Before the Persian Gulf blew up in August, war in the age of the good war was starting to look like sex in the age of safe sex -- you wondered if it was possible for Americans to have it at all.

Then on Aug. 2, Saddam Hussein sent his tanks into Kuwait. It was a real war, all right, not some rice-paddy reform movement or "police action." And it fit the American mold for a good war, a war "in which there was no doubt who started it, or what we were fighting for, or who were the good guys and who were the bad guys -- it was a war that could have been written by Hollywood," as Van Johnson, who starred in a lot of World War II movies, says about that one in a documentary called "Going Hollywood -- The War Years."

An Arab dictator crushed a small nation, threatened to choke off our oil supply, took American hostages, sent his troops looting and raping through Kuwait City, got condemned by the United Nations, turned the United States and the Soviet Union into allies for the first time since 1945 and provoked George Bush into comparing him to Hitler.

Bush said: "This will not stand." He sent in American troops.

His approval rating climbed to 82 percent in a USA Today poll. Granted, we always rally around the flag, but there was something more going on with the Persian Gulf.

"It feels like the start of the Second World War," said an excited senior State Department official in September.

That was "The Good War," as Studs Terkel titled his oral history, but after the good war came Korea and Vietnam. They were hard to understand. They were not good wars. Now things were understandable again.

For a moment, Washington made you think of John Wayne standing on the bridge of a World War II destroyer, barking to his engine room, "Gimme everything ya got," and the engine room coming through. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt said: "In this crisis, we are not Republicans or Democrats. We are only proudly Americans. The president has asked for our support. He has it." (No one thought it odd, but when you counted up the years, it was as if a Civil War veteran had been president on the brink of World War I, or a decorated Spanish-American War officer had led us in World War II.)

The U.N. passed resolutions, different lands banding together like the old World War II movie where the first sergeant asks for volunteers and he gets O'Hara, Koslowski, Jackson, Shapiro, Andreotti, Garcia. (Was that movie ever made, or was it just a routine for stand-up comics on "The Ed Sullivan Show"?) In a nation dispirited by a budget crisis, collapsing banks and an oncoming recession, the Persian Gulf looked like it had every chance of being the kind of war people mean when they say, "What we need is a good war."

Then something happened. Or didn't happen. As if World War II were turning into Vietnam, a good war into a bad war, from "Sands of Iwo Jima" to "Apocalypse Now," from "Hollywood Canteen" to "China Beach" -- and all of this before the war has even begun.

On an episode of "Designing Women" in late November, Charlene talked about her husband who had been called away by the military: "I have these fantasies about World War II and everybody's part of the effort, women bought war bonds and planted victory gardens and went without stockings and just drew the lines up the back of their legs with eyebrow pencil. Now, I don't do any of that. I just ramble around my big new house and wait for the mailman. I'm mad at the government, and that's not very patriotic."

With hundreds of thousands of armed men staring at each other, there hasn't even been a scary overflight or a ship-bumping. Bush says "It's not going to be another Vietnam," but anti-war protesters light their vigil candles, as much in memory of the bad war of Vietnam as in fear of whatever kind of war the Persian Gulf might be. They sue the executive branch. They sign newspaper ads. Recruiters fail to make their quotas. Congress warns of higher taxes, a draft, a divided country. Public approval of Bush's handling of the crisis slipped from 75 percent in late August to 65 percent a month later, to 55 percent in November -- it took a year of massive troop buildup and combat deaths in Vietnam for Johnson's rating to get that low in 1966. After Bush proposed talks with Iraq, his showing improved slightly. The country is divided as to what to do next, the polls say. "It's going to make a lousy movie," says Art Buchwald.

In the cool, pragmatic world of the last 50 years, policy makers and strategists haven't thought much about cultural archetypes and national myths.

"The president and the people around him have not been doing a good job, seeing that Central Casting sent us the perfect Arab villain," says Eliot Cohen, who is both a captain in the Army Reserve and a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Meanwhile, Cohen told the House Armed Services Committee, the mental picture that the Iraqis have of the American fighting man is not John Wayne but "the helicopters on the roof of the embassy in Saigon, and {the bombing of} the Marine barracks in Beirut -- Saddam has said as much."

Robert W. Tucker, another SAIS professor (emeritus), argues that the president has done a fine job of making his case, but that the public "simply has not responded to it."

Michael Vlahos, director of the State Department's Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs, says: "We let the moment pass. We started to get self-conscious about it, and the more self-conscious we got, the less self-righteous we could be. In America, you don't go to war for state policy, you have to act on a crusade. ... The good war is so embedded in our mythology, and that's what the government doesn't understand -- and if we don't understand our own culture, we can't get on top of foreign policy."

In the good war, "there is no substitute for victory," as MacArthur said.

In a good war, the other guy starts it. He isn't just a bad guy, he has to attack us. The Germans, the Japanese had been crushing countries on three continents for years before Pearl Harbor roused Americans to fight. If Saddam attacked us -- even a provocation as small as the blurry fracas that provoked Congress into passing the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964 -- national unity might be ours. Remember Pearl Harbor, the Lusitania, the Maine, the Alamo. We seem to need catalysts. So now Hank Williams Jr. sings a threatening song addressed to Saddam: "Don't Give Us a Reason." So far, he hasn't.

A good war doesn't seem to have much to do with the goodness of our allies. Not only was Stalin a butcher out to conquer the world, but he'd been allied with Hitler. The Italians fought on both sides in the good war. So what's a little medieval autocracy in Saudi Arabia? Who cares if our chaplains aren't allowed to wear their crosses on their lapels?

The good war is not ambiguous or ironic. There is no colonel saying, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," as Robert Duvall says in "Apocalypse Now." There is no real-life colonel saying, as one actually said at Ben Tre, Vietnam, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." And there are no truckloads of troopers driving past the press shouting, "We're not supposed to be here! This isn't our war! Why are we here?" -- this happened during Bush's Thanksgiving visit to Saudi Arabia.

"If any evidence were needed that force is not obsolete in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein has provided it," says Bruce W. Jentleson in the just-published winter Brookings Review. But with no Pearl Harbor or Alamo to remember, the American public has seemed more comfortable with the idea of defending Saudi Arabia than attacking Iraq when the tanks first went into Kuwait.

The public had "doubts about offensive military action all along," Jentleson says. "What they had been strongly supportive of was defending Saudi Arabia." A USA Today poll on Aug. 9, for instance, showed that 81 percent of the public approved of sending troops to Saudi Arabia, while 49 percent approved of invading Iraq and only 35 percent were in favor of bombing Iraq. Other polls in August showed similar feelings.

Jentleson has studied public reaction to a decade of American use or support of force in Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Panama and El Salvador, concluding that new concepts of a good war mean that "the American public, I contend, is much more likely to support the use of force when it perceives the objective as the restraint rather than the remaking of another government."

Consequently, Jentleson says, "when President Bush announced on November 8 a doubling of U.S. forces to nearly 400,000 troops and a shift in strategy to insuring 'an adequate offensive military option,' the consensus began to crack. Congressional leaders became much more critical, public opinion polls fell sharply and the first teach-ins sprang up on college campuses."

In a good war, we are "innocent, unsuspecting, the underdog, the victim," says Van Johnson. But this means that we're unready for it, as we were in World War II. In "A Country Made by War," Geoffrey Perret writes: "The idea of perennial unreadiness ... fits the American self-image of a peace-loving people dragged reluctantly into war. Civilians and military men alike find that idea appealing. For another thing, it is the stuff of epic drama -- the ultimate triumph, after near defeat, of good over evil, us over them."

The good war is fought with American know-how, ingenuity and industrial might: modern cannon from Yankee factories, the Great White Fleet of the late 19th century, the B-17, McNamara's electronic wall in Vietnam, the F-111s that attacked Gadhafi in Libya. They will win the war cheaply, efficiently and scientifically.

In "Wartime," culture critic Paul Fussell says that the start of World War II was much like the Persian Gulf buildup: "At first everyone hoped, and many believed, that the war would be fast-moving, mechanized, remote-controlled, and perhaps even rather easy."

As John Updike has written: "America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God. Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules with chains, darkness strangles millions. Beneath her patient bombers, paradise is possible."

We have a particular romance with air power, and last August, when cynics suggested it hadn't turned Vietnam into a good war, the answer was: "Ain't no trees to hide under in the desert."

Since World War II, the definition of the good war has become one thing for intellectual policy makers and another for the rest of us.

Among the intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s, a good war was a tool rather than a crusade, therapy rather than brute violence. It was a precise means of attaining ends with carefully graduated responses, surgical air strikes, systems analysis and highly trained elite forces such as the Green Berets. Good war would be free of the sort of racism we showed toward the Japanese.

We now have a prudery of violence, and among the people that UCLA's James Q. Wilson calls "the chattering classes," war has come to be seen not so much as wicked but as vulgar, like professional wrestling or deer hunting -- another reason for the popularity of air power, death from a lofty distance. In the middle '80s, Fred Downs, a decorated Vietnam infantry officer, lectured an infantry class about killing and was told afterward by a high-ranking Army officer that the word "killing" had been replaced by "servicing the target." Nowadays, no liberal senator could say that he had joined up "to get myself a Jap," as Illinois' Paul Douglas once said.

Oscar Wilde predicted: "As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular."

On the other hand, when it is looked upon as vulgar, the vulgar thumb their noses the way they thumb their noses at other upper-class pruderies. Hence the popularity of the sort of T-shirts you see in Army-Navy stores, with slogans like "Kill 'Em All, Let God Sort 'Em Out." The educated cult of cultural relativism gets summed up in: "Join the Army, Travel to Distant Lands, Meet Interesting People and Kill Them." Another shirt shows a phone company slogan born of the Age of Feelings: "Reach Out and Touch Someone." The words are under a telescopic rifle sight. The lower classes maybe be lower in class, but not in brains.

For their part, the upper classes have responded by remembering the Vietnam War, a bad one, as a period when they had to wean bloodthirsty rednecks away from slaughter, to cure them of a sort of mental illness. In fact, this is one of the big lies about Vietnam -- the other being that blacks died in numbers vastly out of proportion to their numbers in the U.S. population, a bit of propaganda that has been revived in the debate over the Persian Gulf. As for support, a look at six years of polling from 1965 to 1971 shows that the college-educated supported the war far more than the high school- and grade school-educated.

"When I sent a book to the printer with a graph showing that, they called up and said that I must have gotten the labels reversed," says Wilson. "People can't believe it."

Now, in the Age of Feelings, the publicly accepted way of talking about war deals with emotions rather than blood: Among Vietnam veterans, it's their post-traumatic stress syndromes rather than their missing legs that excite our pity and fascination. In "Dispatches," Michael Herr wrote his famous passage about coming under fire in Vietnam: "... your senses working like strobes, free-falling all the way down to the essences and then flying out again in a rush to focus, like the first strong twinge of tripping after an infusion of psilocybin, reaching in at the point of calm and springing all the joy and all the dread ever known ... the feeling you'd had when you were much, much younger and undressing a girl for the first time." How different from a Marine in the Pacific half a century ago, saying: "I just want to spit in a dead Jap's face." Nowadays, a newspaper ad reads: "It's not the desert heat. It's not Saddam Hussein. It's wondering if you care."

It is also taboo to want to kill the enemy leaders. This is new. In World War II, the final training film in Frank Capra's series "Why We Fight" showed pictures of the Nazi hierarchy while a voice said: "If you ever see one of these men, KILL HIM!"

War heroes have gone the way of John Henry, defeated by the steam-hammer of the machine gun, the tank, the B-52, missiles, nuclear weapons, all of which have made survival in combat far more a matter of chance than of skill. Only the Oliver Norths of this world go to war for glory. The Army recruits its soldiers with a pitch that makes it sound like a combination of an encounter group and a junior college: "Be all that you can be." We continue to talk about Saddam Hussein in the language of psychobabble -- he isn't getting our signals, we're failing to communicate, he doesn't understand our feelings. Perhaps Saddam Hussein has a different definition of the good war. Does he wonder what kind of war we can fight when we talk about it as if it's a combination of corporate management and psychotherapy?

The intellectual celebrities of America supported World War II -- Archibald MacLeish, John Steinbeck and Carl Sandburg helped lead the American propaganda effort, for instance. Instead of being vulgar rednecks, our soldiers were the salt of the earth, Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe. "I'm no hero, I'm just a guy, I just want to get this thing over and go home," said William Bendix in one movie. But this came at the end of more than a decade of intellectuals' celebration of the common man.

After World War II, American art turned to the international language of abstraction. Dwight MacDonald warned of the tackiness of mid-cult America. Joseph Heller published "Catch-22" just as our advisers were moving into Vietnam, Kurt Vonnegut was becoming a literary hero to the young and the myth of the good war started to look a little moth-eaten.

A war in the Persian Gulf would come at the end of a decade of flag waving, "Rocky" movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and Reaganite patriotism, even if it takes the peculiar post-apocalyptic form of a singer like Lee Greenwood getting onto a stage with a week's worth of stubble on his face, looking like a wino while he sings that he's proud to be an American, and "at least I know I'm free."

Good war, bad war. It's hard to tell which is which.

When Air Force Gen. Michael Dugan said we could bomb Baghdad in the total good-war style, he got fired. In a Senate hearing when Richard Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense under Reagan, laid out plans for the sort of limited wars intellectuals have been planning since World War II, Teddy Kennedy erupted at him: "Look out, boys, you can destroy some of the soldiers and facilities but not all -- be sure and miss one out of three."

A war in the Persian Gulf "may be the first war that was ever nitpicked to death before it could start," writes columnist Michael Kinsley. On the other hand, it may not be. In 1948, author and presidential adviser Robert E. Sherwood recalled that World War II was "the first war in American history in which the general disillusionment preceded the firing of the first shot."

The disillusionment in question had come after the previous good war, World War I. In 1937, disgust with World War I was so great that only 28 percent of Americans said we should have fought in it, but that number doubled as Pearl Harbor made the first war look good again. Then again, months after Pearl Harbor, a Gallup poll showed that only about half of Americans knew why we were at war.

"Americans tend to support any war the president begins," says UCLA's Wilson. "The percentage of the public saying they approve of how the president is doing his job goes up when troops go in. The month before Korea began, Truman's rating was 37; the month after it was 46. Ford went from 40 to 51 with the Mayaguez incident, Reagan went from 43 to 53 with Grenada. This even happens when the operations are failures -- Kennedy went from 73 to 83 with the Bay of Pigs, and Carter went from 39 to 43 after the failure of the hostage rescue mission."

Only a few years ago war, particularly the good war, was looking impossible.

"War today is a luxury that only the weak and the poor can afford," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to Jimmy Carter.

"War has fallen upon hard times," wrote Army intelligence analyst Robert L. O'Connell in "Of Arms and Men." He went on: "Two centuries of increasingly pointless, financially disastrous and above all, lethal conflicts, culminating in the discovery and proliferation of nuclear weapons, have rendered this venerable institution virtually incapable of performing any of the roles classically assigned to it."

With any kind of luck at all in the Persian Gulf, we will not find out if he's right.