The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery is all about symbolism. Those who rest there in anonymity are representative of all who served their country and made the ultimate sacrifice.

Being unknown, they may have died while performing an act of courage or they may have fallen simply through the mischance of war. It is impossible to say, and it does not matter. They are honored not as individuals but as symbols of many nameless heroes.It's necessary to point this out because the family of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, whose body lay for 14 years in the Vietnam crypt until disinterred earlier this year and identified by DNA testing, had wanted the Medal of Honor awarded when he was unknown to be credited to him now.

After the Air Force reviewed the request and Secretary of Defense William Cohen considered it, the military informed the family that this medal was a symbolic award to all service members who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, and should not be given to the flier's family. Pat Blassie, the pilot's sister, said last week that the family would respect the decision.

The Pentagon's view may seem insensitive, but it is the right one. While every one who lays down his life for the United States is in one sense a hero, the Medal of Honor does not honor the act of dying (some recipients survive), but - more precisely - particular, conspicuous acts of gallantry.

Such courageous acts usually require independent witnesses to be honored. In the case of unknown soldiers, Congress has allowed exceptions because the circumstances are unclear.

First Lt. Blassie was a hero in his own right - the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross were among his decorations - but the Medal of Honor was awarded without corroboration precisely because, then unknown, he exemplified the many brave men still missing.

The simple fact is that he does not do that now, because his remains have gone home to his family. They deserve sympathy but not the Medal of Honor - which rightfully belongs to the more than 2,000 servicemen still listed as missing in Indochina.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.