On the final Memorial Day of this century, President Clinton asked Americans to honor the nation's war dead by rededicating themselves to "liberty" and "optimism" and to understand NATO's purpose in Kosovo.
At the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, Clinton made the NATO campaign against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo the central theme of his holiday message and acknowledged America's reluctance about NATO's air strikes.
"We have heard their stories of rape and oppression, of robbery and looting and brutality," Clinton said from the amphitheater in the heart of the cemetery. "I know that many Americans believe that this is not our fight.
"But remember why many of the people are laying in these graves out here -- because of what happened in Europe and because of what was allowed to go on too long before people intervened. What we are doing today will save lives, including American lives, in the future," Clinton said. "And it will give our children a better, safer world to live in."
Before delivering his speech, Clinton, assisted by a uniformed military aide, placed a wreath of red, white and blue flowers at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He bowed his head and paused for a moment in the silence of the cemetery under a sweltering sun.
"Our entire history is written in this ground," Clinton said of Arlington Cemetery -- the 200 acres of green hills dotted with white stones that mark the graves of those who have died in wars ranging from the American Revolution to the Persian Gulf War.
"Again and again, America has been tested in the 20th century, coming through it all, down to the present day, with even greater blessings of liberty and prosperity," Clinton said. "Thanks to our brave men and women in uniform, our nation has never been more secure."
Clinton told the audience that he was pleased to see so many people of diverse ethnic backgrounds in America's armed forces.
"How fitting it is that we are standing against ethnic cleansing with our wonderful, myriad, rainbow, multiethnic military in our increasingly diverse society that involves both the strength of our differences and the even more powerful pull of our shared American values," Clinton said.
"Now, we cannot expect everybody to follow our lead -- and we haven't gotten it entirely right, now," Clinton said. "We don't expect everybody to get along all the time. But we can say no to ethnic cleansing. We can say no to mass slaughter of people because of the way they worship God and because of who their parents were. We can say no to that, and we should."
Clinton said the goals in Kosovo will have a direct effect on the lives of young American soldiers who are being asked to put their lives on the line thousands of miles from home.
"Our objectives in Kosovo are clear and consistent with both the moral imperative of reversing ethnic cleansing and killing and our overwhelming national interest in a peaceful, undivided Europe, which will ensure we will not have to send large numbers of young Americans to die there in the next century in a war," Clinton said.
Jim Jones, 68, a veteran of the Korean War, approved of the president's words. Jones said he has attended Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery for the past 25 years.
Jones, of Annandale, said he went to the ceremony to honor those brave soldiers who risked their lives for the United States. "Freedom is so precious, and I don't think we appreciate it," he said.
CAPTION: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and President Clinton bow their heads in prayer during the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. In the foreground is Chief Master Sgt. Mark R. Williams, who plays the trombone in the Air Force Band.
CAPTION: A member of the American Legion Honor Guard passes before the Marine Corps Honor Guard during a parade of veterans organizations at Quantico National Cemetery's Memorial Day ceremony.