Washington -- THE WORDS, bugle calls and booming cannons amid rows of white crosses were loaded with irony.
A stern-faced Bill Clinton was laying a Memorial Day wreath to honor the dead of America's past wars.
Behind the ceremonial facade, he wrestled with a crisis in the bloody crags of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's a chunk of real estate few Americans care deeply about or can even pronounce.
Mr. Clinton was pushed closer to the unthinkable -- sending U.S. ground troops into the caldron of hate between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. If he commits U.S. soldiers and Marines into those killing fields, it could be the worst mistake of his presidency. And eventually doom it.
He surely knows that.
He also knows time is running out on his ploy of operating the Bosnian muddle by remote control while Serbs butcher civilians and kidnap U.N. peacekeepers.
Even as he spoke at the veterans' graves, Mr. Clinton was sending 2,000 Marines based offshore. If Western powers must fight their way out of the Balkans, 25,000 U.S. troops will join the firefight.
That unpopular, thankless mission, sure to involve casualties, is a venture the American public doesn't understand and doesn't want.
"They're not ready to commit flesh and blood to that area of the world," said Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., outside the White House. "And neither am I."
But reluctantly, Mr. Clinton is magnetized to sending American flesh and blood into the Balkan blood pit.
His illusion that piecemeal use of U.S. air power can stop the Serbs' murder has ignited a world-class fiasco.
Sure, Mr. Clinton was dealt a lousy hand when George Bush walked away from the Bosnian quagmire. Mr. Bush saw the Balkans as a poison pill to his 1992 presidential campaign. "We left this administration an unresolved mess," admits ex-Secretary State Lawrence Eagleburger.
After 29 months of confusion, hand-wringing and self-delusion on Mr. Clinton has been silent on Bosnia since his air raid backfired.
Bosnia, Mr. Clinton has wobbled into a showdown: Get tough or get out.
In Mr. Clinton's JFK-like rhetoric at Arlington Cemetery, you sensed the opening sales pitch to use U.S. troops in the Balkans:
"Generations before ours defeated the threats of fascism and communism. And now it is for us to rise to new challenges posed by forces of darkness and disintegration at home and abroad."
No mention of Bosnia directly. But Mr. Clinton has been silent on Bosnia since his air raid backfired like an exploding cigar.
It was a low-scale operation -- six U.S. planes hitting an ammunition dump. The message to the Serbs: "Back off, we're not kidding around."
Sounding like Robert McNamara in the 1960s, Defense Secretary William Perry cooed serenely, "I expect the air attack will achieve its desired result."
Yeah, if you want a major-league blunder.
The Serbs called the bluff with an upraised middle finger. They blew hell out of the "safe area" of Tuzla. Then they overpowered almost 400 lightly armed U.N. and NATO peacekeeping troops, handcuffing some to bombing targets.
"The Serbs trumped our ace," said Mr. Eagleburger. "You can't deal with a tough, uncivilized people in a rational way. It's like Vietnam, raising stakes without expecting the other side to take us on."
Not so cooly, the British and French exploded in humiliated outrage at TV images of captured lads handcuffed to metal poles as bombing bait. Secretary of State Warren Christopher hurtled to meet Europe's foreign ministers, all buzzing over The final (maybe) Bosnian Showdown.
What to do? Well, choose from the the menu:
1. Pull out. That would mean a three-month slog, involve 25,000 American troops, leaving behind a blood bath.
2. Arm Bosnian Muslims, Sen. Bob Dole's favorite gimmick.
3. Rescue U.N. peacekeeping prisoners with commando raids.
4. More aircraft carriers, more planes, more bombing.
5. Diplomacy, dangling concessions to prod the Serbs to spring hostages.
6. Relocating the peacekeepers, their force raised to 40,000, inside a heavily defended enclave.
If you guessed Nos. 4, 5, and 6, you've read the minds of Warren Christopher and NATO honchos. The "enclave strategy" (more Vietnam echoes) means circling the wagons, then bombing Serbs into good behavior.
Will this mean U.S. ground troops? If so, I hope Mr. Clinton will explain why. And then risk an up-or-down vote in Congress.
But I'd agree with Pentagon chieftain Gen. John Shalikashvili: "There's frustration that the conflict should not go on forever . . . enough is enough."
Maybe it's time to admit Bosnia isn't our fight, let the civil war run its bloody course.
In other words, no matter how humbling to NATO and Mr. Clinton, we should apply Sen. Carl Aiken's advice about Vietnam to Bosnia: Declare victory and get out.
Sandy Grady is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.