As a chorus sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," there were tears in James Kahn's eyes, but he stood ramrod straight, his left arm curled in a crisp salute.

Dressed in a faded army uniform with only an empty sleeve where his right arm had once been, the 63-year-old World War II veteran was commemorating Memorial Day the way he always does by attending services at Arlington National Cemetery.

"God, this music stirs me up," he said yesterday. "I've come here every year for the past 33 years and I'll come for as along as I can walk to get here."

A few miles away from Arlington another Memorial Day service took place, this one quite different.

Instead of 4,000 spectators there were 400. Instead of hymns and patriotic speeches there was talk of "the fierce and frustrating crucible of Vietnam." Instead of James Kahn there was Levi Jackson.

"I'm just bewildered by it," said Jackson, a 31-year-old former marine. "I really don't want to talk about it. "I really don't know why I came. I was just curious, I guess."

The service, held at Constitution Gardens on the Mall, was the first of its kind in Washington, according to its sponsors, to honor those who died in the Vietnam war. Its lack of pageantry and the pained ambivalence of its participants were in striking constrast to the traditional ceremony at Arlington -- and a telling commentary on how Americans remember their wars.

The Constitution Gardens service was sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to "acknowledge those who made the ultimate sacrifice and the 2.7 million Americans who served in the Vietnam conflict," according to a fund spokesman.

The crowd consisted mainly of men in their late 20s and early 30s. Most sat in chairs, but other lounged in the grass or rode up on bicycles, unaware of what the program was all about.

One of the scheduled speakers for the event, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), pulled out at the last minute to fly to Norfolk to greet the crew of the nuclear aircraft carrier Nimitz.

"There's always something more important than Vietnam," grumbled one veteran.

Sen Charles Mathias (R-Md.) spoke about the "unpaid debts of war." They "received no hero's welcome when they returned," he said. "They have been nagged by the ambiguities and frustrations of a strange war and deserve our respect and gratitude.

"But wounds heal, and divisions mend," Mathias said. "Americans have emerged from the fierce crucible of Vietnam . . . strengthened and purged."

Only a handful of Vietnam veterans attended the Arlington service, and some of those who gathered at Constitution Gardens called the tributes payed them "too little, too late."

"When I came back I was laughed at," said former Marine Sgt. Murray McCann. "If a car door slammed I'd hit the ground and people thought that was funny. Parents wouldn't let me play with their children, and those beer-bellied patriots . . . they'd give me the finger and say 'we don't want you hippies around.'"

"The whole experience was a shock," McCann said, remembering that a battalion leader frequently told new members of the first battalion, Ninth Marine Division (nicknamed the "walking dead" division) "I'll just say good-bye to you guys now."

"This is long overdue," said 31-year-old Tony Giuffreda, another former marine. "Most Vietnam vets have just laid low all these years. People here were guilty. Nobody wanted you to talk about it."

Jackson, like many of the Vietnam veterans interviewed yesterday, has drifted from job to job. Jackson said "I was a journeyman construction worker once, then a janitor for the past few years. I didn't want anything that would make me have to think."

Across the river in Arlington, there was fanfare and tears, a lilting National Anthem sung by Miss America and grim predictions from old warriors that patriotism is dying.

"You hear so many young men saying that they would never go to Iran or Afghanistan if that is what it will take," said 51-year-old Peter Moore of Washington, whose uniform still fits the way it did in Korea in 1952 with the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division.

"If they asked me to go I'd be ready to go right now," Moore said.

The main speaker at the Arlington ceremonies was Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, who called the day a "fitting way to give solemn thanks to those who lost their lives, and those who serve us today . . . Freedom without compassion, honor and quality is not freedom at all."

Marcia Diffrin, 48, bought McLean Cub Scout Pack 822 to Arlington "to instill some patriotism in them. It's very important to start them out early. There's a lot of disillusionment now. The kids were all impressed with the soldiering."

Albert C. Alan, 63, who served with the army in Europe in World War II, said the Arlington service "makes you feel like you want to belong . . . and the music, it's like they wrote those notes just for you."

But for Giuffreda and the other Vietnam veterans on the mall, there has been no music. In his opinion Americans have instead glorified the people who refused to serve in Vietnam. "They came out as the smart guys because they didn't go," he said. "That doesn't help a lot of us."

Read Wilson, a 31-year-old former Marine captain from Vienna who now works as a carpenter because "I haven't been able to stand a desk job" wondered if he would ever stand with a proud salute at a veterans ceremony.

"Maybe 30 years from now," he said. "Maybe I'll be wearing one of those little shriners caps and singing songs . . . but right now, I just don't feel that way."