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April 8, 2003

While Mourning Dead, Public Seems to Tolerate War's Toll


CHICAGO, April 7 The number of United States casualties in the Iraq war, 88 dead by the Pentagon's count as of today, has surprised both Alan Wolfgang and Chuck Wutke, colleagues in magazine publishing who eat lunch weekly in the cafeteria of the Equitable Building on the edge of the Chicago River downtown.

"One is too many, but given the extent of this operation, I'm surprised it's that little," said Mr. Wolfgang, 43.

"I'm surprised it's that high," countered Mr. Wutke, 41. "It seems we're just riding through the desert on a horse, killing them left and right, and we're losing quite a few along the way."

Mr. Wolfgang: "We go to war with somebody, we start using bombs and guns, people are going to die."

Mr. Wutke: "I don't look at numbers. I look at names."

Though the men have strikingly different interpretations of the statistics, neither said the level of casualties was unacceptable in a war whose goals are clear and whose progress has been steady. That position reflects the sentiment of scores of people interviewed today across the country and of public opinion experts who have surveyed thousands of Americans in recent polls.

While the death toll over the past 19 days pales next to the 200 a week killed at the height of the Vietnam War, and falls short even of the 146 who died during the Persian Gulf war, many people said the limited number of casualties, as recorded by the 24-hour war coverage, has made each lost life seem more poignant.

Still, most interviewed today said the casualties had not eroded their support for the war, and that they could accept two, three or even 10 times as many deaths in the coming weeks, as long as success was in sight. Many said they were focused more on the status of the allied advance than on body counts.

"I'm numbed to it, disgustingly numbed to it," said Jack Nimz, 42, a patent attorney who lives in Glenview, a Chicago suburb. "Even if an extra 100 people had died, I'd think we should go forward because we've been so successful."

Others noted that the 88 killed in Iraq was just a fraction of the more than 3,000 who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Those, to me, are casualties of this same war, which is a war against terrorism," said Daphne Scholz, co-owner of a gourmet food store in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. "We took the first casualties, and the balance of dead is still on our side."

Pollsters and political consultants said the public's tolerance for casualties was not purely a matter of numbers, but also depended on the length of the war, the perception of its progress and how the media reported it. One big, bloody battle with a high United States death toll could change everything particularly, said several pollsters, if the majority's support of the war is not as deep as the minority opposition to it, as many suspect.

Things could also erode after the battles are over if snipers or terrorists attack peacekeeping troops.

"The American tolerance for casualties is going to change a whole lot depending on whether you find a weapon of mass destruction," said Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster.

Mr. Rosner said that after the United States lost 18 soldiers in Somalia in 1993, military and government officials had the misplaced perception that the nation had become averse to even the slightest number of casualties in a war. In fact, he said that polling showed this was not the case and that the course of the war so far which was planned, in part, to minimize casualties proved the point.

"It obviously depends on the length of the war," Mr. Rosner said. "It obviously depends on the kind of images that are coming home. One casualty has a whole lot different impact if it's on video or not."

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said he found a sharp drop in support for the war after reports of United States combat deaths and captures during the first weekend, but that the finding reversed itself in recent days as the allies raced to Baghdad. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said public alarm would likely sound at a certain casualty count, but that he was unsure what that number might be.

"There are certain numbers like 100, it's a very round number, so that's the first threshold to be crossed," Mr. Luntz said. "The second threshold is the number of casualties in the most recent similar situation, in 1991."

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, predicted that, "if it got into four digits, that would arrest attention." But, Professor Gitlin said, "as long as the military can make a plausible case that they're winning the war and it's in its final approach to victory however they are defining victory then I don't think they are in any danger of casualty backlash."

Several experts agreed that the critical question may not be the number of deaths but the length of the conflict that people might be better able to absorb a high number of casualties in a short conflict than a steady stream totaling the same amount over a longer period.

Indeed, Sarah Pinsky, a clerk in Chicago, said she would prefer a battle of Baghdad with 1,500 casualties and victory announced the next day to 1,500 dead over three years with no end in sight.

"You kind of have to weigh your progress are we giving people a better life?" said Ms. Pinsky, 27, who works at at Crane & Co., a stationary store on Michigan Avenue. "Look at World War II. We had enormous casualties, but each of those casualties came with some success.

Even so, Mrs. Pinsky said she cries when she thinks of the war dead.

"When you're talking about bodies," Ms. Pinsky added, "whether it's one or 100 or 1,000, they're still not with us. They still leave behind mothers, brothers, sisters. I think it's a very high number."

A New York Times/CBS News poll in the early days of the war found that two-thirds of Americans expected fewer than 1,000 soldiers to die in a war in Iraq. A Gallup poll taken in the last week in March found that 52 percent of Americans thought the death toll would not top 500.

Surveys also show a strong correlation between support for the war and casualty predictions. The Times/CBS poll found that among those who anticipated fewer than 1,000 deaths, 72 percent said the war was worth it, while among those who thought more than 5,000 would die, only 31 percent said so.

"This is not a heavy toll," said Vic Weber, 59, who was drinking coffee at a Starbuck's today in downtown Los Angeles. "I bet it's less than what the military loses in training exercises every year in this country."

Although the death count strikes many as low, the names and faces of the dead are much more visible than they have been in past wars.

Professor Gitlin and several historians said that a turning point in public sentiment during the Vietnam War came when Walter Cronkite began announcing the daily death toll in his nightly newscast. But while the magnitude was often staggering, it was also anonymous.

"In Vietnam, it was mostly numbers," said Milton Bates, a professor of English at Marquette University and an editor of the Library of America's anthology, "Reporting Vietnam." "You might have faces that would be there in some of the photographs but you didn't learn much about the individual casualties."

In the Iraq war, news organizations have focused more on individual soldiers and their families, with profiles of many of the casualties.

On most days, ABC's "Good Morning America" lists the names of the confirmed dead as do the boxes running in many newspapers, including The New York Times.

The "Early Show" on CBS closed last Friday with a four-minute display of the names, ages and photographs of all the casualties, in order of their deaths. A spokeswoman for NBC's "Nightly News" said the network had been focusing its casualty coverage on in-depth reports about individuals and their families

"I remember watching the news as a small child, and the casualties, they kind of showed them, but they seemed so anonymous," said Laura Peterson, 39, a marketing assistant who was taking a break today at a coffee bar in downtown Houston. "Now you get so much information about who they are, seeing their families on TV, I think it makes it a little more difficult to deal with because you are getting that sort of personal side to it."

Vince Ruffalo, 47, a Denver legal consultant who served in the Air Force stateside during the Vietnam War, said he was tired of hearing about the casualties. "It's like a score at a football game, 29 to 2, with one injured and going to the bench," Mr. Ruffalo said.

Many of those interviewed today said they were troubled by the number of casualties 33 of the 88 that have not come in direct combat but in accidental drownings, vehicle crashes or unintentional attacks by their own forces. Others were frustrated by the focus on the small number of United States casualties, and the lack of information on the greater numbers of Iraqis, soldiers and civilians who have been killed.

Several people said they had felt only pride when hearing of the soldiers killed in Iraq. A generation ago, in Southeast Asia, many felt shame.

"It seems like a lot of the people in Vietnam died in vain people went over there and died, and we didn't really do anything good over there," said Ron Cone, 62, an engineer at WGN radio here. "Now I think we're doing something."

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