Editor's Roundtable: The War in Iraq

Newspaper editors from around the country discuss their readers' feelings about the Iraq war. Jacki Lyden is joined by Phil Casaus of The Albuquerque Tribune, Frances Coleman of the The Mobile Register, and Margaret Sullivan of The Buffalo News.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

To get a sense of public opinion about the Iraq War in other parts of the country, we've called upon three editors: Phil Casaus of The Albuquerque Tribune, Frances Coleman of the Mobile Register, and Margaret Sullivan of The Buffalo News.

Welcome to you all.

Ms. FRANCES COLEMAN (Mobile Register) and Ms. MARGARET SULLIVAN (The Buffalo News): (In unison) Thank you.

LYDEN: Margaret Sullivan, do you get a sense that your readers are following the political process in Iraq and watching to see whether or not what the outcome will be of the constitution, what the debate has been between the majorities and those who feel left out?

Ms. SULLIVAN: I think that our readers are following the conflict in Iraq, the war in Iraq, if you will, quite closely. I'm not sure that the details of the constitution are terribly meaningful, but the overall situation is extremely interesting to them.

LYDEN: Frances?

Ms. COLEMAN: Yes, I agree. It was funny; I was thinking the same thing. They are intensely interested in the war, but the constitutional kind of debate and--I'm not sure anybody in my readership can much tell the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, but they know that overall this constitutional gathering and consensus is critical to which direction the country takes, and certainly down here we understand, you know, arguing about religion. That resonates with my readers.

LYDEN: Now just this past week, a Gallup poll found that 54 percent of the respondents asked believed that the Iraq War was a mistake. Is that the feeling that you're getting, Phil Casaus, in Albuquerque?

Mr. PHIL CASAUS (The Albuquerque Tribune): Yeah. I think it's right about that level. I believe that what you're finding--what we're finding a lot is that people who had supported the war early on find that the inability for the administration to exactly define when success might even be close to being achieved is continuing to wear them down.

We had this sort of an interesting situation where one of our columnists last week wrote a column about Cindy Sheehan and her protest near Crawford, and he criticized what he considered as the left's basically taking her grief and using it as an anti-war banner in essence. We got a lot of letters about that. You could sense the frustration from readers saying that this woman is really not feeling--is feeling something very different from most of us, but that her frustration and the wanting to know what the purpose of the sacrifice was, was really palpable. They want to know when we'll be able to see success, and in lieu of that, when we'll be able to see troops coming home.

LYDEN: Frances Coleman in Mobile, the president said this past week that one of the things the nation must do--and he mentioned the number of US soldiers killed had exceeded 1,800--was to honor the memories of those who had died by staying the course. Have you had a reaction to that from your readers?

Ms. COLEMAN: I have not seen a reaction in our letters to that particular remark, although our readers in general are writing letters that say whether we agree or disagree with the fact that we're in Iraq, now that we're there, yeah, we do have to stay the course. They seem to understand you can't just pack up and leave without fairly catastrophic results. We have a lot of--well, Alabama's a big National Guard state, so we have a lot of folks from this area who are over in Iraq. So I don't know when I've seen so many vigorous letters from both sides of the political spectrum and both sides of the war debate, so they take on all those topics. But overall, I see them saying, `Well, we're there; we do have to stay the course.'

LYDEN: Now you mentioned that Alabama is a big military state, but you also mentioned that public opinion seems divided. Does this remind you in any way of the polarization of opinion that went on in the Vietnam era?

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, that's interesting because we're getting letters now where people try to compare this war to Vietnam, and other writers--we have a letter that's running tomorrow from a reader saying, `Don't be ridiculous. This is not Vietnam,' so there is a good bit of debate, and there are plenty of folks--I'm sure some of them are military-connected--who know the terrible toll that war takes on countries and on individuals and they know that we said we were going over there to ferret out the weapons of mass destruction and we got there and, duh, where were they? So you know, there are some people who fear that Bush has led us in a terrible direction, but there are also a lot of people who believe that he's doing the right thing.

LYDEN: Margaret Sullivan, the feature that your paper ran on Monday was about the loss of soldiers from western New York, and you profiled three family members, each of whom had lost someone, and one of the people profiled had served time in Iraq and each of them had a different take on it.

Ms. SULLIVAN: Yes. We--it's not quite true to say that each of them had lost someone. But we did interview family members including those who had lost a family member and including those whose family members had served in Iraq. One woman, a woman named Caroline Williams, local woman--her husband, Michael Williams, was killed by--a soldier--was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, and her quotes were really very nuanced, I think. She said, `I want all the soldiers home, but I don't know what it would be like in Iraq if they all came home. I'm very torn.' So I think that she could see and represent both sides of this extremely polarized situation.

LYDEN: And the father of another serviceman who had been killed thought that second-guessing it was outrageous.

Ms. SULLIVAN: He used the words `stay the course.' `We have to stay the course.' He said he believed this is all about good vs. evil.

LYDEN: And then--you're right, they didn't all lose someone. One of the people profiled had been serving over there, was a serviceman.

Ms. SULLIVAN: That's right. And he--this was a gentleman named Jeremy Lewis, a veteran himself of the war, and his take on it was--what he said, and it was very strongly worded--was `The American people have finally started to not believe the lie.'

LYDEN: This has been a very bloody summer in Iraq, both in terms of the toll on Iraqi civilians, the number of car bombings, and the toll on US troops. Do you see a change from the beginning of the summer or even thinking back to last year at this time in your area? Phil Casaus.

Mr. CASAUS: Yeah. I believe there is a change. I think that there has always been here a wide difference of opinion on our role in Iraq. But I think you're beginning to see a greater depth of that feeling. And I think--this is probably true in Alabama and New York and maybe every other state. We have a lot of guardsmen over there, and a lot of our guardsmen are serving roles that have put them in harm's way. And I think that they're at--particularly the situation with the guardsmen from Ohio, I think it brings it home every day to places like New Mexico where they are not just in the military, but they worked with you, or they worked near you, or they worked near your brother. It's a small state.

LYDEN: Frances Coleman in Mobile, how does today compare to a year ago?

Ms. COLEMAN: I think the Mobile area population is also getting more concerned, more nervous, more uneasy at the death toll rises, as the terrorist attacks, the insurgent attacks seem to come just on a steady, daily basis. You know one thing I see down here too, and I don't know if Margaret and Phil are seeing this as well, but I think Phil spoke to it a little while ago, is that we have a constant debate in our letters about whether you can criticize, dissect, doubt or otherwise question the war and still be a patriot.

LYDEN: Well, thank you very much for speaking with us. It's Margaret Sullivan of The Buffalo News and Frances Coleman of the Mobile Register and Phil Casaus of The Albuquerque Tribune. Thank you all very, very much.

Ms. SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Thanks for the chance.

Mr. CASAUS: Thank you.

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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