Americans conflicted over Afghanistan war

By Peter Slevin
Sunday, November 22, 2009

WINONA, MINN. -- Christina and Jesse Fladmark were married on Flag Day last year at the band shell on the Mississippi River. They chose the spot largely because Jesse, a soldier, draws strength from the nearby war memorial.

Twenty months later, Jesse is loading military convoys in Afghanistan and Chris is teaching math at Cotter High School, staying in touch with her husband as best she can and counting the months until he comes home. When she mentions his mission, people often say, "Why are we even over there? They should bring everyone home."

"That's really hurtful, even though they are trying to be nice," Chris Fladmark, 27, said over a Baileys and hot chocolate on a rainy southern Minnesota night. "That's not how I or my husband see it."

How to see the Afghan war is a conundrum that stretches from Winona to Washington in a nation deeply divided over the wisdom of the fight. Opinion here, where Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) recently devoted an entire town-hall meeting to the subject, echoes a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that reveals widespread doubts.

As President Obama seeks a strategy for a war now in its ninth year, just 45 percent of respondents said they approve of his handling of the issue, while 47 percent disapprove. Fifty-two percent said the war has not been worth its costs, a rise of more than 12 percent since March.

"I pray," Fladmark said, referring to Obama's imminent decision about whether to send more troops. "I pray that God will make that decision for him."

Winona, population 27,069, is a blue-collar town where Walz came to take a sounding. After teaching geography, coaching football and spending more than two decades in the National Guard, he beat a six-term Republican in 2006 largely because he argued that the Bush administration was botching the Iraq war.

With another war gaining prominence now, Walz keeps returning to the question of a Vietnam veteran who told him that Obama's dilemma over sending perhaps 40,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan reminded him of another president -- Lyndon B. Johnson -- and another choice.

"His question," Walz said, "was, 'Could we have gotten to a peaceful Vietnam without the loss of 58,000 Americans? Could we get to a fairly stable al-Qaeda operation that is less of a heavy footprint, that is more effective?'

"I think they're asking me to challenge my assumption on that, and I will," said Walz, whose Minnesota National Guard duty included a tour in Italy in support of the Afghan fight. He contends that his predecessor in Congress, Gil Gutknecht, failed in 2006 to grasp the "intensity" of dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, and he predicts that "the emotion on this thing will get to that point . . . by next year."

At Winona's busy new American Legion hall on "cheap burger night," Amanda Johnson is already there.

"We've been there so much and lost so many. We shouldn't be caught up in somebody else's war -- especially when it's a guerrilla war," Johnson, 22, says while playing cards and drinking beer. "It seems so senseless."

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