For months we've heard a lot about Baghdad, media giving the sense of the city on the brink of war. It's only lately we've heard as much about the sense of Washington on the brink of war. Maybe the idea is that a war can, will and should change everything in Baghdad, but that it couldn't, wouldn't or shouldn't change anything in Washington.

Actually, things wouldn't stop changing in Washington, yesterday.

Like a big blond kid named Steve Heinle, 18, who was walking out of the Marine recruiting office on G Street and getting into a car with a sergeant who wore one of those white hats that look so good.

Did he want to go to the Persian Gulf?

"Yeah, that's why I joined."

What did he plan to do in the Marines?


He was very excited. Where was he going in the car with the sergeant?

"Boot camp," he said.

Where was he from?

"Seattle, Washington. I'm enlisting from here because my mother lives here and they flew me here to visit her before I went."

It was quite a thing he was doing. Marine Corps boot camp, all by itself.

"Yeah," he said.

What a moment in a young man's life. And he wanted to go to the Persian Gulf?

He looked up just as he was closing the door, and you saw his face maybe the way his mother sees it. You could see him thinking too.

"No," he said. Then he rode off and joined the Marines.

Things kept changing like that, lots of little twists.

At Sunny's Surplus on H Street, a Veterans Affairs staffer wanted to buy a gas mask for an office prank.

"I thought I'd walk back to the office with it under my arm and when everybody asked me what was going on, I'd say, 'Haven't you heard?' "

He couldn't get one.

"We've sold out of them three times," said Vera Berry, the store manager. "People going to the Persian Gulf, people here just scared. We had a lady and her two kids come in yesterday, she wanted three masks, one for each of them."

A customer named Don Cotten said he'd been a Marine helicopter mechanic in the '70s. Now he's a maintenance man.

"I'm calling my recruiter today," he said. "I want to go."

He wanted to go to the Persian Gulf?

"My chances of getting killed here in D.C. are greater. At least there I'll know where the enemy is."

It was hard to tell the jokes from the straight lines, the hopes from the ironies.

A protest sign said: "Send Northern Virginia Real Estate Agents to Negotiate." This was a joke, said Jack McHale, who owns a financial printing business in the District and lives in Burke. Then again, it wasn't a joke. "You take two unmovable positions, that's what it takes to get them together," he said. "I thought maybe humor would get people's attention."

A young man named Happiness stood among the anti-war demonstrators in Lafayette Square, holding a flute. He said: "The only way we're going to solve problems is with solutions, man."

It could get very subtle indeed -- there was a sign that said: "Imagine Peace."

On H Street, outside the Metropolitan Club, where Teddy Roosevelt and Brooks Adams once planned the Great White Fleet and the American empire that now extends almost as far as Baghdad, a retired foreign service officer stopped to say that inside the club, "in the dining room, in the barber shop, it was The Subject, people asking, 'Is there any news?' We tend to be supporters of the president. I don't think anybody here is nervous about launching an attack."

Over at the Army-Navy Club, retired Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen and another retired general stood by the marble pillars and brass railings and said they hadn't talked about the Persian Gulf at all.

"We talked about old times," Kroesen said. They served in Europe together. On Monday, Kroesen had done his talking at the China Regency restaurant in a speech called "The Nuclear Option in the Gulf." He said there was one.

The mood in Washington was "somber," said the kind of people who have the sort of power to make decisions.

"Quiet," said the ones who don't.

"Too quiet. Like before a storm," said a D.C. police sergeant waiting for a demonstration outside the District Building that never got made. There were a number of demonstrations where the press outnumbered the demonstrators, and press conferences where the empty chairs outnumbered the press.

Down on the Mall, where the trophies, treasures and souvenirs of Pax Americana, the American Century, are on display, the Air and Space Museum was almost empty.

"It is quiet, I noticed that," said Bill King, who is 53 and the head of the Indiana Banking Association. He was looking at a display case of pilots' helmets. He was thinking about war. "It's kind of why I'm here today. I was thinking about the Berlin crisis, when I was called up. I've flown in that kind of helmet," he said, pointing to an HGU-20-P Robertshaw U.S. Integrated Oxygen Helmet. He said he supported the president. "If we're going to be the policeman for the world, we have to do it. I just wish some other people would help."

Gary Mainardi, who drives a Budweiser truck in New Jersey, watched his 8-year-old son, Jason, work out on the aircraft carrier landing simulator. Jason got one out of three.

"It was kind of quiet when we came in this morning," Mainardi said. "Everybody's waiting to see what happens. I hate to see anybody die over oil, but if we don't stop this guy ..."

"I work for the Red Cross," said his wife, Cathy. "We're getting ready to ship lots of blood over there."

Washington was the place to be.

"It's amazing to be here in the middle of things," said Emma Naas, an exchange student from Goteborg, Sweden. "Usually we only see them on TV."

Washington was the place not to be.

"I've got breadbasket mom and dads calling me from all over the country," said Greg Gency, marketing director of Dell-Foster Travel. He books a lot of tours for high school kids, like the National Young Leaders Conference. "Our phones are ringing off the hook. Parents are saying, 'Gee, if there's a war, can we change our mind and get our money back? What are you doing to ensure their safety?' It's unbelievable, but they're worried about terrorism. We haven't done a single transatlantic ticket in several weeks."

It was hard to figure.

It was January 15. It could become one of those dates that everybody remembers, like December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day. On the other hand, in a couple of months it could be as forgotten as last fall's budget battle.

There's been nothing like it in our history, this war in the Persian Gulf. If we fight it, it will be the first war we've gone into fully prepared, with a huge army in peak form, an army beyond anything Rome, Spain, England, Berlin or Moscow, any of the big empire guys, could have dreamed of. It will be the war, too, in which we finally stopped saying Americans had to be attacked before they would make war -- Pearl Harbor, the Lusitania, Remember the Maine and all that. No, by yesterday, the president and Congress had long since made it clear that in the name of the New World Order, we could do the attacking ourselves and dispense with that sort of schoolboy moralizing. Too bad there wasn't some kind of poet of empire around to explain the glory of it all, somebody like Kipling, but that isn't the American way.

Maybe it takes the young to know what January 15, 1991, means.

In front of the Iraqi Embassy, the College Republicans demonstrated. There were a lot of neckties, topcoats, wire-rim glasses and blow-dried hair, the boys with those little mops over their foreheads like cute kids on 1950s television shows, the girls with earrings and low heels. They held signs supporting President Bush, supporting our troops. And one that said: "Save Our Planet -- Nuke Iraq."

They chanted.

"Hey, hey, hi, ho, Saddam Hussein has got to go," John Clerici chanted. He was from Catholic University. Did he want to go to the Persian Gulf? Was he thinking of joining up?

"The thought's out there for sure," he said.

The chanting was going pretty well until a man who said he was a disabled Vietnam veteran got out in front of them and made a long, long speech supporting the war. An odd light pink fluid kept working its way out of the right side of his mouth.

"Right now there's not many people here, and I'm really disappointed," he said. "I want to know where the VFW are, and where's the American Legion?"

As it happened, American Legion Post 20 had hired a room at the National Press Club so that retired Adm. Gene La Rocque could talk about what a mess this war was, pointless, dangerous, the way he's been talking for a while now. The problem was, now it was January 15, and that debate was over. Everything had changed.

He'd fight like hell now, he said, describing six days of air strikes, and he hoped all the American people would support that fight. And when it was all over, he said, "There won't be any winners. We won't know what we've won."

It wasn't what you'd expect, maybe, from a meeting of Legion Post 20, but the Persian Gulf isn't what we ever expected, either. Things keep changing.