Of Bitburg and the obscene little political squabble it inspired, let this be said before the incident fades:

Not for many years has an episode inspired such personal disgust and outrage in me. No recent event so confirms the widely held public belief that much of Washington seems preoccupied with petty, cynical politics and public relations of the moment -- with how something plays "out there" rather than with what it truly represents and means.

Evidence of this took many forms.

In the press, stories about Bitburg invariably referred to protests by Jewish and veterans' groups. As if they were the only ones who were deeply offended. What an insult.

In private conversations, more than once I heard supposedly intelligent and, presumably, sensitive people comment on Bitburg by focusing almost entirely on its potential political damage to the president. Depending on the person speaking, this was seen either as a matter of no real interest "beyond the Beltway" or it was something that could be redeemed and turned to political advantage by courting this or that constituency group -- Jews, veterans, what have you.

How about a Nazi or two for balance -- a "good" Nazi as opposed to a "bad" Nazi, of course? How about a flyover of another concentration camp? How about adding another American cemetery to the schedule?

A corresponding topic of discussion, often expressed, involved speculation about "what America thinks." Again, depending on the person and his latest trip out of town, and to where, either "nobody cares about it" or "that's what they're all talking about." I've heard both solemnly cited as "the truth."

Inevitably, figures from an instant poll would be cited and analyzed for their political impact. As if what matters most is the statistical breakdown of the latest testing of the fickle public-opinion winds: 24 percent say they think the president ought to honor SS and ordinary German soldiers equally, 24 percent disagree, 52 percent have no opinion.

If 99 out of 100 people surveyed said they could not care less, it still doesn't detract from the significance of this event.

That leads to my final source of anger: that this miserable little incident has been allowed to divert attention from a subject that deserves the greatest public consideration -- the second world war, both what it meant, and what it did, to humanity.

This is especially unfortunate because the timing of the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe (V-E Day) comes amid an uncharacteristic -- and welcome -- spate of serious and sober introspection about traumas of the past. For a nation that is said to have no sense of history, we have been paying extraordinary attention to historic milestones of late.

Day after day, on our front pages and over our TV screens, we have been reminded of the anguish and lessons of the fall of Saigon and end of the Vietnam experience a decade ago. In the backdrop, building to this moment, has been some sign of remembrance of the infinitely greater human tragedy of World War II, a tragedy on a scale so vast and shattering that it still defies comprehension.

All the more reason for the present younger generation of Americans, the ones we say have no historical memory, as well as the nation's leaders and policy-makers, to reflect on what happened, and why, and attempt to draw some lessons that apply to our even more dangerous age.

It was a war that saw nearly 70 million people in uniform, of whom some 18 million died in battle. Many millions more died as a result of the war. No accurate count exists of the number of civilians -- men, women and children -- who died. In China alone, the estimates are of "several million" civilian deaths. In the Soviet Union, the estimates of civilian deaths begin at 2 1/2 million and escalate. Probably no one can say with certainty how many more people, soldiers and civilians alike, were maimed and wrecked spiritually or mentally. The wreckage of property, the loss of priceless works of art and irreplaceable monuments of architecture, the expenditure of personal and national treasure are incalculable. Let it be merely recorded that the earth never witnessed such massive suffering and sacrifice and destruction.

It was a war that reshaped the map of the globe (twice as many nations now exist), dealt a death blow to the colonial empires (in years to come, I believe, Vietnam will be viewed as the last of the colonial wars), brought America fully onto the international stage for a brief moment of unsurpassed economic and military power, and spawned an emerging world where the white race is destined to play an increasingly small role (the population of the earth has more than doubled since the war, by far the greatest increases being recorded among nonwhites).

It was a war that accelerated the stunning technological and scientific advances and discoveries of the 20th century and thrust them into areas of life unimaginable a few decades ago. It was a war that led to the birth of the nuclear and space ages, with all their potential and peril.

These are reasons enough for Americans and others to reflect on that seminal event of history, to ask anew how the human animal ever sank so low, to seek again answers on how best to prevent such a calamity. To permit a stupidly conceived, inexcusable episode to divert proper attention from these and many other considerations is not just an obscenity. It is a tragedy and a waste. It makes a mockery of all that has transpired and robs that terrible page in the human experience of meaning.