Here it is perfect. Past the full green trees the sky is clean blue. The riderless horse quivers but does not move. All around are markers from past wars, small white stones, towering obelisks, cannons and rocks and statues. Young soldiers lift white-gloved hands to their foreheads in firm salute as the shots slam into the air. And then the trumpet begins to play, slow, solemn, familiar as grief.

Each month at Arlington National Cemetery there are more than 300 funerals, about 10 of them with the full military honors -- the horse and black-draped caisson, the gunfire and trumpet. For many, such services are the very embodiment of patriotism, timeless events carved out of ceremony, images made potent through war after war, movie after movie.

Patriotism is an idea most comfortably contained in its symbols. The flag. The Pledge of Allegiance. Fireworks on the Fourth of July. At Arlington, such symbols are everywhere, and the local definition of patriotism is self-evident: These men and women died for their country.

But outside the gates, beyond the rows of stones marking lives given for a nation, the love of country is far more complicated. It is a powerful currency that politicians hoard and spend. It is a source of pride, of excuses, of sustenance. Sometimes it is merely an unexamined cliche. It is homesickness in a foreign country. It is the flavors of childhood food, the smell of a remembered classroom, the faces of family. It is the words to songs everyone knows.

It is the emotion we are all supposed to feel -- that unites us. It is the emotion we all feel differently.

Kristine Platt, 24-year-old volunteer at Bread for the City, which provides food and clothing for the poor: "I don't think I owe very much to the government. They take their taxes and they don't do a whole lot for the people I have come to care for. But to the nation, I feel I owe a lot. I'm in a position of privilege, basically -- I'm middle class, I'm white and there are a lot of people who don't have much, and I feel responsible to them. If people are the nation, I feel I do owe a great deal to them."

James D. Ford, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives: "Sometimes when I leave work at night, when we're finally done, I leave from my office and instead of going out the first floor I go to the second floor and walk through Statuary Hall. Here are all these statues -- in the quiet of the evening they look at you and I must say you go through with a feeling, a sort of resolution you'll do better in your work and that the institution will do better. You have a bond with the past."

Peri Jude Radecic, legislative director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task force and sister of Buffalo Bills starting linebacker Scott Radecic: "I would consider myself a very patriotic citizen. I get teary-eyed on the Fourth of July. I love to sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at football. To me, being patriotic means participating as an openly gay person and being able to do so comfortably with my family in what is considered an all-American institution -- football."

Marie Yochim, president general of the Daughters of the American Revolution: "Just to look at the flag, you can't help but be patriotic. I've always loved the flag. I've always loved band music. Nowadays, I think if the children were taught some of the things they used to teach, such as love of country and respect of the flag, they would love the country more."

Even after years of general peace, for many the truest sign of national loyalty is the willingness to fight.

"I'm red, white and blue," says Claude Haynes. For Haynes, those colors refer not only to his work -- he founded and owns the National Capital Flag Co. -- but to his military service, which is inseparable from his definition of patriotism. "I enlisted in the Navy, I wasn't drafted. My sons enlisted in the service."

So often patriotism comes down to battle. Love of country is the engine that fuels an army at war and the families at home, and a very American determination to be allowed to defend ourselves has nourished the gun lobby for years.

"The awareness is there all the time," says Charlene Dodd, an elementary school teacher from Junction City, Kan., who visited Washington recently. "Many of our friends went to Vietnam and were killed. It's a little more meaningful for us -- the daily reminders are there every time you see the families left behind."

Junction City is home to the Fort Riley Army base. "We're from a military community -- you wouldn't do flag burning in Junction City," says Dodd. "In our school almost all of the classes have a flag salute and the Pledge of Allegiance in the beginning."

But the wedding of military might and love of country leaves others uneasy.

"Some people really get into the changing of the guard -- I don't. I'm more quiet," says Jackie Letizia, a Tourmobile guide who knows the name and history of every man on horseback at every Washington circle and plaza. "I think America is too militaristic. I would like to see more memorials for other accomplishments -- literary, artistic, humanitarian. Even the Soviet Union has a Poets Square. We don't."

Letizia waits for her next troupe of tourists at the Lincoln Memorial. Of all the major monuments in the city, this may be the most grandly solemn, and its visitors are more likely to be touched by one man's words and the idea of slavery's end than reminded of a bloody war. Yet even here Letizia is troubled.

"There's the statue of Einstein," she says, "but he worked on the bomb -- although he eventually was critical of it."

"There's Temperance Fountain," offers Tourmobile dispatcher Steve Robbins, but then pauses. "Slaves were traded there, at Seventh and Indiana," he says, the realities of history muddying the waters.

"I've had people say to me, 'This is what America is!' at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," says Letizia. "I say, 'No, there's more.' I think we need to emphasize the Constitution rather than the military. anyone can field an army."

Periodically the Return of Patriotism is trumpeted.

In the late '70s, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis, Americans could rally in opposition to fearsome enemies. Patriotism soared.

"If you remember the U.S. hockey victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics -- I don't think American patriotism has ever been higher," says Michael Kammen, a history professor at Cornell University. "The image of the goalie on the team wrapped in the American flag, skating up and down in Lake Placid -- no one regarded that as desecration of the flag. That was an absolute crescendo for American patriotism."

Some historians, City University of New York professor Alan Brinkley among them, observe such swells of patriotism with a somewhat jaundiced eye, reading the emotions as a sign of anxiety and cultural instability.

"I think partly we're still acting out the battles that began in the '60s," he says. "I think patriotism becomes more pronounced at moments when societies feel uneasy about themselves and their future, and this seems to be a time in our history -- now quite a long time in our history -- when Americans have felt very uneasy about the state of American society."

Now we debate flag burning, constitutional amendments, English as the official language of the United States. Politicians play patriotic one-upmanship. We worry about how to compete with Japan, how much influence America retains as the lines on the globe shift. We argue over which books our college students should study and what music we should listen to.

And on the Fourth of July we try to look past much of what we argue about the rest of the year.

"The customary oratory of the Fourth of July is essentially nostalgic -- which is collective memory without guilt," says Kammen. "The things we can be rightly proud of we remember in our patriotic oratory, and the things we can't be proud of -- such as the genocide of Native Americans or slavery or repression of people overseas -- those are the kinds of things we try to forget."

But for many Americans with links to those repressed subjects, forgetting is impossible.

"Patriotism is something that people should be able to work towards rather than claim," says Job Mashariki, president of Black Veterans for Social Justice. Patriotism is a challenge to become a more moral, responsible country, he believes, and he will not feel the emotion as long as much of America avoids the challenge. "I look at patriotism in direct relationship to the quality of life for the people in this country -- the citizens. Unfortunately, I think too often patriotism is hollow to the masses of working and poor people in this country."

July Fourth is a day for celebration for Joallyn Archambault, but it is a celebration of something other than the birth of the United States. "Oftentimes, I have been at powwows on the Fourth of July having an awful lot of fun," says Archambault, director of American Indian programs at the National Museum of Natural History, "but it has absolutely nothing to do with being a citizen of the United States of America." Instead, it has to do with being a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota.

National loyalty, she says, "is a conflicting emotion for me personally. I certainly am aware as a citizen of the United States that I am affected and impacted by mainstream American culture, that I speak English instead of Lakota. I cannot personally remember a time when I was emotionally overtaken by total and indiscriminate pride in just being an American. My ethnic identity and tribal membership have always been for me and my family the overriding element of our lives."

Loyalties compete. Tribe, race, religion, class can all call forth feelings that leave little room or need for a larger attachment. Steve Robbins, who teaches physical education at Howard University as well as working for the Tourmobile company, says that among his students, "I see more patriotism towards black nationality than I do toward the nation as a whole."

For years the reassuring image of American ethnic and racial diversity was a Norman Rockwell canvas of faces -- black, white, brown -- all gazing with rapt patriotic pride. The message of the painting is that the faces may be different in appearance, but look -- they share the same expression, the same emotion. Of course, diversity is more difficult than that. Not everyone wants to be melted in the pot, and similarities are often overwhelmed by differences.

Patriotism can at times overcome those barriers. "When you have a very pluralistic society like ours, then the common basis for allegiance and patriotism is one of the principles that bind us together," says Kammen.

But alternately, patriotism can reflect an antipathy toward immigrants and others perceived as alien, believes Brinkley. "I don't think most other cultures have the same insecurity about their nationhood that America has," he says.

"We were a sort of self-invented country to begin with," he says, and we are constantly engaged in reinventing our idea of what it means to be an American and our perception of what an American looks like.

When Claude Haynes talks about patriotism, his thoughts roam from the beauty of the Maryland and Virginia countryside to his frustration with politicians ("They're followers, not leaders") to his gratitude that he could raise his family here ("I may sound rather maudlin, but I'm telling you what's in my heart"). Then, as if to explain his own loyalty, he tells a brief story.

"We have people here, not native-born Americans, that love to be here. We had one woman working for us, a seamstress -- we have 15 women working in the sewing room -- and this woman's husband was transferred to Chicago and she couldn't bear to say goodbye. She just cried. We've had others do the same thing."

Of course, that woman was leaving Northern Virginia and her job, not the country. But to Haynes those things are inextricably linked. Patriotism, he says, includes "love of your fellow human being." And in truth, to hear people talk about patriotism, it often sounds less like love of country than love of community, less loyalty to a nation than to a home.

One woman sipping pink lemonade in front of the Lincoln Memorial says she is patriotic "because of the freedom to do this, to be able to walk around, do as you please, nobody telling you that you can't."

To do as you please -- to visit the nation's capital, to drink pink lemonade on a hot day, to sit on a bench and get up when you want -- are these freedoms limited to the United States? Of course not, but when you love a country, part of what you are loving is your own individual life, the vacations you take and the lemonade you drink.

Sometimes patriotism grows slowly, transforming itself without warning or sound into something new.

In 1979 the novelist Arnost Lustig became a U.S. citizen. Although the Czechoslovakian exile and Holocaust survivor hoped for years that someday he might return to the country he fled in 1968, he assumed the hope would never be realized.

Then the world changed. Earlier this year, he and his wife and son traveled to Prague. The trip back was a revelation. In Czechoslovakia the American University professor found a nation still infected by years of repression, "morally corrupted because for 40 years they had to lie and pretend to survive, and it was like a better concentration camp where there was no killing of people but it was breaking them morally. Even the most beautiful people are touched by the poison because it was impossible not to be touched."

And when he returned, he was shocked to find a change in himself.

"When I was here, I always felt on the margin," he says. "It's a beautiful country, but I always felt that as good as it was to me and as grateful as I am -- I felt that I am on the edge, never completely involved."

But after his voyage to the place he calls his "old home," he felt differently.

"Time is more wide than men, and time did something to me that I didn't expect," he says. "When I came back, I found out I am at home in America too. America in that moment multiplied and everything that I was denying to myself -- while idealizing my old home of Czechoslovakia -- changed proportions.

"What happened was, I love America, being able to go home. Now I am really free. Before it was limited freedom here, beautiful but limited because I was free here but I couldn't go there so it was like having a chain on my leg. Now I am free like a bird."