EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- The last war is like some tribal god that gets toted through the village on feast days, year after year, cracked and painted until after a while you can hardly recognize it.

The last war is always the real war. When Vietnam was just starting, the real war was World War II. Now in the desert the real war is Vietnam.

"We've all seen the movies, 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Platoon,' " said Lance Cpl. Benjamin Bradshaw. He was standing around in the sand with a bunch of other Marines on Christmas morning. They were eating cornflakes.

You remember in "Platoon," Bradshaw asked, when they pour the fuel oil in the outhouse barrels and light it?

"We do that here, just like 'Platoon,' " he said. He was proud, as if that smell, which is part of the incense of geopolitics in our time, was a sort of relic, a little piece of the war god himself.

" 'Full Metal Jacket,' " said Pfc. Joseph Queen, of Northeast Washington. "At the end, they send that guy out there by himself looking for that sniper. They never should have done that, man."

For these guys it makes no difference that Vietnam movies are anti-war movies. The pro or anti of them means nothing. They are war, the same way that "Sands of Iwo Jima" was war for the men who went to Vietnam.

"There is always glory," Bradshaw said. "Nothing can compare to war. There is nothing more manly than proving yourself in war. If you can prove yourself there -- everybody would like to go home, but there'sthat little part that will be disappointed if we do nothing."

"I just hope that this time they turn us loose here and let us win it," said Lance Cpl. Melvin Blazer, who understands that the god of war betrayed us before Vietnam was even over. It's easy to forget that betrayal is one of the attributes of the war god -- that and a very tricky sense of humor.

As if sensing apostasy, and trying to win us back, the Vietnam movies have shown us things that the World War II movies never did, making it real for these guys, a new gospel of sucking chest wounds and flying body parts. Troops here in the desert wear one dog tag around their necks, the other in their left boots, to improve the odds of going home all in the same body bag.

"When John Wayne got killed, bang, that's it, he just fell down," said Marine Capt. Bret Shomaker. "Now, in the Vietnam movies these guys see, there's body parts all over the place."

" 'Born on the Fourth of July' is scarier," said Bradshaw, referring to the movie about Ron Kovic, a Vietnam Marine who ended up in a wheelchair.

The soldiers here worry about this the way troops in Korea and Vietnam worried about being overrun, having grown up on movies like "Bataan."

"Hollywood completely colors their way of seeing war," said retired Col. David Hackworth, who was in Korea and is the most-decorated living veteran of Vietnam. He was here to write about the war.

There are the slow-mo ultra-violence movies, but there is also the fast-mo, ultra-violent nature of the war that faces us, a million troops going at it in the open, one of the biggest battles in history, no snooping and pooping in the jungle, air strikes, artillery, a lot of high explosives.

A tanker named Master Gunnery Sgt. Junior Talauega spent years in Vietnam. He got shot in the chest during the battle for Hue City, right by his left nipple. He stood on a dune here with a winter hood pulled up against the wind.

"They ask me, 'What's it like to get shot?' I been shot. It's horrible. You don't want to get shot. You can feel like a burning in your body but it's worser than that. Hue City, 1968. This war is going to be completely different, be more legs and arms flying."

That's one way of thinking about it, but Top Talauega doesn't have a lot of choice, he has seen it happen.

Then there is Maj. Dan Grigson, of the 101st Airborne, who hasn't seen it happen.

Like a lot of human beings who worry about higher powers of whatever sort, he seems to have come to believe the answer lies in doing the rituals perfectly. He pointed out into the desert, he could see the whole thing.

He said: "You know exactly from the time we take off the exact time the helicopter is going to set down. You take exactly what you need. You know exactly how many rounds of artillery will be going in. I know exactly how far it is downrange to the target, I know exactly how many missiles I can call in, and let's say the exact time for the flight time of the missiles is 22 seconds, so I have exactly 21 seconds before I call in the artillery so it comes in one second after the missiles."

Listening to him, you pictured about 10,000 Iraqis coming across the desert. The word "exact" was not the first one that came to mind.

Grigson said he understood that argument, but he had another word to cover it.

"There are variables," he said, with a look on his face that implied that he had explained something. "That's why they ain't putting dummies in command of battalions no more."

The god of war, the psychic totem at least, is on display all over.

At the press center in Dhahran, the reporters and public affairs officers sit around watching "The Killing Fields" on television. Downstairs by the Kuwaiti propaganda office, a television runs a tape of professional wrestling, some big noble blond guy going up against a mustachioed Saddam Hussein type in camouflage pants.

The Arab newspapers are pushing something called "K-day," K standing for Kuwait, and the idea being to equate going into Kuwait with landing at Normandy on D-day during World War II.

Out in the field, some of the troops are getting sick of the media coming around because then they can't lie on their cots in T-shirts, they have to be in full combat gear even in the rack, and they have to get in and out of their chemical warfare suits for television cameras. Why not? Television used to get whole firefights staged for the evening news during Vietnam.

"I remember my first day in Vietnam," said Master Sgt. George Spear, who escorts the media out to the Marines in the field here. "The first sergeant said, 'We're setting up an ambush, I want you, you and you. And he pointed to me. I remember looking at my watch and thinking it was 6:30 back in the States -- if I was home right now, Cronkite would just be ending, and the war would be over."

The god appears, the god vanishes.

Just think -- only last spring we were thinking he had gone for good. Experience shows, though, that he will come again. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised, or, as it keeps happening, the raised shall be dead, notwithstanding the words in the Bibles you see a surprising number of here in their tan and brown desert camouflage covers. Is there a green and black edition for the jungle?

"I joined the Army 18 years ago. I wanted to go to Vietnam, but it was too late, all they had was Germany," said Sgt. 1st Class Jose Castro, a platoon sergeant in the 2nd Battalion, 44th Field Artillery.

He had a little mustache and he looked older than he is, a look that veteran sergeants get after years of striving for what is called military bearing, gathering their faces like fists.

He said he goes to a lot of Vietnam movies, reads Vietnam books.

"When I saw 'Hamburger Hill,' they were brave soldiers there, and they got wiped up, it broke my heart. That war, we had them, we could have won, but the politicians were too worried about getting reelected. I get upset about that war. I went down and touched the Vietnam wall, I get all teared up, I say, 'You were some brave sons of bitches.' The American soldier is the bravest son of a gun on the Earth. Just like these guys here."

While he talked, a Huey, the helicopter that was the national bird of South Vietnam 20 years ago, flew over.

"It's a Huey, but they've improved them a lot," Castro said.

What if the god of war decides not to appear just now? How do we keep the faith?

On a late afternoon on a cold day in the desert, a Marine lieutenant colonel named Chris Cortez paced in thoughtful circles in the sand while guidons flapped in the wind and his battalion waited to hear what he had to say about this.

He said: "You have successfully defended Saudi Arabia. In that alone you have won a big victory. You have endured the most austere conditions in United States Marine Corps history, with the possible exception of Peleliu and the Chosin."

Our army here may be the fittest, best-armed, hardest-working, cleanest living, best-intended army in history, the noblest sacrifice we can offer to the war god.

Or to Mammon, as the case may be -- America and Iraq are among the last countries on Earth to think you can get richer by winning wars, the lesson of the 20th century being that the real money is in losing them, but that's another story.

Even nastier, we've had the gods of the new world order or social justice or the New Man to die for by the tens of millions during all of living memory -- at least the god of war doesn't tell you that he's killing you for your own good.

Old gods, new gods, and always room out here in the desert for one more.