Pentagon smugness, never in short supply even between wars, hit a sewer-line low when a smiling Gen. Colin Powell said that his forces have "lots of tools. And I brought them all to the party."

War as fun-time -- Desert Storm becomes Desert Party -- is a new twist in the business of organized slaughter. The general, speaking at a Pentagon briefing in late January, was obviously enjoying himself. He has been overseeing as many as 3,000 bombing runs a day, including B-52s craterizing Iraq daily with 500 tons of high explosive and cluster bombs. For the Pentagon party-goers, overkill remains under-kill.

While flying over what another fun-loving general called "a target-rich environment down there," U.S. Top Guns know that the risks of being shot down are overwhelmingly small. The wild blue yonder is a tame blue yonder. In the first three weeks of the assault on Kuwait and Iraq, no U.S. plane had been downed in air combat. No Iraqi pilots -- none -- had attacked any U.S. forces.

It is a party -- a drunken one turning sadistic. Relentless aerial bombardment -- lately about as surgical as operating on a cornea with machetes -- is a systematic destroying of Iraq's electricity, water and sewage facilities. That, plus blowing up bridges and obliterating neighborhoods, is called "softening up" the enemy.

On Feb. 12, waves of U.S. bomber pilots, confident they would face no firefights from Iraqi pilots and only minor antiaircraft threats, pulverized downtown Baghdad, with 25 major explosions turning buildings into rubble. On Feb. 13, back the fearless warriors went, this time to obliterate with smart bombs what the Pentagon called an Iraqi "command bunker" but which the world now knows was sheltering hundreds of civilians trying to make it through another hellish night. Scores of noncombatants -- women and children -- were slaughtered.

Flacks for both war-obsessed governments immediately blamed the other side for the deaths of the civilians. The spin from propagandist Marlin Fitzwater -- supported by no hard evidence -- was that the evil Saddam was up to his old ruthless tricks by deliberately putting civilians in a military center. Whether he did or didn't, the seven U.S. spy satellites now in the Persian Gulf apparently had cataracts when eyeing the building's comings and goings. When trying to locate Iraqi military leaders, it turns out that smart bombs need dumb luck.

Regardless of what Saddam Hussein is doing to Iraqis, the sadistic ritual of daily bombing by the U.S. military is in keeping with its picking fights -- in Grenada, Libya and Panama -- with enemies expected to be done in quickly. In those one-sided mini-wars, the Pentagon had "lots of tools" for "the party." After a month in the gulf, the United States is now involved in war for war's sake, war for the fun of it, war as a party that brings smiles to Gen. Powell.

Which Iraqi citizens can say with any assurance that they are not part of the "target-rich environment"? After 73,000 sorties in a month, isn't it time for the United States to stop the bombing? Or is another aerial massacre of Iraqi women and children needed for the Pentagon to chill out? And another after that?

The civilians killed on Feb. 13 were in a building across the street from a school and 100 yards from a mosque. Even if Saddam Hussein put families in it, an unanswered question is this: If that command bunker was so crucial strategically, why did a month pass before it was bombed? More than 67,000 sorties were made before Feb. 13. Were U.S. pilots working up their courage to take out the big one?

They have been doing well on the little ones. According to a Reuters report of Feb. 13, refugees fleeing Kuwait and Iraq to Jordan by bus said that two buses filled with civilians were hit by missiles from allied planes. About 60 people were killed.

Picking off buses of poor people on desert highways shows the U.S. military at its most contemptible. It prefers, naturally, to put off a ground war, because there the threat of danger, despite reports of hunger and sickness among Iraqi conscripts, appears to be real. Safer to keep bombing from the air than shooting from the ground. With an impotent air force, Iraq has little defense against bombing raids. The U.S. policy of waiting them out becomes one of wiping them out.

After a month of obliterating Iraq, and now downtown Baghdad, the U.S. air war has been revealed as a coward's war.