As Casualties Climb, So Do Doubts

Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan., prepare to leave for Iraq as part of President Bush's troop increase.
Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan., prepare to leave for Iraq as part of President Bush's troop increase. (By Orlin Wagner -- Associated Press)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

MANHATTAN, Kan., Sept. 11 -- Rancher Ralph Brooks sat in a barber chair and defined a quandary that Gen. David H. Petraeus hoped to resolve during his much-anticipated testimony to Congress.

"We can't stay, and we can't leave," said Brooks, 58, a steadfast supporter of President Bush and of conservative Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. "If we just cut and run, it'd show the world we don't have the stomach for it. I don't know that I have the stomach to see these guys die, but you can't just cut and run."

A few chairs down at Haynes Style Shop, stylist Virginia Davis saw little logic in Petraeus's call for U.S. troop levels to remain at 160,000 until next summer before dropping to 130,000, perhaps for years to come. She cuts the hair of soldiers' wives, including one she says is too young to be a widow.

"I don't think we should give it another year," said Davis, 52. "It's not going to do any good. Why keep on doing the same thing?"

Within range of the sprawling headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, a place where Capitol Hill seems far and Iraq strangely near, Petraeus drew credit for navigating a delicate path with honesty and as much clarity as Iraq's tangled landscape will allow.

Yet his endorsement of a continued increase in U.S. combat troops and a long American military role lifted few hearts, especially after three Fort Riley soldiers died last week in Iraq. With more than 125 soldiers from the base killed since 2003, the war does not seem nearly over, nor does the debate over its wisdom and duration.

Kansas backed Bush by 2 to 1 and delivered thousands of soldiers who have moved through Fort Riley to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past six years. Petraeus was commanding Fort Leavenworth when he oversaw the first rewrite of the military's counterinsurgency manual since the Vietnam War. Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, a key contributor to that manual and a defender of the new approach, is based at Fort Riley.

But even here, as in the rest of the Midwest, Bush's popularity has fallen as doubts about the war and the country's direction have grown. Democrat Nancy Boyda pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2006 midterm election when she defeated Rep. Jim Ryun, a social conservative.

For a community that needs no reminder, a memorial service will be held this week on Custer Hill for the latest casualties, including Spec. David J. Lane, 20, of Emporia, and Sgt. Joel L. Murray, 26, of Ogden. They died on Sept. 4 when a roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle, causing the shivers that come when word arrives that an unidentified warrior has been lost.

"A five-second sound bite on the news: 'Five killed in Baghdad.' For the next 24 hours, you're looking out the window. You're looking at every car that drives up, to see what kind of uniform they're wearing," said a woman who asked to be identified only as "an Army wife" because her staff-sergeant husband is serving in Iraq.

The woman, a mother of three, watched Petraeus and listened for a clue that things were getting better in Baghdad, and that her husband might be coming home before his 15-month tour, his second in Iraq, ends in May. She acknowledges that this tour has been "a little scarier," but she calls the U.S. mission a "necessary evil."

"We've got to get it done right," she said, "or it's not worth the sacrifice."

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