Midwest Towns Sour on War as Their Tolls Mount

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

TIPTON, Iowa -- This farming town in Cedar County buried Army Spec. Aaron Sissel during the Iraq war's ninth month. It buried Army Spec. David W. Behrle during the 51st. Along the way, as a peaceable community's heart sank, its attitude toward President Bush and his Iraq strategy turned more personal and more negative.

Sissel and Behrle were popular young sons of Tipton, a community of 3,100 where anonymity is an impossibility. Sissel bagged groceries at the supermarket and often bowled at Cedar Lanes. Behrle served, just two years ago, as Tipton High's senior class president and commencement speaker.

The town, by all accounts, once gave Bush the benefit of the doubt for a war he said would make America safer and a mission he said was accomplished four years before Behrle died. But funeral by funeral, faith in the president and his project to remake Iraq is ebbing away.

Deep into a battle with no visible end, many Republican and Democratic voters here say the cause is no longer clear, the war no longer seems winnable and the costs are too high. After mourning Behrle, 20, and Sissel, 22, Tipton lost its heart for the fight and the president who is vowing to press on.

"It's hitting all around us," said Jim Allen, a salesman and former Bush voter at Fields Mens Wear on the town square. "Once we got there, I thought, 'Let's get it taken care of.' Now it's dragged on and on. It's just every day, you hear of more casualties."

In the first six months of the year, 125 troops from 10 Midwestern states died in Iraq, the bloodiest stretch of the war so far. Over the past year, 239 from those states have died, compared with 129 from July 2003 to June 2004.

While opposition to the war has been stronger and more visible on the East and West coasts, small towns in the heartland and the South have provided the Bush administration with some of its most steadfast backers. But that support has cracked amid the echoes of graveside bagpipes and 21-gun salutes, which have been heard with greater frequency in recent months in small Midwestern communities.

Two prominent Republican senators who broke with the president this month come from the nation's midsection. Sens. George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) said Bush needs to find a new direction in Iraq and a way to start bringing the troops home. A third defector, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), said he began to reassess his position after conversations with the grieving families of dead soldiers.

Rep. Bruce Braley, a freshman Iowa Democrat who favors a firm timetable for Iraq, heard the pain when he met with the families of two fallen soldiers, Pfc. Katie M. Soenksen and Cpl. Stephen D. Shannon, on Memorial Day. He said people shouted words of support -- "Good job!" and "Keep the pressure on!" -- as he marched in Fourth of July parades.

It is "the intensity and passion" of the desire for an end to the war that strike Braley as new.

"There's more unity in the opposition now," said Braley, whose district adjoins Tipton. "It was always easier to find optimists about the chances of success in Iraq two years ago. You don't now find people talking that way, even the most ardent supporters of the president's policy."

Retired electrician Bob Peck voted twice for Bush. The first time, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore defeated Bush in Cedar County by two votes, 4,033 to 4,031. Peck would not vote for him again, even if he could.

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