DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — The crew aligned itself across the aircraft’s open cargo hold and stood sentry over the delivery: a case containing the body of Corporal Daniel L. Linnabary II, who was killed in Afghanistan two days earlier.
For the next 20 minutes, as Linnabary’s family looked on, the painstakingly rehearsed ceremony unfolded as it has so many times over the last decade. A chaplain’s whispered prayer. An honor guard slowly transferring the case to a mortuary truck. A final salute. Aside from a few barely audible commands and muffled sobs, the ceremony last week was silent.
Beyond the gates, a different silence pervades. The longest war in American history commands little attention or debate — in the halls of Congress, on the presidential campaign trail, or in the public square. Linnabary, a 23-year-old from North Carolina, died during one of the bloodiest periods of fighting in a year. Yet for most Americans, the war is not at the forefront of their political consciousness, even though Americans will be in combat for at least another two years, and some troops could stay well beyond that.
“In Vietnam people had skin in the game,” said retired Army colonel Joseph J. Collins, a professor at the National War College in Washington who supports the current strategy. “You had angst on campuses and revolts inside of the Congress. You don’t have that here. People don’t feel affected by it. We are not drafting people or revoking their deferments if they fail out of college.”
The Obama administration plans to withdraw US forces by the end of 2014, and as greater responsibility is handed off to Afghan security forces, some 23,000 of the estimated 90,000 US troops now in the country will be pulled out later this year.
Yet the fighting is nearly as intense as ever. Seven more Americans died Thursday when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed, bringing the number of US troops killed in August to 27. They included Linnabary, who died from combat injuries in Helmand Province on Aug. 6. In the previous month, 41 troops were killed, making July the bloodiest month in nearly a year.
All told, some 2,000 Americans have died in the war since October 2001.
Polls show that nearly seven out of 10 Americans believe the US military should leave Afghanistan. But that opposition barely registers in voting or discourse. Even the returning bodies rarely receive media coverage.
“I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics to political campaigns to droughts to some of the tragedies we’ve seen in communities around the country,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Pentagon press briefing this week. “I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on.”
In interviews with lawmakers, analysts, military officers, and service members, a number of explanations for the disconnect emerge.
One is a sense that no viable alternatives exist to the current strategy; abandoning Afghanistan, where the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were ordered by Al Qaeda terrorists, would come back to haunt US interests, the argument goes. Intensifying the effort, on the other hand, is considered by even some of the toughest hawks as unlikely to change the ultimate outcome.
“Politicians don’t know how to talk about it,” said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a former lieutenant colonel who opposes the war and whose son was killed in Iraq in 2007. “There is no plausible outcome that they can promise to bring. You can’t gain any votes by talking about it.”
Another reason for tepid interest, several experts said, is that in a faltering economy voters are simply more concerned about making ends meet.
Antiwar groups such as Massachusetts Peace Action have calculated that to get any traction, they have to couch the war in economic terms. A nonbinding referendum on the November ballot in a third of Bay State districts urges leaders to prevent cuts to social programs, create manufacturing and renewable energy jobs, close corporate loopholes and offshore tax havens, and finance it all “by reducing the military budget, ending the war in Afghanistan.”
The relative silence on the campaign trail is also due, in part, to the only minimal differences in the presidential candidates’ positions. The presumptive GOP nominee, former governor Mitt Romney, has insisted he would listen to the advice of generals but otherwise supports a phased withdrawal. Meanwhile, Obama, who rarely brings up the war, has sought to advance the message that American involvement is coming to an end, in effect moving the issue off the political agenda.
Top military officials insist the current plan is solid and believe the public’s seeming lack of attention is a reflection most Americans understand that.
“It’s not just winding down like the Vietnam War did, when it was really all about ‘just get the hell out,’ and everybody knew it,’’ said Marine Corps Lieutenant General John F. Kelly, a Brighton native whose son Robert was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. “There is confidence by the American people that the US military is doing it right, and they don’t have to worry about it too much.”
Representative Stephen Lynch, who has toured the war zone numerous times, agreed.
“There is a shared sense of acceptance that this war is ending,” said the South Boston Democrat, who had been a steadfast supporter of the war until earlier this year, when he called for an accelerated withdrawal. “But the end of 2014 is a long time from now. I worry about the risk to those who remain.”
The apathy frustrates others who have been arguing for a quicker withdrawal for years.
“We keep hearing ‘the end is near, the end is near,’ ” said Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, one of the few members of Congress who have tried to intensify debate about the war. He pointed out that the Obama administration has committed the United States to train and support the Afghans for another 10 years — and has not said how many forces that might require. “What’s after 2014? We have no idea.”
“This war is not some abstract thing,” he added. “We have 88,000 troops there, and we are borrowing $8 billion a month. . . . Americans are dying and being wounded every day,’’ McGovern said. “This should be a major topic.”
McGovern contends that many colleagues have repeatedly blocked efforts to discuss the war. He cited the reaction to Army whistle-blower Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis, who earlier this year published a detailed critique questioning official reports of progress. No congressional committee has heard his testimony, and only 10 lawmakers met with him.
“There is bipartisan complicity to ignore the war,” McGovern said.
Kelly, the Marine general who made the very personal trip to Dover two years ago to greet the body of his son, sees a fundamental disconnect between the electorate and those who serve.
“We [in the military] are only less than 1 percent of American society, and the other 99 percent doesn’t really know much about us,” said Kelly, who enlisted in Boston in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War.
The sense of isolation was on display after the tarmac ceremony for Linnabary at the nearby American Legion post here, where a mix of veterans and active-duty troops sipped happy hour beers and watched the Olympics.
“The media doesn’t cover it so Americans don’t see the war,” said an enlisted airman who did not want to give his name. “It’s kind of odd because in every other case, bad news travels faster than good news.”
His friend, a recently retired master sergeant, diagnosed a terminal case of “war fatigue” in the country.
“It’s the elephant in the room, but people are desensitized to it,” said Brian Bellamy, 47.
But as the Air Force cargo jet ferrying Linnabary was heading toward the Atlantic coast last week, the war was all too real back in Helmand Province, where he died.
In a telephone interview from his headquarters in southern Afghanistan, Major General David Berger, commander of the First Marine Division, was asked whether the relative lack of attention back home is affecting his Marines. He paused.
“It’s a fair question,” he said. “They know why they’re here. Most volunteered after September 2001. We started this for the right reasons.”
Nevertheless, he added, “It’s in the back of your mind: Is the country behind us?”