Published on Friday, April 2, 2004 by Reuters
As Death Toll Mounts, Americans Change Views on Bush, War
by Laura Kurtzman
OCEANSIDE, Calif. - Leo Diaz, a young Marine from Texas based here at Camp Pendleton, went to Iraq full of faith in the president who sent him. Today, he is burdened by the horror of what he saw and shocked at Bush's "frat boy" mentality in starting the war.
"I show up. I'm proud. I'm looking forward to do my part," said Diaz, 22, whose father, uncle and grandfather served in the military. "Turns out we find no weapons of mass destruction. People hurt, killed."
Diaz voted for Bush in 2000. But now he plans to vote for Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
Interviews with a dozen people, not all of them voters, in the communities near Camp Pendleton found opinion was still in favor of the war, two-to-one. But many, like Diaz, express deep doubts about the reason Bush waged it and about the president himself.
Diaz spoke on a day when the grisly news from Iraq hung heavily over Camp Pendleton, which sent 14,000 Marines to Iraq in recent weeks. Nine Americans - four civilian contractors and five soldiers - were killed Wednesday in and around Al-Fallujah, a stronghold of support for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that the Marines patrol.
Nearly everyone in these parts has a relative, a friend, a customer who has gone to Iraq. Most do not talk about the war much. When asked about it, they tend to speak in the grave tones of people for whom the conflict is as real as their next-door neighbor.
Democrats were harsh in their criticism of the president. Republicans and independents more muted. Many sought ways to assuage their doubts about the war in Iraq with assurances that it was worth the sacrifice to get rid of a terrible dictator.
"I think we did the world a favor," said Jim Francis, 61, whose son is an officer in the Marines on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Yet, Francis, an independent voter, holds the president responsible for the faulty intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
"As far as Bush goes, I know I wouldn't vote for him again."
Polls taken over the past year have shown that support for the war has declined as the conflict has dragged on and casualties have mounted. But public opinion has been volatile. It went up with Saddam's capture and down with the announcement by former chief weapons inspector David Kay that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
At a tattoo shop on Oceanside Boulevard, owner Jason Betz remains a steadfast supporter of the war, although he does not plan to vote. Betz has done a brisk business in Bible verses and USMC tattoos for Marines since the war started. He hates to hear of casualties. But he says the argument about weapons of mass destruction is missing the point.
"Who cares if they didn't find weapons of mass destruction?" Betz said. "He" - Saddam Hussein - "killed people massively." But Betz is not optimistic about helping the Iraqis.
"They don't want us there," he said. "How are we going to change a country?"
Across the street, Ernesto Flores, 21, was preparing to cut a man's hair. Flores said Bush had gone on a tangent in starting the war in Iraq. "Bush is too much of a bully. He goes in there too quickly, instead of taking his time," said Flores, a Democrat. "Osama bin Laden was the one that took care of the Twin Towers."
Flores said when Marines come for a haircut, they don't say much about Iraq beyond how hot it is and how happy they are to be home. But sometimes they mention friends who were killed.
At Crozier's Flowers in nearby Vista, Calif., Nannell Miller, 62 and a Republican, has arranged flowers for some of the local funerals. But it has not shaken her support for the president, who she thinks is being blamed unfairly.
"I don't think it's a simple solution," she said. "I hate war, and I'm sorry so many are being killed. The whole thing is just horrible. I don't know what anyone else could do."
Her delivery man, Jack Miles, a 67-year-old Republican, recalled hearing President Clinton's officials say they feared Iraq possessed banned weapons, "and yet we go in there and don't find weapons of mass destruction, and it's all Bush's fault."
But for Diaz, the Marine, the war most assuredly is Bush's fault - not that he thinks it was all bad.
"I feel we did some good being over there," he said, waiting to get the finishing touches on a new tattoo.
But the memories also burn of what he could not do. Diaz was part of a security unit that followed the invading forces to An-Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. He remembered how old Iraqi men pressed close to the barbed wire of his camp to pray for the Americans, only to find Marines pointing weapons at them under orders from their commanders.
He recalled the shame of eating a hot meal, while hungry Iraqis watched.
"We couldn't give away water; we couldn't give them our MRE's," he said, referring to the packaged meals known as meals ready to eat. "It hurt me, because I saw the children - beautiful children - running around, no clothes."
What he remembers most, though, is the horror of picking up dead bodies and body parts.
"I can honestly say, my little workshop, we came back, none of us were the same."
© 2004 Reuters Ltd