Denzel Washington, already a decorated veteran of Hollywood's trenches, gives one of his most commanding performances in Edward Zwick's gallant Desert Storm drama, "Courage Under Fire." Washington and Zwick, who also collaborated on the Civil War-era "Glory," aren't out to glorify or condemn war. Their objectives are grander, yet more grounded in the realities of human behavior.

With five war-related pictures between them, actor and director seem resigned to the inevitability of conflict. Nobody spits on the flag, nor does anyone quite wave one in this moving meditation on truth, loyalty and leadership. Though the film touches on contemporary issues such as women in combat and a rise in casualties from friendly fire, Zwick's principal objective is to reveal the carefully camouflaged realities of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. For all its high-minded ambitions, "Courage Under Fire" is also a downright entertaining combo of mystery, melodrama and action adventure. And though it is a tale of two soldiers, it chiefly focuses on Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling (Washington), a tank commander who mistakenly fires on one of his own during a midnight battle with Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Recalled from the Persian Gulf to wait out a hush-hush investigation, Serling is assigned to review a medevac pilot's candidacy for a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Gen. Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), his commander and mentor, pressures Serling to expedite the inquiry, a priority for the president and the military. Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) would be the first woman ever awarded the medal, and the brass are salivating over the positive publicity: The Rose Garden, a pretty little girl with mommy's medal around her neck. Not a dry eye from Caribou, Maine, to Baja California.

But Serling becomes suspicious, and the movie becomes the story of one man's stubborn pursuit of justice. America's sweetheart dons combat boots and a macho demeanor as the late Walden, whose story unfolds in a series of contradictory flashbacks. Though not famous for her technical skill as an actress, Ryan transforms Capt. Walden from selfless warrior to blubbering coward without betraying the truth.

Lou Diamond Phillips stands out among the film's excellent supporting cast as a hardened foot soldier with the personality of a Scud. Matt Damon is impressive, too, as a young medic psychologically emasculated by the events that transpired after Walden's failed rescue attempt. Screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan, a combat veteran who directed a cable series about the Medal of Honor, was inspired by Akira Kurosawa's 1950 "Rashomon," which pioneered the use of multiple perspectives. The device proves just as sturdy half a century later, though the film owes much of its power to Zwick's chaotic, authentic-seeming combat scenes. But as the man behind the intimate worlds of TV's "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life," Zwick is careful to view the big picture through a limited perspective. Every soldier fights a different war. Courage Under Fire, at area theaters, is rated R for profanity and violence. CAPTION: Denzel Washington rides to glory this time in "Courage Under Fire," a film about the Persian Gulf War that doesn't wave the flag but movingly questions it. CAPTION: Denzel Washington and Regina Taylor, as his wife, in "Courage."