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Americans Contemplate War's Milestone

The 2,000th U.S. military death in Iraq brings reflections on the purpose of the conflict.

October 27, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

LITTLETON, Colo. — Maggie Hays spent long moments Wednesday morning studying the front page of her local newspaper. To mark the 2,000th U.S. military death in Iraq, the paper had covered its entire front page with pictures of 25 young Coloradans killed in action since the invasion began 2 1/2 years ago.

The photos helped Hays to visualize the 2,000 dead. And they stoked her fury.

"I looked at those pictures," she said. "I read the towns where they came from -- all these little towns all over Colorado. Some of them had such cute faces, such beautiful smiles. That got to me. It just breaks my heart."

Around the country, many Americans paused Wednesday to ponder a war that on most days is little more than background noise in their lives. The conflict continues, whether they like it or not. Meanwhile, there are bills to pay, children to take to soccer practice and projects to finish at work.

But for many, the 2,000th U.S. war death was an emotional milestone. It made people stop and think. It made people wonder what these American men and women had died for in Iraq. It provided an occasion to ponder what the war had accomplished, whether such sacrifice was necessary -- and what they might tell President Bush if they could sit down and discuss the war with him.

"These milestones, whether measured in the 500s or thousands or whatever, provide a cognitive focal point," said Barry R. Posen, a professor of political science at MIT.

"People stop and say: What? We're still there? And how many are dead?" Posen said. "It's not the thousands that are significant. It's that it is easy to forget. It is easy to be inured. These focal points provide a moment to reflect."

In dozens of interviews across the country, sadness was a universal theme as people contemplated the loss of 2,000 American service members. Many also were angry -- or anxious -- as they talked about how long the war might go on. Some said the only way to honor the war dead was to finish the job that was started when the U.S. invaded Baghdad in March 2003.

At the City Hall Barber Shop in Cranston, R.I., Bryant Da Cruz leaned his head back into the sink for a shampoo. "I think if we had more of a united front, with more of the world's countries helping us, things would be different," said Da Cruz, a 30-year-old real estate agent. "But if we were to pull out now, that would be the worst thing."

His barber, Ralph Petronio, chimed in. "We would be the losers of the world," Petronio said. "Do we want to be there? No. Do we have to be there? Yes."

Petronio, 62, said the 2,000th U.S. war death reminded him that he had customers fighting in Iraq. He ran his electric clippers over Da Cruz's scalp.

"You can't do this war halfway," he said. Da Cruz nodded in agreement.

As she raced back to her accounting firm's office on Peachtree Street in Atlanta after a workout with her personal trainer, Debi Truelove said she was not surprised that the death toll had hit 2,000.

Clutching her bottled water, the 44-year-old office manager said: "There's going to be people who die. It's the price of war, which I really do think is a necessary evil in this world."

Her face turned red with resolve as she outlined her belief that American troops should remain in Iraq, at least for the foreseeable future. "Us Americans," she said, "once we start something, we stay until its finished. If we leave now, it would be a bigger mess than when we started."

Truelove said she could think of something more worthwhile than speaking to the president. "I keep him in my prayers all the time," she said.

For Mike Frejes, the news that the U.S. military death count in Iraq had crossed the 2,000 mark made him suck in his breath.

"It's just a number, but it's a big number," he said. "Two thousand, that's actually a lot of people. What was 'Nam, 55,000?"

The 28-year-old sales clerk was standing outside the Talking Hands gift shop at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, with co-workers Lisa Grimes and Wayne Warren. The three said the war weighed silently on their minds.

"It's 2,000 more than should have died there," said Warren, 51, looking up from the souvenir book he had flipped through. "We went into a country we shouldn't have."

Frejes said it was hard to make sense of so many American deaths in Iraq. "I don't want to say they died in vain," he said. "If there's a purpose, I don't quite know it yet."

Warren interjected: "They didn't die in vain in terms of service to their country. But it's not like there was a greater purpose to their dying."

Grimes, 44, shook her head in dismay. "It's like it's getting worse," she said, "hearing every day how many soldiers get killed there."

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