casualties or cost, a Hart-McInturff poll found. Polling analysts believe Americans are more sensitive to casualties because they neither see vital interests at stake nor feel the ''halo effect'' from a clear prospect of success.
    That's partly because the mission's focus has shifted repeatedly, the experts argue: from finding weapons of mass destruction, to deposing Saddam Hussein, to fighting terrorists.
    Americans instead tend to back wars to stop aggression, like the invasion of Kuwait before the first war with Iraq in 1991, polling indicates.
    ''If the public really believed that our war in Iraq now was about stopping aggression, stopping terrorism, then we would see a greater degree of tolerance for casualties,'' says Bruce Jentleson, a former policy planner in President Clinton's State Department.
    Nancy Lessin, co-founder of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out, says many people appear to believe ''one death is too many in a war that should never have happened.''
    At the same time, scholars suggest America's instant technologies and its global power have conditioned its population to expect quick, painless results in almost any war.
    Precision air power helped the U.S. military succeed in the former Yugoslavia and the first war with Iraq, and scholars say that lowered the expectation of casualties in future wars. Improvements in body armor may have contributed to the same expectation.
    Speed-of-light consumer conveniences, like cellular phones and digital cameras, also reinforce expectations of fast results that spill over into war, some scholars say. In what's called ''the CNN effect,'' the unblinking eye of video news and unending chatter of the Internet quicken and maybe intensify the public's reaction to the carnage of battle.
    ''The American people have never been known for their patience, and I suppose with these 24-7 news cycles and access to the Internet, everything seems to have accelerated,'' says Richard Melanson, who teaches a class on public opinion and foreign policy at the U.S. military's National War College, in Washington, D.C.
    America's young no longer feel personally threatened, either. The military draft is history. These days, mostly working-class teenagers volunteer to do the fighting.
    Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University, believes America has lost zeal for warfare because the children of its elite rarely serve.
    Bobby Blair, a Vietnam veteran from Holliston, Mass., recently spoke about Iraq to a church youth group. ''None of them personally know of anyone who's in Iraq,'' he said. ''They didn't realize how serious it was. I said, 'Do you think we're watching a video game?' And some of them said it was almost that.''
    Greater wealth and smaller families make Americans even more protective of their children and more loath to send them into battle than they once were, some argue. They are ''sort of hothouse kids,'' says Harvey Sapolsky, the retired head of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who notes, ''My grandparents had seven kids, my parents had two.''
    Reassured by official optimism and quick success in the invasion phase, Americans never expected to lose so many of their young in this war. In the first weeks, 80 percent of the public thought the final U.S. toll would not surpass 1,000, a Gallup survey found.
    The president addressed their disappointment when he declared at an October news conference: ''The fact that the fighting is tough does not mean our efforts are not worth it.''
    But are Americans willing to hang in a tough fight anymore?
    Some wonder if U.S. society, now populated by baby boomers who recall Vietnam and never knew the hardships of the Great Depression or World War II, has simply lost its stomach for great sacrifices. Or perhaps in a materialistic culture, priorities are simply elsewhere now. ''Everybody's looking to get theirs,'' says Tony Bouza, a veteran and former Minneapolis police chief who wrote ''The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.''
    Many analysts argue otherwise. Some say Americans would still abide far more troop deaths, as in the world wars, if the cause were clear and dear. Others say today such an attitude would only return in the event of an invasion of the United States.
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