America - Andrew Stephen wonders where dead GIs go

The war has become a distant pageant. Once in a while, those who fight it are the subjects of a schm

You have to live in the US for years before you can distinguish between the various American bank holidays and how they feel. First, you learn that there are two kinds: for holidays such as Martin Luther King and Columbus days, for example, most schools, courts and government offices are closed, but otherwise life continues routinely for most people. There are three major holidays, though - Memorial, Independence and Labor days - which are sacred to Americans, and each of which has a distinctive flavour.

Independence Day (in July) is hot, intense and reverential; Labor Day (in September) carries a hint of melancholy, of battening down for inevitable storms to come; Memorial Day, which we celebrated on 30 May (the same day as the British spring bank holiday), was once known as Decoration Day and has been set aside since 1867 to remember the war dead. It traditionally heralds the summer, and fresh hope: when Americans start dreaming of the hazy, lazy days to come, when life begins anew and temperatures soar.

This year, however, Memorial Day had a decidedly different feel. There were the usual touching scenes, for example, when Rolling Thunder - ageing, paunchy, largely forgotten men in late middle age and wearing leather biking gear - poured into Washington on their motorbikes to remember their colleagues who fell in Vietnam. The "Last Post" ("Taps", in the US) rang out at war memorials across the country to remember, too, the 400,000 American servicemen and women who perished in the Second World War. President Bush said "today is a day of last letters and fresh tears" - adding, inevitably, that "freedom is on the march".

Yet, in reality, there is a chasm between the American people and the US military that is greater than at any time in history. For 99 per cent of the population, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become distant, faraway pageants that do not affect them personally - but which, on the likes of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, are marked by vast schmaltzfests on the cable news channels instead. Sentimentalising war in this way, I suspect, can have only one effect so far as Iraq is concerned: as reality recedes, it makes public opinion dangerously volatile and susceptible to mood swings that can easily be triggered by political slogans or media sleights of hand.

Vietnam may have been the first war to be affected by comment and coverage on television, but in those days there was conscription; the realities thus filtered through to all social and educational classes, including those who ran the media. The result was that there was far less romanticisation of war and more acknowledgement of its sufferings. I'm told it was much the same in the Second World War, when more than ten million US conscripts were mobilised for duty.

But this year, just the mention of an American soldier in Iraq who is separated from his wife and newborn was enough to bring a tear to the eye of the news anchorman; live hook-ups of tongue-tied spouses and children were more likely to bring on paroxysms of weeping. Yet a survey out last month found that in the six bloody months between last September and this February, not one major US newspaper printed a photograph showing American dead in Iraq; the one near-exception was the Seattle Times, which showed the covered body of a US serviceman. Neither Time nor Newsweek, which were rightly famed for their searing coverage of Vietnam, showed any battlefield dead.

There has been no conscription here for 32 years, and now there are 1.4 million active-duty uniformed men and women in the US forces - just 0.47 per cent of the population, by my count. These men and women have 1.9 million dependants, so the total of those directly affected by what is happening in Iraq is not much more than 1 per cent. Politicians and pundits may weep dramatic tears over the 1,663 American dead and more than 12,630 wounded in Iraq, but the overwhelming statistical likelihood is that they will have no personal connections with the bloodshed; the romantic stories, of loves and lives selflessly laid down for freedom, are much preferred.

It would have been agreeable, this past Memorial Day, to have heard some reality checks: that there are far too few troops in Iraq; that their body armour is woefully inadequate; that tours of duty are being extended so much that careers and civilian lives are being ruined - that government contracts with soldiers are, in effect, being torn up. As a result, army recruitment is at an all-time low. In the National Guard and Reserve, on which much of the onus has fallen, the situation is desperate.

In this nation, now simultaneously fascinated by war and more distant from it than ever, fairy tales go down better. We have Independence Day in a month and Labor Day two months after that. Perhaps, by the time Veterans Day comes around on 11 November, the nation will have a better grasp of reality.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule