Every person who has lately walked the wide streets of Washington has sensed the city's special unreality during the initial days of the faraway war.

It is hard to say what most contributes to the eerie feeling. The tension and nervousness in the air are palpable but almost indefinable. It's a matter of small inconveniences, in part -- the attentiveness of security guards at the entrances to federal facilities, the jumpiness of a police officer here and there.

One doesn't pause for long to admire the exhilarating view from the Capitol esplanade these days: "You can pass along here, sir, but you cannot stop." Even in the best of times one is not tempted to dally near the Israeli Embassy, but definitively not now. The lone sentinel with his automatic weapon has become a familiar sight to commuters speeding by on Reno Road NW. So too have the dark Secret Service cars and vans camped atop a bald knoll nearby.

Odd thoughts come to mind: Where in the world (or why in the world) did the Israelis acquire that courtyard sculpture made of gray-painted steel? It's an accomplished abstraction, possibly intended as a symbol of a perfected world, but it's edged sharply enough to be a battlefield obstacle or, worse, a twisted wartime remnant. If context determines content, this is an A-1 example of the rule.

Actually, there aren't all that many telltale signs of war on Washington's streets. This in itself somehow is unsettling. For no good reason, one would expect more. A rapid deployment force of sorts is busy encircling the western yard of the Capitol with a tightly spaced row of concrete canisters. Gray, hollow things, they're hoisted from a flatbed truck onto Frederick Law Olmsted's grounds, then filled in short order with a slide of mush from a cement mixer. How long will they be there?

The White House front lawn, protected now by granite bollards with links of chain -- permanent products of the last terrorist scare -- is an obvious prime security site. More snow fences for crowd control have been rolled out along the edges of Lafayette Square, and police cars and uniformed men/women are much in evidence. This is deja vu from the Vietnam War.

It is a proud function of the democracy that the city's symbolic and actual centers of power lure assemblies to protest or support this or that important policy, but this war is too young and bloodless yet to attract the roiling emotions of 20 years ago. One can't help but wonder when or if the immense crowds will come -- if not (literally) today, then (figuratively) tomorrow?

Much is undecided, much depends. The city has seemed so quiet these past few days. In one signal respect this surreality is akin to that of the Vietnam era: Like that war, this one is half a world away, its deadly concussions experienced as hypnotic afterimages from the glow of the television screen, making the familiar seem different. Today, again, one walks the selfsame sidewalks vividly aware of the mighty force deployed over there, organized here, behind Ionic columns, night-lighted windows: the business of Washington.

Safe behind the oceans, the capital city has not physically experienced a war in more than a century. Margaret Leech, in "Reveille in Washington," noted that Washington was very like a "country town ... turned into a great, confused garrison" in the early moments of the Civil War. During the calm before that storm, she wrote, "the city looked deserted. Shops had shuttered windows, and dust gathered on the steps and railings of vacant houses. Silence had fallen on the big hotels. The servants' feet waked echoes in the empty halls of Willard's. There was a short-lived alarm of famine... ."

It was a scene predicated on a real and imminent danger. The nation's energies were turned inward -- and how -- simply in order to save itself. The evidence of war was everywhere seen and felt for four long years, with always the inspiring view of the Capitol's new cast-iron dome kept continually under construction. It has not quite been that way since.

World War II, of course, truly did transform the capital -- in the beginning it was, as David Brinkley observed in "Washington Goes to War," something of "a middle class town grown up around a middle class government" -- but there was a comic opera quality to many of the local wartime preparations. Only a few of the antiaircraft guns placed on the roofs of government buildings were real (most were wooden replicas), Brinkley reported, "but since none was ever fired, it was not known until years later that the ammunition stacked up beside them was the wrong size."

Premonitions of great power date back to the city's founding, and one can find quite a few of them etched in the stone surface of Freedom Plaza, along with the more recent inkling of a Marietta Andrews, who in 1928 recorded her opinion that Washington was "the heart of the world, the world counting its every pulsation." Well, yes, but in reality the phenomenal change from town-city to capital vital to the entire world is better appreciated in hindsight.

After all, many a person still alive can recall greeting Harry Truman as he took his casual "constitutionals" about town, and getting a friendly wave in return. (Did the citizens say, "Good morning, Mr. President" or "Hiya, Harry"?) How's that for small town? In spirit it's not so distant from the fabled time Tom Jefferson took the oath of office at the Capitol and then ambled back for a meal at a rooming house. The obvious, ironical difference is that Truman was the president who more than any other, in less than a week and with just two bombs in 1945, made manifest the necessity for a world-watch on Washington's pulsations.

Despite the power centered here, the look and feel of the city never have caught up with the actuality. This is good -- one hopes beyond hope that beautiful Washington does not have to emulate fortress (though essentially defenseless) cities such as the London or Berlin or Tokyo of years not all that long gone by -- but it has the genuinely negative effect of distancing the rest of us from things as they really are.

Like the wars themselves, America's architecture of war -- the great ships, planes, all the well-designed awesome machines, even the silos silently buried in our own deserts -- takes place almost anywhere but here. Our town's war architecture, such as it is, is a cloistered, inside affair -- it is offices, mostly, of the most elegant or mundane sort, and untold map rooms, communications concentrations, shelters and so on. Except for the rushing motorcades of leaders behind dark, impenetrable windows -- and who among us hasn't felt as dumb as a cow in a field, glimpsing these speeding airtight parades? -- we're privileged to see almost none of it, even on television.

One can and should seek inspiration, take pride in the nation's unusual ideals as exemplified in the heart-stopping beauty of this city's layout, its magnificent monuments, its venerable buildings. But it is a grim, defensible proposition that the city's discomfiting eeriness, this week, is not so special after all. It may be a more permanent state of affairs than we're normally willing to recognize.