Last Aug. 10, eight days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and three after President Bush ordered the allied military buildup, John Charles Roach, an Alexandria artist and Navy reservist, walked into the office of Dean Allard, chief of the Navy's Office of Naval History, and asked to be activated to the Middle East.

"This thing is getting big. Somebody ought to be painting it," he remembers saying.

Allard was way ahead of him: "I've just been working on your orders," he said.

Three weeks later, Roach, who spent a year in Vietnam chronicling with oil and watercolors the Navy's role in the war there, landed in Bahrain, vanguard of more than a hundred artists, photographers and battlefield historians assigned to capture Operation Desert Shield -- and now Desert Storm -- for future generations.

They are there not to write the history of the war but to make sure others will have the means to do so -- the documents and maps showing what happened and why, the after-action debriefings and the artist's view of the people and machines that made it happen. If technology is giving us an unprecedented bomb's-eye view of the air war, operations on land and sea are still being portrayed with the same sorts of pencils and brushes employed at Gettysburg or Gallipoli.

Gen. Harold Nelson, the Army's chief of military history, said the Pentagon still sends artists to the battlefield for three reasons.

"The first is that artists see things differently than other people, even photographers, and often get and convey an insight into situations unobtainable any other way," he said. "The second is that we've discovered museums are much more receptive to exhibits of military paintings supplemented by photographs than they are to photographs alone. The combination just seems to be more powerful. And the third reason is tradition: We've always sent them. And we've always been glad we did."

Roach, a 47-year-old naval architect's son who has also painted murals for the Capitol, was working very much in that tradition.

"It quickly became apparent that I should paint a lot more than Navy operations," he said this week amid the orderly clutter of his tiny warehouse studio off New York Avenue. "For one thing, much of the Navy was still over the horizon assembling the {Persian Gulf} interdiction force, and I was on land. But more importantly, the whole operation was so integrated that Army people were taking orders from Marines in some places, Navy people riding in Army helicopters, and almost everyone was wearing the same {camouflage} uniform. You couldn't tell one service from the other visually."

In addition, Roach said, "since I was the only artist there for two months, in an operation changing all the time, if I didn't paint something, in many cases, it wasn't going to get painted."

So for the next 41 days, Roach crisscrossed Saudi Arabia, from the ships in the Persian Gulf to air bases near Riyadh and Dhahran to desert fire bases south of the Iraqi border, sketching, photographing and making detailed notes in a small yellow-covered Tru-Rite note pad.

He drew missile frigates maneuvering in the wake of a supertanker and cargo crews unloading supply ships; maintenance crews at work on jet fighters; and tanks under palm trees in the desert. He roughed out paintings of Army helicopters flying over Navy hospital tents and a truckload of Marines taking a water break in 120-degree heat beside an immense outcropping of sandstone.

But he was also looking, all the while, for something more.

"I wanted to touch all the bases, give people at home a feel for all aspects of the operation there," he said. "But ultimately, equipment is not the story of an operation like this. People are the story. I had distant scenes of people working as teams, and closer views of people doing jobs. But I knew I could find someone in a foxhole" who, in a painting, "would tell a more personal type of story ... someone I felt could personify the American servicemen and -women over there. I couldn't describe him very well to anyone. But I knew I would know him when I saw him."

Ten days before he left Saudi Arabia, Roach felt he had everything else he needed to start painting the gulf operation back home -- everything but the poster boy for the coming war.

"I must have driven my Marine hosts crazy. We would go from one base to another, and I would look around and say, 'Nothing here, let's move on.' They didn't understand what I was after. But I had seen it in Vietnam -- young men who, in an ugly situation, faced with ugly things, radiate a kind of quiet self-assurance. It's a very American quality. I wanted someone who, if he could be a spokesman for all the service people over there, would be."

It took Roach a week of full-time searching before he found him.

"We had looked all day, and finally drove for three hours far into the north" to a forward desert post, an area known as "the Ashtray." There Roach saw his man, seated beneath a canopy of camouflage netting, cleaning his rifle and reading a letter from home.

His name is Kurt. He's from Spokane, Wash., and is in his early twenties. His last name? "I never asked him," Roach said. "I didn't want to know."

Kurt was to be, at least for this painting, an archetype, not an individual.

"I introduced myself and told him what I was after. He was very cooperative and seemed pleased and rather astonished that a Navy commander had come all that way and was talking to him," Roach said. "He told me, 'Nobody who comes up here ever shows any interest in what we're doing.' "

Kurt and his company had been assigned "just to hold that space" against any possible Iraqi invasion, said Roach. "And, of course, there's nothing there. It's called the Ashtray because of its bowl shape and the way the wind swirls the sand around."

Roach said he spent about 45 minutes with Kurt, sketching him and taking a dozen or so pictures "so I'd have his face from every angle." Then he said goodbye and left. On Oct. 10 he was back in his studio in Washington. He began painting right away, first outlining in rough watercolors the 10 major oils and 20 watercolors he had decided would portray the first month's Operation Desert Shield.

Kurt's picture, a 24-by-30-inch oil on canvas, was the first he completed. He worked on it, off and on, all through Thanksgiving, and finished it Dec. 1, six weeks before the bombs began to fall in Baghdad. Since war began he's been working even longer hours to finish the rest of his gulf paintings for a show somewhere in the Washington area early next month, "to help give people a better sense of the experience over there."

There is, he says, no little irony and plenty of frustration in having left before the heavy action started. But there's also satisfaction, he said, because in a sense his paintings capture a different time and place altogether.

"We had two very different buildups just during the 41 days I was there," he said. "We went from worrying like hell that the Iraqis would cross the border to hoping like hell they would. And now we've crossed the border ourselves. If I went back to paint these same pictures now, I couldn't," he says. "The scenes would be very, very different."

And would Kurt be different?

"I'm sure he's already different," Roach said. "What you see in this painting is an individual. By now he's been hammered into part of a team ... prepared for a very ugly job. That's what we have to do to young men in a war. It's not a pretty thing to see."

In Roach's picture, Kurt looks very hopeful. He's dressed in an olive drab T-shirt and has a bearing compass on a cord around his neck. He's looking up from his letter with a combination of confidence and innocence reminiscent of a young Montgomery Clift.

Then you notice the rifle, and the innocence gets an extra dimension.

The poster boy of the Persian Gulf War, you see, is a sniper.