I am a U.S. veteran. I love my country. Flag burning infuriates me, for the U.S. flag is a symbol of my country. Yet I am heartsick at the clamoring of misguided patriots and self-serving politicians who wish to amend the Constitution to protect the flag.

The flag can be desecrated only if it is sacred. Surely the Founding Fathers would disapprove of a secular idol. It disturbs me that some should take literally the analogy that U.S. service members have "fought and died for the flag." They have not. They have fought and died for their comrades, their families, their communities and their country, which is empowered by the Constitution.

George Bush is wrong to equate the Constitution with the flag as merely another symbol of American life. The Constitution is much more than a symbol. It is the lasting guarantee of our Founding Fathers that all citizens will have rights, freedoms, protection and opportunities for happiness. The president and all federal and state officers are sworn "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," not the flag.

I am proud that my country has a constitution that protects the rights of minorities to have and express their opinions, no matter how insulting or offensive -- a constitution that allows me to write this letter, and The Post's readers to see it. It would sadden me to see that Constitution diminished.

Flag burning does not threaten our survival as a nation, but the diminution of freedoms is a small step in that direction. Let us not change the real foundation of our great nation just to protect one of its symbols. If we do, the desecrators will have won. They will have caused the "desecration" of the Constitution itself.

GLADE M. BISHOP Burke

Flag burning demonstrates how far we have come as a permissive society in allowing everyone to "do his own thing" without consideration for the rights or sensibilities of society. The flag is perhaps the quintessential symbol of our country. It is hailed before sports and civic events and stands as a symbol of national pride during international ceremonies, such as Olympic medal presentations. We pledge allegiance to it as a symbol of our nation. It is unthinkable that we would find it a permissible expression of free speech to desecrate or destroy the flag.

If a foreign nation were to occupy our country and destroy American flags, we would rise up in righteous indignation to cast off the oppressors. Those who would desecrate our flag are no less slapping our collective faces and throwing down a gauntlet of contempt. I have seen friends die defending the principles on which this country was founded and have been willing to lay my own life down in combat for those same principles. Our flag is inextricably connected to and symbolic of those principles.

This country was founded on the principle of freedom, both personal freedom and freedom for our nation. We nurture, cherish and protect our freedoms, and that is as it must be. But to desecrate such a basic and cherished symbol of our country as our flag is to strike at the heart of those very freedoms.

An amendment to the Constitution is a weighty matter. The Supreme Court has ruled that our flag may not be protected by law. Congress has tried a legislative solution and has failed. Now Congress must propose a carefully worded and narrow-scoped amendment to our Constitution that will protect our flag from malicious desecration or destruction. This is not infringement on free speech but careful protection of the most important symbol of our free society.

WILLIAM W. EDMUNDS JR. Herndon

Is a democracy as good as the laws and principles that shape it, or is it only as good as the people who make up its leaders and citizens at any given time? The frightening possibility that we may have a constitutional amendment criminalizing flag desecration infuriates and saddens me and offers a disturbing answer to this question.

The hypocrisy of Republicans, who normally claim to want less government and who claim to love freedom more than anybody else -- as sickening as it may be -- is only to be expected. But the tepid, cowardly response of some Democrats is even worse (maybe also only to be expected). Political leadership is a luxury we've been doing without for decades. The problem is that now the issue involves changing the fundamental law of the land, removing forever part of our fundamental freedoms.

What do the politicians now so gung-ho for an amendment believe will happen if one is ratified? Will it bring a halt to the (until recently) rare and sporadic incidents of flag burning and desecration? I can easily imagine a wave of civil unrest, massive disobedience and the proliferation of creative ways of profaning flags. I can imagine our jails clogged with flag burners who believe not in the sacredness of a piece of cloth but rather in the sacredness of the freedoms that the cloth represents, the freedoms no government that calls itself democratic should be able to take away. STEVEN COE Washington

The Supreme Court is supreme on interpreting the U.S. Constitution, but the flag-burning issue makes me wonder how it is on the English language.

While the First Amendment reads that Congress "can make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech," Justice Brennan and four other justices ruled that the government "cannot prohibit the expression of an idea." Different words, different meanings.

To speak means to "utter orally." Expression means both "putting into words" and "showing by look, voice or action." Does the Supreme Court know something about the English language that the dictionary-makers don't? Or are we getting a bit of revisionism here?

DONALD LANE MILLER Kilmarnock, Va.

It is a fine thing to honor the flag, but perhaps it would be finer to honor what it represents. If the "protection" amendment were to somehow become a reality, we might as well all prepare to burn our flags, because as a symbol, they would be violated and corrupt. What good is a symbol of freedom if the very freedom it is supposed to represent is taken from us?

State-compelled patriotism is not patriotism, it is thought-control. Approved dissent is not dissent, it is a mockery. If we wish to remain the land of the free and the home of the brave, we must recognize and value our freedoms and be brave enough to fight for them when they are threatened -- despite political and social pressure.

KATHRYN BARNHARDT Springfield

George F. Will's narrow interpretation of what constitutes valid political speech {op-ed, June 14} is dangerous because it represents the tyrannical camel's nose under the tent of free political expression. His distinction between verbal political speech and nonverbal, "obnoxious" symbolic dissent is specious.

Consider the following: Suppose, during wartime, a composer scored a piece featuring our national anthem overlaid by horrific sounds of bombs and children's crying, then overrode this with a triumphant version of our enemy's national anthem. Suppose this was performed in a public area, and the audience recognized the piece as being a symbolic protest against American policy. Suppose that the national temper was so high that a riot broke out. Under Mr. Will's argument, the authorities would have the legal right to ban such acts of protest.

Post World War II dissent in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. showed that political commentary can be made in any media. Dissent will flourish in whatever expressive niches are available. That the United States has arenas for "civil" civil protest does not mean that unconventional modes of expression, obnoxious or not, can be prohibited.

Two final, related points: If a test of the legality of political protest in this country revolves around whether or not it is "obnoxious," we are in trouble. Political dissent always will give offense to some whether it takes the form of burning a flag or handing out a broadside in a park.

Second, I do not want current circumscription of our political behavior to hinge totally on the writings of legislators two centuries ago. Mr. Will's constraint that we interpret our Constitution as the "Fathers" did is misguided because the Founders were not in complete agreement and were not omniscient; many parts of the Constitution can only be applied to current problems by reasoned interpretation in the context of the modern era, not rote application of selected great men's ideas. RICHARD PRESCOTT Vienna