Twenty-one thousand troops: To deploy that number of additional American soldiers to Iraq is akin to sending every citizen in Carrboro and Hillsborough to war. It’s equivalent to five Zebulons. Three Knightdales. Or more than one-and-a-half Duke Universities.

President Bush’s troop escalation, or as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recast it before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “an augmentation,” as if shipping Americans off to die were as simple as a lip plumping, prompted nationwide rallies Jan. 11.

In Raleigh, about 50 people gathered shortly before rush hour at Hargett and Blount streets to demonstrate while traffic emptied from downtown. A man in a hooded sweatshirt approached the group and yelled, “Two thumbs up!” Another man slid down the window on a passing CAT bus. His face was hidden behind tinted glass, but his voice rang clear: “Bring them home!”

Drivers honked their horns while demonstrators chanted “Purge the surge” and waved signs, including one that read: “Bush defies voters. Where’s our democracy?”

The answer: AWOL. A day after the speech, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “The president understands that you gotta have public support for whatever you do.”

Yet Snow, apparently lost in the blizzard of damage control, ignored several recent national polls that showed two-thirds to 80 percent of adults surveyed oppose sending more troops to Iraq.

Behind the row of demonstrators, a few children romped in Moore Square Park, where the man working in the tourists’ booth marks off each day of his calendar with a large X. For the soldiers and their families, there have been 1,400 X’s since the war began in March 2003, and there will likely be hundreds, if not thousands more.

“I don’t see how we can stop Bush, but he needs to be stopped,” said Camille McGeachy, who described herself as an “old lady who has demonstrated against every war.”

“It’s like pouring gas on a fire; we don’t have enough troops to stabilize the country,” noted the Rev. Allen Proctor of the Presbyterian Campus Ministry at N.C. State, who was among the protestors. “I have ROTC students and they have concerns [about going to war].”

For the 20-somethings in Iraq and those young men and women nearing enlistment age, such as Raleigh Charter School students and demonstrators 17-year-old Molly Matthews and 16-year-old Savannah Beckler, their entire generation could be defined by a U.S.-led war in the Middle East. “Being a teenager, I don’t have a vote,” Beckler said. “But it’s not appropriate to send more troops over there.

“A lot of my friends want to go,” she added. “One of my best friends is planning to enlist in the Army so he can go to college.”

That evening, in a well-timed photo-op, the TV networks broadcast Bush solemnly presenting the Medal of Honor to the family of a Marine who died in combat two years ago. In another segment, Bush mused to the press how future historians would judge the United States if it pulled out of Iraq: “They would ask, ‘What happened to America?’”

Mr. President, we’re all wondering the same thing.