YOUSIFIYA, Iraq - In the dining hall of a U.S. Army post south of Baghdad, President Bush was on the wide-screen TV, giving a speech about the war in Iraq. The soldiers didn't look up from their chicken and mashed potatoes.
As military and political leaders prepare to deliver a progress report on the conflict to Congress next month, many soldiers are increasingly disdainful of the happy talk that they say commanders on the ground and White House officials are using in their discussions about the war.
And they're becoming vocal about their frustration over longer deployments and a taxing mission that keeps many living in dangerous and uncomfortably austere conditions. Some say two wars are being fought here: the one the enlisted men see, and the one that senior officers and politicians want the world to see.
"I don't see any progress. Just us getting killed," said Spc. Yvenson Tertulien, one of those in the dining hall in Yousifiya, 10 miles south of Baghdad, as Bush's speech aired last month. "I don't want to be here anymore."
Morale problems come as the Bush administration faces increasing pressure to begin a drawdown of troops.
The Times reported Friday that Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to advise Bush to reduce U.S. force levels next year by almost half because of the strain on the military.
But Pace on Friday said, "The story is wrong, it is speculative. I have not made or decided on any recommendations yet."
Plenty of troops remain upbeat about their mission in Iraq. At Patrol Base Shanghai, flanking the town of Rushdi Mullah south of Baghdad, Army Capt. Matt Dawson said residents used to shoot at troops but now visit them and offer ideas on improving security.
"For the 20-year-old kids here who have been shot at for 10 months in a row, the change is a tremendous feeling," Dawson said last week.
The Army cites reenlistment numbers as proof that morale remains high and says it expects to reach its retention goal of 62,200 for the fiscal year.
"On the 4th of July, we reenlisted 588 service members . . . in Baghdad. That has to be an indicator," said Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, who visits bases to gauge morale on behalf of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Based on his encounters, Hill said, he would rank morale at 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.
"Units that are having real success are units where troop morale is extremely high," Hill said. "Units that are sustaining losses, whether it be personnel losses, injuries or casualties -- those are organizations where morale might dip a bit."
The signs of frustration and of flagging morale are unmistakable, including blunt comments, online rants and the findings of surveys on military morale and suicides.
Sometimes the signs are to be found even in latrines. In the stalls at Baghdad's Camp Liberty, someone had posted Army help cards listing "nine signs of suicide." On one card, seven of the boxes had been checked.
"This occupation, this money pit, this smorgasbord of superfluous aggression is getting more hopeless and dismal by the second," a soldier in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, wrote in an Aug. 7 post on his blog, www.armyofdude.blogspot.com.
"The only person I know who believed Iraq was improving was killed by a sniper in May," the blogger, identified only as Alex from Frisco, Texas, said in a separate e-mail.
The Army's suicide rate is at its highest in 23 years: 17.3 per 100,000 troops, compared with 12.4 per 100,000 in 2003, the first year of the war. Of the 99 suicides last year, 27 occurred in Iraq.
The latest in a series of mental health surveys of troops in Iraq, released in May, says 45% of the 1,320 soldiers interviewed ranked morale in their unit as low or very low. Seven percent ranked it high or very high.
Mental health trends have worsened in the last two years, said Cindy Williams, an expert in military personnel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "These long and repeated deployments are causing acute mental stress," she said.
Most troops in Iraq expected 12-month deployments. Those were extended in May by three months for the troop buildup. Thousands already were on their second or third deployments.
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The result is a fighting force that includes many soldiers who are worn down, just as Petraeus, who took command of the war six months ago, is asking them to adopt intense counterinsurgency tactics. Those strategies emphasize living "outside the wire," in military-speak, in outposts that put troops close to Iraqis. The theory is that people will come to trust the soldiers and share information needed to quell the violence.
But these posts often lack basic amenities such as running water, flush toilets, telephones and Internet access, which troops at the forward operating bases enjoy, along with food courts and athletic facilities. Being on the front lines, troops in outposts also face greater danger than those at bases.
Since the war began, there have been eight months in which U.S. troop deaths topped 100, including three months since the buildup began in February.
In Yousifiya, troops occupy the sun-scorched grounds of a former potato-processing plant. They use pit latrines and get showers only when there is enough water. They jog around a shade-less concrete lot that serves as a helipad and mortar-launching site. Other troops in this area have far less comfortable surroundings.
Army Maj. Rob Griggs believes rough conditions are good for the mission. Without comforting distractions, troops are more driven to complete their jobs, said Griggs, who is on his fifth deployment, including two in Iraq, since enlisting 17 years ago.
"It allows them to focus on why they are here," said Griggs, who sleeps and lives in half of a 20-foot metal shipping container on the Yousifiya base. Having troops live in the same spare conditions as many Iraqis do also helps convince people that the Americans are genuine about wanting to make things better, he said.
But the disparities in living and working conditions among soldiers heighten resentments, chipping away at morale. So does the feeling that the mission is futile, a belief fueled by the Iraqi political stalemate and the unreliability of Iraqi forces.
"There are two different wars," said Staff Sgt. Donald Richard Harris, comparing his soldiers' views with those of commanders in distant bases. "It's a dead-end process, it seems like."
Asked to rank morale in his unit, Harris gave it a 4 on a 10-point scale. "Look at these guys. This is their downtime," he said, as young soldiers around him silently cleaned dust from their rifles at a battle position south of the capital. A fiery wind blasted through the small base, an abandoned home surrounded by sandbags and razor wire.
"It sounds selfish, but if we just had phones and Internet service," said Staff Sgt. Clark Merlin, his voice trailing off.
Their unit was supposed to go home this month but its tour was extended until November. That means three more months of using plastic sacks for toilets, burning their waste and hoping for packages from home.
"I think the extension has been 99% of the reason morale is low," said Merlin, rating it 4 or 5.
Counterinsurgency expert Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations said the "two wars" issue is common in conflict zones as front-line soldiers grow to resent troops at the bases and come to believe their commanders are out of touch with the realities in the field.
"But this kind of war really highlights it," Biddle, who has advised Petraeus, said of Iraq. Soldiers' discomfort is compounded by the task of forging relations with people whom few trust, and who often make clear their dislike of the U.S. presence.
"All war is political, but usually privates and specialists don't have to think much about that part of it. In this conflict they do, to a much greater degree," Biddle said, referring to the community activities that troops have been drawn into. These include negotiating with tribal leaders who once harbored insurgents, striking deals with former insurgents to bring them into the Iraqi security forces, and listening to residents' complaints about lack of services.
"You have to help people despite the strong suspicion that lots of them mean you ill," Biddle said. "We're asking an awful lot of very, very young people."
It is especially difficult for soldiers trained to fight a uniformed enemy but in Iraq face an array of unconventional forces. Most thought their job was finished after Saddam Hussein was ousted. Instead, they found themselves directing traffic in Baghdad's chaotic streets. Four years later, they still are policing and doing community work they did not anticipate.
"You couple that with getting blown up and shot at, and it definitely makes it harder to deliver service with a smile," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Littrell, whose plan to leave the Army in May was thwarted when his unit's tour was extended.
At another patrol base, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. forces in southern Iraq, was introduced to 1st Lt. Jeff Bess. The young man had just arrived for his first assignment. Asked how he liked the Army so far, Bess made an attempt to be polite. "It's a learning experience, sir," he replied.
Lynch told him: "You're making history here while those back home are watching it on TV."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times