You can love George Bush or hate him. You can agree with his foreign policy or disagree.

But one seldom-discussed aspect of his proposed preemptive strike against Iraq is beyond dispute: It is sharply at odds with this nation's historical image of itself.

On the world stage or the silver screen, we have always told ourselves, Americans don't shoot first.

From frontiersman Natty Bumppo in "The Deerslayer" to Gary Cooper in "High Noon" to a hundred other literary and cinematic personifications of the mythic American (not excluding Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone), we have traditionally seen ourselves as optimistic and patient, cautious and slow to anger, not looking for a battle yet absolutely deadly when attacked.

Our Revolutionary forebears stitched our character into the Rattlesnake Flag that said, "Don't Tread on Me." Teddy Roosevelt said Americans should "speak softly and carry a big stick." What does this say about preemptive strikes?

As close as we remain to our closest Asian ally, we have never really forgiven Japan for the "treachery" of its preemptive strike against our fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Militarily it was close to a masterstroke, but morally it lives in infamy.

Granted, Saddam Hussein has violated the treaty that ended the Gulf War. But Germany in the 1930s violated the treaty that ended World War I, and we didn't invade Germany then. Granted, Iraq has continued to threaten its neighbors. But so has North Korea since the Korean War, and we still haven't found that to be cause for war.

We probably provoked the Mexican War with our actions -- if not our guns -- in Texas in the 1840s, and the best we can claim about our intermittent wars against Native Americans is 300 years of cultural and political miscommunication.

But however imperfectly the image has fit reality on occasion, our major cultural continuum from folk legend to novel to movie screen tells us we're never the first to open fire.

The roots of our antipathy to starting fights are quite literally as old as the republic. The Declaration of Independence includes no fewer than 27 accusations against George III ("He has refused his assent to laws . . . He has dissolved representative houses . . . He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people") in an effort to prove that Americans weren't the ones who started the American Revolution.

Sixty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" declared that the United States showed that "democratic nations are naturally desirous of peace" and "weaker than other armies at the outset of a campaign and more formidable in protracted warfare."

In other words, Americans don't shoot first.

This is our great myth, however frayed it may be around the edges. Certainly there are evildoers and violent men among us, we've always told ourselves, but the true American resorts to violence reluctantly, only when attacked, and only to achieve justice when all else fails.

The unwillingness to fire the first shot "really is our tradition and a highly exceptional one at that," says David Hackett Fischer, author of "Paul Revere's Ride" and Warren professor of history at Brandeis University. "Before Paul Revere rode out" to spread the alarm before the Battle of Lexington and Concord that began the American Revolution, "he checked to make sure the British had fired first," Fischer says. "He wanted to make sure his side was 'in the right.' "

Fischer, who recently completed a study on the first shots of America's wars, says the United States did start the actual fighting in the War of 1812 with our oft-forgotten invasion of Canada. The transformation of the Vietnam conflict from counterinsurgency aid to an ally into full-scale war, in addition, is "certainly murky with the Gulf of Tonkin incident."

But he said the rest of our history as a people is marked by the notable reluctance of our leaders to fire the first shot.

"It is both our tradition and our national myth," he said.

Nowhere have we enshrined that myth more deeply than in that most American of art forms, the motion picture. There for much of the 20th century the uniquely iconic American cowboy faced down his villainous adversary on a thousand dusty streets, always hewing to the gunfighter's code of self-defense: The good guy never draws first.

The bad guy had no such code. He always drew first, and in addition frequently had sneaky confederates sniping from rooftops or balconies in an effort to shoot the hero in the back. They were always vanquished by the hero, who played by the rules.

Countless scholars have held forth over the years on the western movie as America's morality play, and those who think its cultural importance is exaggerated might recall that we elected a cowboy movie actor president, he faced down the Evil Empire without drawing first (never mind Grenada), and the Evil Empire crumbled.

Ronald Reagan had so internalized and articulated the moral imperatives of the American cultural myth that he was able to use it as a political force in the world.

The conventions of the pre-World War II westerns were written into some war movies of World War II, which often starred former cowboy actors like Reagan and John Wayne. Films like "Back to Bataan" and other wartime shoot'em-ups might as well be westerns, with the Japanese playing the part of hostile Indians. The Japanese, after all, had fired first.

After World War II, the American myth on the screen became more nuanced, particularly in westerns like "The Gunfighter" (1950) and "Shane" (1953). In both films, former gunfighters attempt to put violence behind them only to find it tracking them like a hungry wolf.

They still don't shoot first, but they find a moral code alone not enough to bring either peace or peace of mind.

"Shane," arguably one of the finest westerns ever made, is a particularly exemplary classic. George Stevens Jr. has often described how his director father -- noted for his screwball comedies during the 1930s -- returned from World War II a far more serious man, determined to use his films to reexamine American society and affirm its best values.

In "Shane," the title character (Alan Ladd), like war-traumatized returning GIs, wants only to put his weapon away for good, join a peaceable community and make a new and constructive life. But like WWII vets called up for the Korean War (and shadowed by a Soviet A-bomb), he finds no peaceable new life possible. At the end he rides into the sunset reluctantly armed once again, even though the exquisitely sinister hired assassin (Jack Palance) is now dead. Palance drew his gun first, but his death at Shane's hands can't wholly erase the prospect of further violence.

In the absence of law and order in westerns like "Shane," the gunfighter becomes the authority figure -- the enforcer of the moral code. In other westerns, fast-gun sheriffs like Wyatt Earp are duly elected enforcers. But they don't draw first either.

As the baby boomers grew to college age in the 1960s and our cultural mythology changed, the proscription against preemptive strikes shifted slightly but remained in place. In the classic western of the 1960s, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the heroes are outlaws. But even they don't shoot first. In fact, they try not to shoot at all while they rob their banks and trains, even though Robert Redford's Sundance is the fastest gun around. When finally forced to kill someone, they have actually given up robbery and are trying to go straight. They still don't shoot first, but the authority figures pursuing them ("Who are those guys?") don't understand that or care.

By the 1970s, the traditional western was effectively dead in Hollywood. What happened to our cultural myth? It got transmuted to the most admired film of the past 30 years -- "The Godfather" and its praiseworthy sequel.

The film's hero, Vito Corleone, is a Mafia chieftain but also a classic Ellis Island immigrant American. He accumulates power through violence, not by seeking it for himself, but by seeking justice for those around him. He does not engage in preemptive strikes against his enemies (well, maybe in the case of the horse). He always tries to reason with his opponents, and even halts a gang war through negotiation once it starts.

His son Michael, however, does carry out preemptive attacks against his enemies, and the habit gradually destroys his moral framework so completely he kills his own brother.

Vito, with his forbearance, is both an authority figure and, arguably, a moral force for order. Michael, for all his education and polish, becomes simply an evil, destructive force of corrupted power.

Films like "The Godfather" -- which is always showing somewhere on television and has spawned three decades of Mafia spinoff films and TV series up to and including "The Sopranos" -- could not have reached iconic status in American culture without embracing or embodying some larger, more deeply held vision of who we are.

As distant as he appears on the surface from Davy Crockett and Shane and Wyatt Earp, Vito Corleone is a vision of American power, and "The Godfather" saga is a cautionary parable of its misuse.

There will be certainly those who say that the Bush administration and its allies are merely making Saddam Hussein an offer he can't refuse; that Hussein's threats to his Middle Eastern neighbors are akin to those made against Vito and his neighbors by the white-suited shakedown artist Vito shoots during the street festival, or by Palance against Shane's farm family.

But make no mistake about it -- the no-preemptive-attack rule is as fundamental an American value as almost anything in our culture.

"Our arms will never be used to strike the first blow in any attack," said John F. Kennedy in a speech early in his presidency. "It is our national tradition."

"I think it is exceptionally strong a part" of that tradition, said Brandeis's Fischer -- distinctive, not only from most obvious Asian and European countries, but even from the British from whom we inherited so many of our values.

The British have frequently fired first in war, he said: In the days of sailing ships "the Royal Navy would open fire whenever any ship tried to seize the weather gauge" -- the upwind position crucial for maneuvering a square-rigged vessel to attack.

If our tradition didn't come from Britain, where did we get it?

Fischer can't say exactly, but credits its evolution principally to the religious heritage of Puritan New England.

"It does not spring from pacifism," he said. "Rather from the notion of morality that something done for the right reason must also be done in the right way. It has been our collective judgment as a nation that something as immensely serious as war should only be embarked on for very clearly defensive reasons. And our culture tells us we depart from that judgment at our peril."

In our cultural mythology, the ban on preemptive strikes remains in place: In "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," left, the heroes are outlaws. "The Godfather's" hero, above, used violence, but only to seek justice for others.