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Remembering the fallen, from the past and present


WASHINGTON - Several times over the Memorial Day weekend, I biked around the monuments that make the nation's capital a glorious sight on such brilliantly sunny late-spring days.

My route took me past the Kennedy Center, the Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln memorials, the new World War II Memorial and the older Korean and Vietnam War memorials.

All were crammed with visitors, many of the men wearing their combat medals and military hats. Many flocked around the booths manned by Vietnam veterans who are relentlessly maintaining pressure on the government to find American prisoners of war or those missing in action.

Most conspicuous in the crowds were thousands of Rolling Thunder motorcyclists who roared in an orderly but deafening stream around the various monuments. Some bystanders quietly reached out to exchange low-fives with riders as they passed by.

Many of the Rolling Thunder cyclists wore the uniform of the nationwide bike club - black leather jackets or vests, some with "Nam Knights" and "Vietnam Vets USA" on the back. Some riders sported thick handlebar moustaches and, many more, middle-age potbellies.

The World War II site near the foot of the Washington Monument, with the Lincoln Memorial beyond, probably drew the largest crowds, as veterans conversationally swapped war memories. The line at the long black wall honoring the Vietnam War dead crept silently and, for the most part, somberly forward.

Nearly all historians consider World War II to be the "good war," waged with limitless support on the home front. Some differ on the Korean War, and the jury remains out for many other Americans who joined stormy street protests against the Vietnam War. But all of the memorials rightly honor all of the men and women who sacrificed their lives in their country's uniforms.

I couldn't help but wonder whether there will someday be an Iraq war memorial - perhaps to honor the combatants in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and beyond.

No less than the Americans who fought and died in those earlier conflicts memorialized in stone on or near the Mall, those who fell toppling Saddam Hussein and picking up the pieces afterward deserve the respect and tribute of their fellow Americans.

Such an honor, however, would in honesty require a clear differentiation between those who died in Iraq and those who obliged them to fight in an unpremeditated and unnecessary war that has seriously undermined the good reputation of this country worldwide.

I asked veterans and other visitors to war memorials whether they thought there should be an Iraq war memorial on the Mall. Some doubted it, but all said those dying in Iraq - 1,650, as of Memorial Day - deserved the same recognition as previous American war dead.

George Perdomo of Miami said: "Definitely, for all the guys who gave their lives. But most likely it won't [happen]. I don't think that's something they're going to want to remember, even though we said that about Vietnam."

If such a memorial is ever built, he guessed, "it's going to be a long time [coming]."

Jim Gray of Newark, Del., a 10-year Army vet, said of the possibility: "I think so. It is a war, and we should recognize the soldiers who lost their lives there, no matter how it turns out. The Vietnam War didn't turn out so good, and we've got a Vietnam War Memorial."

Brian Darmody of Catonsville, a University of Maryland administrator, noting the monument-crowded Mall, agreed: "Yeah, if there's room. ... Each war has its own controversies."

Robert Pierce, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and minister from Jacksonville, N.C., made a distinction between the war and those who fight it. "I think the American public needs to be kept aware of the sacrifice men and women in uniform are making for their freedom and for others around the world," he said. "The U.S. troops in Iraq were doing what the country asked them to do - nothing more, nothing less."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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