'Don't mention the war'

Since the 2012 political conventions kicked off last week, you've heard all about a young mayor named Julian Castro, an old ex-mayor named Clint Eastwood, an empty chair named Imaginary Barack Obama -- plus a lot of cross-talk about whether you did or didn't build that.

You didn't hear anything about Christopher J. Birdwell, Mabry J. Anders, Jessica M. Wing, Jonathan P. Schmidt, Jeremie S. Border, or Kyle R. Rookey. They are the six American soldiers who've died while serving in Afghanistan -- the longest war in American history, at 11 years and counting -- since the first gavel dropped in Tampa.

"Don't mention the war" was the catch phrase in an iconic episodeof the John Cleese sit-com "Fawlty Towers," but it also could have been a theme night at either the Republican or Democratic convention. A nation at war has managed to stage its two major political confabs of the early 2010s with none of the trappings of a nation at war -- either in high-profile tributes to the American fighting men and women, or in any serious policy debate about why we fight...still, over a decade later.

Last week's high profile acceptance speech by Republican nominee Mitt Romney was a remarkable event -- even by the standards of a society that prides itself in willful ignorance of  the efforts of volunteer soldiers halfway around the world. The candidate made no mention of Afghanistan or even "war," other than a passing reference to properity after World War II.

That hasn't happened in 60 years. Even conservative partisan William Kristol took to his blog after Romney's speech to question "the civic propriety of a presidential nominee failing even to mention, in his acceptance speech, a war we're fighting and our young men and women who are fighting it."

Romney's omission may have created an opening for a savvy pol like President Obama. But it's a safe bet that the commander-in-chief and his surrogates will be highly selective in what they talk about -- you may hear the name "Osama bin Laden" once or twice, unlike the GOP in Tampa -- and in what they don't talk about, including drone strikes that have killed dozens of civilians and inspired a new generation of terrorists and targeted assassination, even of American citizens.

Neither party is eager going to answer the one question a war-weary nation would actually like answered. When will it end?

"Politically, Afghanistan is difficult to discuss," Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich told me by email yesterday. Bacevich is a retired colonel who fought in Vietnam and lost his son in Iraq, a self-identified conservative who became a leading critic of U.S. military policy."

The war is clearly not being won," Bacevich continued. "Yet neither party will say that's it's being lost.  That might imply that the troops are somehow at fault.  By and large, the attention of a war-weary and cash-strapped electorate lies elsewhere.  Keeping mum on the subject is the expedient way to go."

Perhaps so. In a couple days, the Democrats, their glitzy stage and 15,000 reporters will be leaving Charlotte in a hurray. But just under 100,000 American troops on Afghanistan will still be coming home in agonizingly slow motion.