THE AMERICANS LIE in well-tended graves in France, Italy, Belgium, England, the Philippines and other places where they fell between 1941 and 1945. It is, in Shakespeare's phrase, a "fellowship of death," one made especially poignant by how young a fellowship it was. On marker after marker, the years span only a quarter or less of the lives that these men could have expected to live in prosperous postwar America. The number for that last full measure of devotion might, then, be put at some 60 years, a span that could have brought children, homes, work and all the rest of living.

Shortly after the Madrid train bombings two months ago, a tape was disseminated with the words of one of the strange legionaries in the current terror war against civilian populations. "You love life," said the voice on the tape. "We love death." It was meant as a sort of gibe, implying weakness on the part of those in the West who are unwilling to immolate themselves in some sacred cause. But it's not a new sentiment. Nearly 70 years ago a general in the Spanish Civil War uttered words that became a battle cry for fellow members of the fascist Falange: "Long live death!"

Most of the American war dead, in foreign soil and in their own country, would have acknowledged that they loved life, but perhaps not life without liberty or the respect of others who answered the country's call. No suicide warriors here, simply people who put themselves in peril when they thought it right and necessary. This weekend on the Mall they receive belated honors in the national capital from a remnant of those who were granted that additional three-quarters of a life -- fellow veterans assembled here with their sons and daughters and grandchildren. The National World War II Memorial has gotten mixed reviews, to say the least, but the ultimate critics will, as always, be the people: the dwindling war generation and then those who follow after them. Will they keep on coming and make this a place of living memory? We think they likely will.

In one cemetery in Italy near the seacoast lie the remains of 7,862 Americans who died in combat in that country. Their graves are visited each year by 200,000 people, very few of them from the United States. "The Italians always come," the cemetery's superintendent told a visiting reporter from the New York Times this month. "What we're getting lots more of now are the former Eastern Bloc people -- Czechs, Poles, Kosovars and such." The cemetery's gardener stopped his work on the graves and remarked to the reporter: "They have been buried here so long, they are Italians now."

"You love life." A true enough accusation. Many have loved it enough to die for it.