Monday January 8, 2007
Only the squeaking of the boots of the military pallbearers could be heard in the Calvary church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Thursday as Chad Vollmer's coffin was wheeled to the front. By the time the service was over their steps were inaudible amid the chorus of sobs and sniffles. Vollmer died two weeks ago when a makeshift bomb exploded near his vehicle in Salman Pak, Iraq. His funeral was a profoundly patriotic affair. Family members and fellow soldiers praised the 24-year-old as a young man who "honoured his country, family, and God". Huge billowing flags lined the entrance to the church and one hung over the pulpit; the first hymn was America the Beautiful. "There are two who have died for all of us today," said the army chaplain, Major Timothy Mattison. "Jesus and the US soldier. Jesus died for the freedom of the soul; the US soldier died for the freedom of our land."
Days like these have become all too common in Michigan recently. As the nation marked the 3,000th military death in Iraq, eight families in the state were preparing to bury their young men. Every day bar New Year's Day saw at least one funeral here. Last Saturday there were three.
The emotional consequences of these deaths are clear. People say goodbye to a son, daughter, friend or lover and are left with memories wrapped in a neatly folded American flag and a few medals as they struggle to make sense of their loss. But the political consequences are more complex. Each American death falls like a pebble into a still pool. It makes an impact where it lands and sends out a small ripple that soon fades. Those outside the immediate vicinity rarely feel or are even aware of the death. Curt Norris from Lansing died on the same day as Vollmer in a different incident. Lansing is just 90 miles from Detroit. But the day after Norris's funeral the Detroit Free Press carried just one story from Lansing - about a postman who has been on the same beat for 50 years. Like Norris and Vollmer, it is white kids from small towns who are most vulnerable. (The vastly higher number of Iraqi civilian deaths barely feature at all, although the national press has recently started to acknowledge that they happen.)
President George Bush refuses to attend any soldiers' funerals and the ban on televising coffins returning home, which was introduced but rarely observed by Bill Clinton, is now strictly enforced. Small pebbles keep falling (roughly at the rate of three a day), but none makes a big splash.
The mounting US casualties have relatively little effect on America's views on this war. The months with the heaviest losses have seen no corresponding spikes in opposition. Instead the national mood has soured steadily over the years until the number of those who approve of Bush's handling of the war is now roughly half those who approved of his handling of Hurricane Katrina. According to a recent Army Times poll, more troops disapprove of Bush's handling of this war than back it.
"Public approval rarely gets lower than this," says Christopher Gelpi, an associate professor of political science at Duke university who studies US public opinion and war. "The key factor shaping public opinion is whether we are making progress towards a successful outcome. On those points the public have already made up their mind."
Opposition to the occupation was demonstrated most clearly at the polls in November, when Democrats won both houses of Congress. Indeed just a couple hours after Vollmer was lowered into the ground the new Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, raised her gavel for the first time. To lend the inauguration the appearance of vitality the party has dedicated itself to a raft of legislative changes over its first 100 hours in power. Among other things, the Democrats will raise the minimum wage, cut interest on student loans and bring in stricter laws on lobbying - all modest, manageable, sensible and centrist. But none of them deals with the key question of the day and the principal reason why they were elected - the war.
There are two reasons for this. First, the Democrats have no coherent position on the war. In fact, most of them voted for it. Second, given that the president is the commander-in-chief and conducts foreign policy, there is a limit to what the Democrats can constitutionally do about it, beyond refusing to fund it. This would represent great political risk, making Democrats vulnerable to the Republican charge that they are putting American soldiers at risk for partisan reasons. Such a stance would demand both principle and determination - neither of which has proven to be their strong suit.
In an attempt to intervene between the supine and the stubborn, the Iraq Study Group last month offered Bush a stern rebuke - but also a way out. This week it will receive his response as he plans to rebuff popular opinion, political opposition and establishment advice and call for a "surge" of between 20,000 and 40,000 troops in Iraq to "stabilise" the situation. The word surge, like every other premise for this war, is misleading. It suggests a brief increase when, in fact, his advisers have told him the extra troops would have to be there for at least 18 months.
"Clearly, this is not a move to shift public opinion," explains Gelpi. "The only thing that Bush can do to turn around public opinion is turn around the situation on the ground. It's a gamble. It's his last chance. This is about his legacy." As such, it poses a clear challenge to the Democratic Congress's legitimacy and to America's democratic political culture.
For if the Democratic Congress is unwilling to use any means at its disposal to fulfil its democratic mandate, then it will be left to the public to make their displeasure known. It is two years and tens of thousands of lives, some of them American, before the next presidential election. The American people clearly don't want this. A CBS poll last month showed that 18% wanted to see an increase in troop levels compared with 59% who want them either decreased or withdrawn completely. The question is: what are they going to do about it?
The tragic answer is probably nothing. For while opposition to the occupation is clearly broad, its depth is more difficult to fathom. "It's rare when people seriously publicly engage," says Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator of the largest anti-war organisation, United for Peace and Justice. "They watch it on TV, they read about it in the newspapers. They get angry, but that doesn't necessarily mean they engage. So it's difficult to know the depth of feeling."
We have been here before. Sensing the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, Nixon stood for the presidency in 1968 claiming he had a secret plan to end the conflict. It was so secret the Vietnamese hadn't even heard of it. There was no doubt that feelings ran deep then, but it would be another seven years before American troops withdrew. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" a young John Kerry asked the Senate foreign relations committee in 1971. We have long known it was a mistake. Sadly, the last person to die for it is still a long way off.
Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist and feature writer based in the US. He was formerly the paper's New York correspondent. His most recent book is Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States; he is also the author of No Place Like Home, published in 1999.