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Public’s Confidence in War Success Drops

March 26, 2003

As suddenly as surrendering Iraqi soldiers dropped their white flags and opened fire, the reality of this war struck Americans, with hopes of swift victory giving way to the prospect of a longer, tougher campaign.

The first bodies have been flown stateside. American POWs were interrogated on Iraqi TV. An Apache helicopter was downed by enemy guns, and friendly fire took more lives.

Now come homefront questions about resolve: Can the public weather a war potentially far more lengthy and deadly than the brief conflicts of the past two decades?

Polls and the stock market have reflected a week of soaring hopes and sudden doubts. But in interviews around the country, Americans said that _ while disheartened by some of the war’s initial turns _ they’ll remain steadfast.

``I keep in mind a lot that we’re over there to help these people,″ said Karen Sehlhorst, a nurse sitting with her fiancee on a bench overlooking Toledo, Ohio’s Maumee River. Americans now see war’s realities, she said. ``It’s not just a movie anymore.″

Like many others interviewed nationally, the 52-year-old nurse said news of Iraqi resistance and U.S. casualties shook her hopes of easy triumph, but not her support for the war. Still, she and her fiance, Mark Sarka, wondered how swiftly public opinion could change.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center reflected worries about the war’s progress _ 38 percent said the conflict was going well on Monday, down from 71 percent Friday. Still, overall support for the war and President Bush’s stewardship remained high at 70 percent.

The stock market reacted, too _ the Dow Jones industrials dropped 300 points as the week began, the worst performance of the year. It followed the best week in two decades, as the war started and victory seemed easy.

Investors’ expectations were understandable, some analysts said, given decades of brief conflicts for the United States _ such as the successful campaign to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and invasions of Panama and Grenada.

``They have been used to quick victories or bloodless victories,″ said William Nash, a retired Army major general who commanded an armored brigade in the 1991 Gulf War.

But ``the American public’s got the stomach for hard fighting if the objectives and the purpose are explained and understood,″ said Nash, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ``People understand we’re in a fight.″

That understanding, however, could shift if fighting bogs down and strategy is questioned, said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor. In any democracy, casualties and slow progress can create ``corrosive″ doubt, he said.

``Unless the war is won quickly and according to plan, then the question marks come back to bite you ... and bite you hard,″ Wilentz said. Bush, with his contested presidential victory, may be particularly vulnerable, he said.

The American people can sustain a drawn-out conflict like World War II, or they can grow restless as they did with other conflicts long before Vietnam, such as the Civil War and the War of 1812, both of which caused significant dissension, he said.

For war opponents, the latest news didn’t change any minds, but rather confirmed their expectations. ``It solidifies my antagonism to it,″ said Sheila Zachman, an attorney in New York. ``I think mainstream support is going to erode.″

But a World War II veteran who spent 1 1/2 years as a POW in Germany said unrealistic visions of a parade to Baghdad will give way to a more practical view.

``Accept the fact that this is war. It’s not a party. It’s not a kissy-kissy group,″ said Robert Leavenworth, state commander for the Arizona American Ex-Prisoners of War. ``If we accept that, we have it made.″

Though she opposed the war and still does, Sally Carter in Atlanta said now that the nation is in Iraq it must see the war through to victory, despite casualties.

``If we’re there, we’re there. We need to do it and do it right,″ said the 55-year-old state administrator. ``I don’t understand people who support a war and then when soldiers get killed or captured, they say, ’Hey, that’s not what we bargained for.‴

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