Forgotten war that's only mentioned on the graves at Arlington cemetery

It is 2.30pm on a weekday afternoon. Sunlight filters through the willow oaks and beech, descending from a perfect blue sky. Beneath the trees, rows of marble headstones stretch away, seemingly without end, rising up green, closely cropped slopes towards the house of perhaps the American civil war's most famous general, Robert E Lee. There is a stillness here that envelops everything, a silence that demands respect.

Then suddenly, without warning, a rifle volley thunders out, then another, and another. A bugle sound Taps, the US army's equivalent of the Last Post. In a separate part of the vast Arlington National Cemetery, another American hero is being laid to rest with full military honours.

But in Section 60 of the cemetery, it is quiet. Here is where many of the more than 4,100 men and women killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom are buried. It is a work in progress. Newly filled graves await headstones. Vacant lots await fresh occupants. Casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan are now being buried here, too. There is plenty of room left.

Section 60 has been called America's saddest acre. It may also be its most forlorn. Because it is here that the extent to which the US has begun to turn its back on a conflict that defined a presidency and divided the world can be measured.

As far as many Americans are concerned, it seems that Iraq has become a forgotten war. Some believe, along with the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, that "victory" has already been won. For others, the war feels like a painful memory, a subject best not discussed.

In the presidential election campaign, surveys show only 8-9% of Americans rate Iraq as the most important issue. Economic worries, healthcare, energy prices and taxes have all taken precedence as the global financial crisis bites.

In last week's presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, Iraq was barely mentioned. The Democrat has set a 16-month timetable for withdrawal. The Republican says that is defeatist. "I will bring our troops home in victory and honour," said McCain.

But the watching audience, judging by instant graph lines measuring their reaction, did not want to know. Iraq is a distraction from their real concerns. Iraq is a turn-off. And in Section 60, that leaves a hurtful question hanging in the warm, still air: what was it all for?

Michael Gainey, a staff sergeant who returned from a year's tour in Iraq in December, firmly believes his friend and fellow serviceman Russell Shoemaker, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad, on May 24 2007, did not die in vain. Gainey has come from Charlotte, North Carolina, to visit Shoemaker's grave.

"Russell would have thought it was worth it. He made an impact. He fulfilled his mission," Gainey said. "Russell was a real great guy. We were involved in training the Iraqi police.

"The day he died he was going to a meeting with local Iraqis. We couldn't train them properly. It was a combat zone. But I think we helped."

Gainey said he was not surprised the public appeared to have lost interest in Iraq. "Iraq's off the agenda," he said. "Americans have got complacent. They've got used to it. It's not on the TV so much. And the situation there is better than it was. It's right that people are focusing on their pocketbooks. I understand that."

His views were echoed by a female US army colonel who had also come to Section 60 to honour fallen comrades. She asked not be named.

"Americans have been desensitised to Iraq," she said. "We've been at it now for seven years in the war on terror. I think many people just shut it out. Americans are still very supportive of our troops. That doesn't necessarily mean they support the policy."

According to her father, a second world war veteran, people were thinking too much about their own problems. "The attitude has changed quite a bit since the war started," she said. "You've got to protect your own country. But there are too many soft-hearted people. There's too much greed."

Recent surveys confirm a sharp falling-off in political support. Asked last month in an ABC News/Washington Post poll whether the Iraq war had been worth fighting, 61% said "no" while 36% said "yes". Fifty-eight percent of respondents told Gallup that the whole thing had been a mistake; while 59% told the Associated Press in September they wanted a timetable to bring the troops home.

Sitting on the grass by the grave of his brother, Captain Ian Patrick Weikel, who was killed in Balad, north of Baghdad, in April 2006, Chad Weikel believes that America's unique sense of mission to improve the world must not become a casualty of Iraq.

Weikel, from Colorado Springs, believes this so strongly, he has signed up to go to Iraq, following in his brother's footsteps despite his wife's opposition.

"I joined [the army] because of my brother. I wouldn't be doing it otherwise. Whether people support the war depends on party lines. I'm surprised they're not more interested. But people don't get the real picture of what we're doing over there," Weikel said, shielding his eyes from the sunlight.

"It's my brother's birthday today. He's 34 today. He was always awful at birthday presents. He'd buy crappy gifts or else he'd forget. I've been talking to him about that. I talk to him a lot. But he never really answers back."

Simon Tisdall