Toll in Iraq Costs President at Home
Published on Wednesday, October 29, 2003 by the USA Today
Toll in Iraq Costs President at Home
by Susan Page and Dennis Cauchon

WASHINGTON — The costs of occupation in Iraq are mounting in lives and dollars, and that is eroding support for the war and confidence in President Bush at home.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that the 115 American troops killed in combat in Iraq since May 1 — the day Bush declared major combat operations over — exceeds the 114 killed by hostile fire during the war itself.

Since the heady day six months ago when the statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in the heart of Baghdad, more than one-fourth of Americans who thought the war was worth it have changed their minds. The 71% level of support in USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Polls last spring has fallen to 52% in surveys this fall.

With the onset of more violent and coordinated attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, this week has become a pivotal point in the conflict and a perilous moment for Bush. In some ways, he has staked his presidency on a war that he promises will, in time, bring stability to a turbulent region and combat terrorism against the United States.

"This country will stay the course, will do our job," Bush said at a Rose Garden news conference.

He wasn't asked about the fact that the death tally of the war's aftermath surpassed the war's toll, a count that has limited military significance but enormous symbolic power. A majority of Americans call the death rate unacceptable, one factor in the declining sentiment that the war was worth it.

The decline in support has been particularly steep among some voters important to the president's ability to command support for his policy and win re-election next year, according to a USA TODAY analysis of three polls conducted in April and three polls from September and October.

Support fell further among men than women, though men are generally more supportive of military action. The decline was much more pronounced among those 65 and older than among those under 30, the age group that bears the brunt of casualties from the war. The average age of the American troops killed in hostile fire is 27.

The toll is achingly personal for Cary Brassfield, 47, an Army vet from Flint, Mich., who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. His 22-year-old son, Artimus, an Army tank driver, was killed last week by mortar fire in Samaria, Iraq.

"He died for his country, and that's noble," Brassfield said. "But I'm having reservations about the reasoning behind the war. Our soldiers are getting picked off one by one. The war is supposed to be over. How much of a sacrifice are we supposed to make for Iraqi freedom?"

Beyond lives lost, he noted the financial cost of an administration spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that has passed both houses of Congress: "$87 billion is money that could be used here," he said. "I'm wondering if we were deceived by our leaders and they can't admit they bit off more than we can chew."

Not everyone agrees, of course. In the surveys this fall, 83% of Republicans said the war was worth it, compared with 49% of independents and 25% of Democrats.

"I think it was necessary against someone doing a lot of harm to a lot of people — not just Americans — and was set up to do a lot more harm," said Carrie Drabek, 30, a homemaker from Santa Claus, Ind. "There are a lot of people in that country that are living a better life now and with a lot less fear as time goes on. That makes it worth it right there."

Kenneth Toles, 32, a mill foreman from Grass Valley, Calif., agreed: "For what we've accomplished, the price has been very low."

Powerful symbolism

With no fanfare Tuesday, the Pentagon reported on its Web site that 115 troops had died in hostile action in the six months since major combat operations ended on May 1. The update didn't note the comparison with the 114 combat deaths during the two-month war. An additional 102 troops have died from accidents, suicides or illness since May 1; there were 24 non-combat deaths during the war.

In all, 355 servicemembers have died: 138 during the war, 217 after it ended. Ten percent of the combat deaths since the war began have been in Army National Guard and Reserve units.

"Dwelling on whether American servicemen and women were killed in action before or after May 1 masks the most important point: that they sacrificed their lives for their countrymen in the global war on terrorism," Pentagon spokesman Jay DeFrank said.

But retired Army general David Grange of Chicago, discussing the milestone reached with postwar combat deaths, said "the symbolism is important" — and powerful. "The perception that a GI gets killed every day takes a psychological toll," he said.

No one should be surprised, however. "We have a 100-yard-dash mentality, but this is a marathon," he said.

The conventional wisdom is that, for Americans, domestic concerns trump foreign policy when it comes to the issues that matter. But Iraq now dominates the headlines. At his news conference, Bush fielded 12 questions related to Iraq and just five on all other topics; none were on the economy.

Bush's manner, subdued at first, was at times defensive. When asked whether he would assure Americans that the level of U.S. forces would be lower a year from now, he called it "a trick question" and refused to answer. He insisted he had never understated to the American people the postwar task in Iraq. And he said the White House had nothing to do with the "Mission Accomplished" banner that was the telegenic backdrop for his appearance on the USS Abraham Lincoln May 1.

"The 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln saying their mission was accomplished," Bush said. At the time, the president's appearance — the commander-in-chief landing on an aircraft-carrier deck in full flight gear — was viewed as a triumph of choreography by the president's public-relations team.

Now, concern about continuing postwar violence and costs has muddled what was once a clear political asset for Bush. In one April survey by USA TODAY, Americans by 43%-15% said the war had made them more confident in Bush's ability to handle other problems.

In a subsequent poll taken last Friday through Sunday, they said by 40%-27% that the war had made them less confident in him.

A Republican strategist with ties to the Bush-Cheney campaign acknowledged that voters' views of Bush and the war have changed. "I don't think it's become a liability," he said, speaking on condition that he not be identified by name. "But in the last few months it's obviously been neutralized from the height of the thing."

Views on Bush, war change

USA TODAY combined the results of three polls taken in April, when support for the war was highest, and three more taken in September and October, when it had fallen to its lowest levels since the war began. Combining the polls increased the number of respondents to 4,667, making the sample size large enough to analyze sentiments by age, income, education and other factors.

Not surprisingly, support for the war dropped by 30 percentage points among Democrats and by 21 points among liberals. Opposition to the war is the most potent issue in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

More unexpected was the 21-point decline among men, compared with a 16-point decline among women. That's a red flag for Republicans who have long counted on men as a bedrock of support. Even so, 55% of men say the war was worth it, higher than the 50% level for women.

There were important distinctions among age groups as well. Support by those under 65 fell by 17 percentage points, but for those 65 and over it dropped 27 points. That's another red flag: Seniors are the age group most likely to vote.

By income, those reporting annual household income from $30,000 to $75,000 saw the biggest drop. The decline was greater for those who lacked a college degree than those with one.

In interviews, those surveyed gave a range of reasons for changing their minds about whether the war was worth it: The failure to find weapons of mass destruction or capture Saddam. The almost-daily tally of dead and wounded. The financial costs, crystallized by the $87 billion spending request by the administration.

"After Sept. 11, I think security was an issue and we were getting reports that Iraq was involved in terrorism and biological weapons," said Chris Picon, 54, director of sales and marketing for a printing company in Atlanta. The war seemed worthwhile then, he said.

But now? "When we have not found a smoking gun, that makes me feel like it wasn't worth it because of the loss of life and how much money we will have to spend to rebuild," he said. He voted for Bush in 2000 but is inclined to vote against him next year.

"I am ambivalent about the war," said Bonnie Ensinger, 40, a dietitian from Bedford, N.H. "I don't know if it is worth the fighting. I mean, I am happy that Saddam is out of power, but ..." Her voice trailed off.

Elizabeth Jones, 63, of Madison, Wis., has no doubts, especially after Monday's bombing of Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad. She questioned whether the United States could solve the region's strife. "I don't know how we will ever fix this situation," she said.

In the latest poll, most Americans weren't sure what the death toll has been since major combat operations ended. They estimated a death rate twice the average of four per week.

When told of the lower death rate, 53% said it was unacceptable. Even among the 45% who said the mission justified the lost lives, there was limited patience: 55% said the current pace would be acceptable for no more than a year.

For Cary Brassfield, the question may seem academic. The body of his son, Artimus, comes home to Michigan this week.

Contributing: Paul Overberg and Lori Joseph