The drumbeat follows its own grim rhythm: three U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq last week, two more shot this week. It echoes across this country, affecting military families who avoid the TV news and those arguing over the war and what comes next.
The combat death toll hit a disheartening milestone Thursday as the Pentagon acknowledged its casualties from hostile fire reached 147, the same number of troops who died at enemy hands in the first Gulf War.
For troops’ families, critics of the war and supporters, too, the rising casualty numbers underscored concerns about how U.S. leaders are managing the conflict. Are the tours of duty too long? Should the United States keep nearly 150,000 troops in Iraq? Was the entire war a mistake?
The Pentagon officially updated its figures Thursday morning. On Wednesday, a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a supply convoy took the life of one soldier; on Monday, one soldier was killed and six wounded in another convoy attack.
“Everyday it terrifies me,” said Julie Galloway in Hinesville, Ga., whose husband, Sgt. Michael Galloway, is in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. She still supports the war, but no longer watches the news. “How do they expect people to live like this?”
Last week, President Bush asked for patience and said the nation would “have to remain tough.”
On Wednesday, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said: “Look, we can either fight this battle against terrorism at home, or we can fight it abroad … It’s war however you describe it.” Military leaders say troops face a dozen attacks each day.
The 147 deaths from hostile fire include 32 that have occurred since May 1, when Bush declared major combat over, according to the Pentagon figures.
Overall, there have been 224 Americans killed in Iraq since the war began March 20, the Pentagon said. That includes 77 accidental and other deaths that weren’t the result of hostile attacks — two-thirds of them after May 1.
The growing death toll, both supporters of the war and critics said, is sure to drive debate over U.S. policy in Iraq.
“The continuing casualties, while nowhere near, obviously, the numbers that came in Vietnam, nonetheless are going to call into question a growing sense of `Why are we in Iraq? What did we really accomplish?'” said retired Col. Daniel Smith, who spent 26 years in the Army.
Smith works for alternatives to war as the senior military adviser for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group.
A supporter of the Iraq war, meanwhile, said that it must be recognized that the current situation is far different than that during the 1991 war, when a U.S.-led international force drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Now the Americans are an occupying force.
Still, the continuing attacks should convince the Bush administration to more clearly explain its goals and strategies, said Harlan Ullman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.
“We can tolerate this and, I think, more. But what happens, for example, when they go after a big airplane flying into Baghdad or blow up the Al-Rashid hotel (in Baghdad)?” said Ullman, who was a proponent of the “shock and awe” bombing strategy planned for the war’s start. “We better be prepared.”
Ullman said the nation’s strategic interests are shifting to a more direct role in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, and the public needs to understand that requires an investment of money and lives.
“We are now committed. The United States cannot now cut and run,” he said. “We have no choice but to make the best of the situation, period, end of story, no debate.”
For some spouses of soldiers, new casualties have not shaken their support for military action. “We all expect casualties,” Galloway said. But there’s skepticism about Bush’s announcement that “major combat” ended in May and claims of nuclear threats from Iraq.
Political and military leaders should also recognize the pressure on long-deployed troops, and rotate them with fresh, stateside troops to keep them safe and get their task accomplished efficiently, Galloway and others said.
“Somebody has to be over there,” said Kristina Simmons, whose husband is also a sergeant in the 3rd Infantry. But “give them a break. Send new soldiers over there. … Just because we stopped bombing everybody doesn’t mean the war is over.”