The deaths of five Maryland soldiers this month did little to elicit protest against the war in Iraq, and even as U.S. military fatalities climbed near 2,000 last week, military experts say they expect no public outcry. Like the death in Iraq 13 months ago of the 1,000th American soldier, this next milestone will barely register with a public easily distracted, predicts former Marine Lou Cantori.
Cantori, a political scientist at the , likens the rising U.S. death toll to the ticking of a clock. It's so constant and familiar that eventually it goes unnoticed.
"American public opinion is the proverbial deer caught in the headlights as a [foreign] policy disaster bears down on it," said Cantori, who also taught at the U.S. Military Academy, the Air Force Academy and the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. "The public is doing exactly what the president is asking them to do and what the Democratic Party is asking them to do -- to hang in there."
As of yesterday, there had been 1,996 U.S. military fatalities in Iraq and 2,195 coalition deaths, including 97 from Britain, according to the Department of Defense and news reports.
David Segal, a military sociologist who heads the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization, blames the news media in part for the nation's collective slow pulse. Without daily front-page and primetime TV coverage, Americans are easily distracted by other events, he said.
"Historically, the news media [have] said war is important and that it is going to be on the front page regardless of what else is going on," he said. "That hasn't been the case in this war."
Segal, who is widely quoted as a military sociologist, said he was fielding about one interview per day about the war before Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina, his phone went quiet.
When the interviews resumed several days later, the questions were no longer about Iraq; they centered on how natural disasters might affect recruiting for the National Guard, he said.
"Katrina was close to home and the earthquake [in Pakistan] was dramatic with a terrible loss of life," he said. "But the war didn't stop."
Since March 2003, when the U.S. military led an invasion of Iraq, at least 35 people from Maryland or with ties to Maryland have died in the war. On Wednesday, Army Reserve Spc. Kendell K. Frederick of Randallstown was killed outside Tikrit by a roadside bomb and Marine Lance Cpl. Norman W. Anderson III of Parkton was killed west of Baghdad by a suicide bomber.
On Oct. 14, Maryland Army National Guardsmen Spc. Samuel M. Boswell, 20, of Elkridge; Spc. Bernard L. Ceo, 23, of Baltimore; and Sgt. Brian R. Conner, 36, of Baltimore, died in a Humvee accident northwest of Baghdad. They were the first Maryland National Guard soldiers killed abroad in the line of duty since World War II, said Guard spokesman Maj. Charles Kohler.
"I think all of us recognize that we may be called upon to pay the ultimate sacrifice, but I think it is too early to tell what kind of impact on morale this will have" on other Guard soldiers, Kohler said.
In Segal's University of Maryland graduate courses, about half the students are military, former military, civilian employees of the military or National Guard, he said. Of them, only the Guard students have expressed frustration about the war.
"They have become more resentful with the way the reserve components are being used" to fight the war, Segal said.
Of the half-million reservists mobilized for federal service since Sept. 11, 2001, the Maryland National Guard has contributed 4,600 citizen soldiers, Kohler said. Most have been used for domestic support in emergencies such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita or for homeland security details, guarding airports and other critical infrastructure. More than 900 have been deployed to Iraq.
Recruiting for the Maryland National Guard is down, like in other states, and lags behind the national average. For the recruiting year that ended Sept. 30, Maryland's Guard made 72 percent of its goal, pulling in 736 recruits out of a target of 1,020, said Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy director of recruiting for the National Guard Bureau in Washington.
Nationally, the Guard achieved 80 percent of its goal of 63,002 recruits, signing up 50,219 over the past year. Likewise, the Maryland National Guard had a particularly difficult time attracting recruits who have never served in the military. It reached 45 percent of its goal of "nonprior service" recruits, a figure slightly below the national average.
Kohler cautioned against attributing these declines to the deployments to Iraq. He said it could also be a result of a recent changeover in the Guard's recruitment strategy. To attract newcomers, he said, Guard advertisements now stress patriotism instead of a tuition-free college education.
"We looked at the market to see why people were joining the Guard," he explained. "The majority identified said they wanted to serve the greater good -- to be part of something bigger than themselves."
But Cantori says no such rousing spirit can be found to oppose the war. To explain the apparent and collective indifference, he searched for the right word. "Stultification," he said, finally. "American public opinion is stultified."
Also, the large voter turnout in support of a new Iraqi constitution has probably helped to counter the grimmest news of the war and to bolster White House claims that democracy is winning, Segal said.
"I think the American public will see it as a payoff that makes the cost -- in terms of the lives of our sons and daughters -- more acceptable," Segal said of the charter that could lead to democratic elections in Iraq in December.
He added, "As long as something good happens as these important thresholds are reached, I see some element of the public saying, '[war] is costly, but look, we are making progress.'"
Also, missing from college campuses is any significant resistance to the war, said Cantori, who recently participated in a Middle East forum on the Homewood campus of the . Compared with the Vietnam War, when young people faced a military draft and marshaled thundering protests, campuses today are quiet, according to students and faculty at some of Maryland's largest schools.
"But I don't see it as apathy as much as I see it as confusion and uncertainty over what happened" in Iraq, said Waleed Hazbun, who teaches political science and Middle Eastern studies at Hopkins.
When the "script that Iraq is dangerous" because it had weapons of mass destruction proved erroneous, the justification for war became democracy and opinions divided, he said.
"Do you withdraw the troops now and risk chaos?" Hazbun asked. "There is no clear standing at one side or the other -- only at the margins."
During the Middle East forum last month at Hopkins, co-sponsored by the student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Muslim Students' Association, a panelist asked if students were optimistic about the direction Iraq was headed. Of the 50 or so students present that day in the Arellano Theater, the majority raised their hands, said Claire Edington, 21, president of Hopkins' ACLU student chapter.
"I was surprised, but I was also encouraged because most of the students there were Muslim," she said.
Cantori was sitting on the panel that day and couldn't believe "the naivete."
"This passiveness of the students, the uncritical view -- I think they are reflecting their mothers and fathers," he said. "If you are going to have a change in public attitude, someone has to take the leadership initiative."
In the polls
In public opinion polls, Maryland residents appear to reflect the nation's sentiment. A Sun poll taken in January reported that 56 percent of Maryland voters felt that removing Saddam Hussein from power was "not worth" the cost in finances and U.S. military casualties.
Similarly worded Gallup Polls taken almost monthly between January and September show that slightly more than half of Americans polled say the war is not worth the costs. In April 2003, after coalition forces captured Baghdad, nearly three-quarters of Gallup respondents had said the war was "all in all" worth it.
Hopkins graduate student Kevan Harris, spokesman for the Hopkins Anti-War Coalition, or HAWC, believes resistance, like the polls, is rising against the war. When peace activist Cindy Sheehan spoke at Hopkins' last month, she attracted a crowd, and HAWC meetings have drawn new members, he said.
For a peace march in Washington four weeks ago, HAWC filled a bus with 40 students who paid $10 each for the trip.
"Last year we wouldn't have been able to fill up a car," Harris said. "By comparison of degrees, this year [students are] qualitatively less apathetic."
That's not exactly a battle cry.
"The [students'] attitude toward the war is a kind of malaise," said HAWC faculty adviser Joel Andreas. "But there is a growing disenchantment, I think."
Sun reporter Tom Bowman contributed to this article.
Because of incorrect information supplied by the Department of Defense, Frederick's first name was misspelled when this article was published in the print edition. The Sun regrets the error.
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