WASHINGTON - As a Marine helicopter crash in Iraq's western desert marked yesterday as the single deadliest day for U.S. troops since the war in Iraq began, President Bush said he knew the story would be "very discouraging to the American people." And it was.
Standing near the White House, Ronald Lattin, 35, an executive with a nonprofit firm visiting the capital from St. Paul, Minn., said he struggles to keep the war's dead from becoming a detached, anonymous number as the climbing toll "just nags at you each day - you get hit and hit and hit."
Still, Lattin sees little choice but to stay the course in Iraq.
It is an uneasy sentiment, one shared by a slim majority of Americans even as they voice deepening concerns and face the bleak counts: with 37 troops killed yesterday, 31 in the helicopter crash alone, the total number of U.S. military fatalities pushed above 1,400.
Americans accept death as part of the sad cost of war, say experts who have closely tracked the public's response to the nearly two-year-old conflict in Iraq. They say a turning point in perceptions about the war, the kind of shift in attitude that could force an end, will come only when the public no longer sees a point in staying.
"What matters is whether the public believes we can win," said Peter D. Feaver, part of a team of researchers at Duke University studying public opinion and war. "The public's stomach for the war is largely shaped by whether they think we can win, not whether they think we have been flawless in executing the war plan up until this point."
Worst day in Iraq
Yesterday's death toll from the helicopter crash and scattered fighting with insurgents surpassed the war's third day - when 28 soldiers were killed on March 23, 2003 - as its deadliest. As Sunday's Iraqi elections approach, authorities said that militants also launched at least eight car bombings yesterday that killed 13 people and injured 40, including 11 Americans.
Speaking to reporters, Bush said he understood that news of more U.S. fatalities would hit hard.
"We value life, and we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life," he said. "But it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom."
In the minds of Americans, that is a delicate balance, said John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University who has written about public opinion trends in the Vietnam and Korean wars and who has closely followed polls about the Iraq war.
Mueller contends that military conflicts do not lend themselves to clearly defined tipping points, a single battle or deadly day that can turn the public for or against a war. More often, he said, public support gradually erodes as reports of fatalities, casualties, time and money increase.
That has been true in Iraq, just as it was in the Vietnam War and the Korean War, regardless of each conflict's different pressures and public factors, Mueller said. While television images closely tracked Vietnam, for instance, there were few media images from Korea. And the draft, which loomed large for opponents of the Vietnam War, is a nonissue in Iraq.
"People just do sort of a rough cost-benefit analysis," Mueller said. "What they tend to do is, as the costs go up, the people drop off."
Out of 1,118 Americans surveyed between Jan. 14 and 18 by a CBS/New York Times Poll, 55 percent said they disapproved of the way Bush was handling the situation in Iraq, with 40 percent approving. At the start of the war in March 2003, 69 percent of people said they approved of how Bush was handling the war, with just 27 percent disapproving.
But in the same poll, a majority of 51 percent said U.S. troops should stay in Iraq "as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy." Forty-two percent said U.S. troops should leave "as soon as possible."
When that question was asked about a year earlier, in December 2003, 56 percent of people said the troops should stay in place, and 35 percent said the troops should leave, even if Iraq was not completely stable.
Some supporters of the war now say events such as Sunday's elections will be more powerful than casualty counts in determining how they think about Iraq in the coming months.
"I just want to see how the people of Iraq feel about democracy - if whoever is elected is immediately assassinated, I'll know there's no hope," said Rebecca Phelps, 32, a mother from Dowagiac, Mich. She was touring Washington yesterday with a friend, Jodi Thompson, 30, who said it would take more than troubling news from Iraq to unravel her support for the war.
"My faith is in what the government is doing, and I don't see that changing anytime soon," said Thompson, a mother from Hartford, Mich. "I base a lot of my opinions on my Christianity, and I can only think I'd oppose the war if it went against my foundation of Christ."
David R. Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted yesterday that the U.S. death toll from Iraq remains far lower than in previous conflicts.
At the height of the Vietnam War, hundreds of servicemen were dying each week, and the final death count exceeded 58,000. Roughly 300,000 U.S. troops were killed in World War II.
Still, Segal said that in Iraq, "I believe there may be a point where we say either, 'We've done the job' or 'We can't do the job.'"
Die for a lost war
Feaver, a political science professor at Duke who was director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said that while deaths play a role in reaching that point, the greater concern for Americans is whether the military can succeed.
"The turning point is when a majority of Americans want out - now - regardless of the consequences," Feaver said. "The question is not who wants to die for a mistake, the question is, who wants to die for a lost war, and the answer is no one."
For Ali Rind, 42, a Kuwaiti-American who enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Persian Gulf War, his anger with the current war grows with each new casualty.
"It's a tragedy, and it's only going to get worse," said Rind, who left the military after serving nine years and now owns a Middle Eastern restaurant in Seattle. "Nothing's going to change. The elections aren't going to work because people don't want to be occupied. And these young kids, they're all dying over there for nothing. It's the wrong war."
At Washington's Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday, two other military veterans had heard the news of the downed helicopter near the town of Rutbah, Iraq, and predicted that one day they would visit a memorial on the National Mall for soldiers who died in Iraq.
Craig Parkhill and Ken Woodall marked that thought with a quiet pause. Then they added that their support for this war would not falter.
"You've got to put it in perspective," said Parkhill, 46, a Dallas defense contractor and retired Army major. "These guys over there have a real sense of accomplishing something."
Woodall, 59, a Vietnam veteran and retired Air Force captain, agreed: "I hate to lose our brethren in war. But freedom's not cheap. It really isn't."