MY COMRADE IS A CRIPPLE. BULLETS shredded his fingers and shattered his hip. He has a claw for a right hand, a bad limp and a body with long pink fibrous welts.

My comrade has a son. I met the boy when he was 8 years old, a small, shy, doe-eyed child sitting on a coffee table next to his stepmother.

"This is Mike Norman," said the step-mother, introducing me. "Mike was in the war with Daddy. Do you know what that makes him?"

I was sure she meant for the child to say, "A Marine." But he assumed another connection.

"Shot?" he said.

I have a son the same age. He has met my comrade, several comrades, in fact, a handful of combat Marines who survived the bloody battles of 1968 and now, 23 years later, still keep watch over one another.

My son is only 12 now, but he knows war. He has touched the claw; he has heard the grim stories.

Not long ago, on the first night of what he calls "the first war in my life," we were sitting side by side on the bed watching the news, waiting for word from the front. I was not thinking clearly that night -- filled with fury and sorrow, I haven't been able to think clearly since the first bomber released its load on Baghdad, since the first artillery shell fell among Marines on the Kuwaiti border -- not thinking clearly at all.

"I guess the telephone will ring any minute now and the Marine Corps will tell me to pack my gear," I said, glibly.

The boy spun around on the bed. His face sagged; his eyes filled with fear. "What do you mean?" he said. "Are . . . are you going?"

I apologized quickly; it was a cruel declamation and a stupid one too.

"You scared me, Dad," he said later. "I didn't want you coming back in a bag."

IN FACT, FOR MONTHS MY HOUSE HAS BEEN FILLED with talk of life and death. Since late summer the conversation at the dinner table has been intensely political. "Where's Kuwait? . . . What's an emir? . . . How long were we in Vietnam?"

Then, on January 17, the political became personal. "Can their missiles reach us? . . . How old do you have to be to be drafted? . . . Are you really going?"

The questions continue. But now, weeks into a new war, they are much more complex, more ontological. I sit with my son and try to talk. On the side, my wife listens. At night after Josh goes to bed, Beth sometimes stares at me. Her eyes are unforgiving. I have not been telling the boy the truth.

JOSH WAS 8 IN HIS FIRST FIGHT. HE had gone to the movies with friends. A few rows in front sat two loudmouths, perhaps 10 and 13 years old -- at all events "bigger . . . much bigger." Words were exchanged, first in volleys, then barrage after barrage. When the movie was over, the older boys waylaid the younger ones out front. His friends fled the field, but Josh held fast. He was swollen, badly bruised and sobbing when I got home that night.

My homily was brief; the lessons seemed clear. "I'm proud of you," I told him. "It's hard to stand your ground. You were brave. I'm sorry your friends left you. There are really only two times you have to fight, either to defend yourself or someone you love." One day in school two years later, a boy named Carlos tried to nudge Josh from his seat. Josh yielded. He'd been taught whenever possible to walk away from trouble. "Fighting solves nothing," I'd said, over and over again. "Most of the time it takes more guts to walk away."

Carlos perceived this equanimity as weakness. He followed Josh down the aisle, shoving him all the way. At last, Josh, with his back to the wall, had no place to go. Carlos continued to press, then, with one punch, Josh instantly turned back the assault.

I was called to the principal's office. My son, I was told, had started a war and was being suspended for the day. It seemed he'd defended himself too well. Carlos had gone home woozy and with an ice pack on his eye.

The defense that I'd taught Josh was based on the mistakes of Vietnam; to wit, never use limited rules of engagement. "If you have to fight, hit him first and hit him hard. End it," I had advised.

This fall, Josh had a falling out with two members of his small circle. It was serious; everyone was upset. The boys began to taunt and threaten him. He asked for advice. "Don't get into a fight," I told him. "No matter what happens, you walk away."

I wanted my son to be a pacifist, a brave bearer of the banner of peace, because that was how I thought of myself.

IN EARLY OCTOBER 1918, THE LAST MONTH OF WORLD War I, a battalion of infantry from New York's famed 77th Division broke through the German line in the Argonne Forest and became surrounded. The unit, some 600 Americans who had marched off to "make the world safe for democracy," had walked into a slaughterhouse, a knacker's yard, a shambles. For five days in that little pocket in the woods, the Huns rained fire on the beleaguered Yanks with mortars, machine guns and flamethrowers. In the end, five out of every six members of the "Lost Battalion," as it became known, were either killed or wounded.

Twenty years later, 50 of the survivors gathered in New York for a reunion. Reporters covering the affair asked the men what, if anything, would ever make them take up arms again. "Typical was the comment of Frederick R. Tillman of Rochester, N.Y., now in the oil business," wrote one reporter. Said Tillman, " 'I'm the most ardent pacifist in Rochester.' "

Indeed, how could any man who has seen heavy combat come home anything other than a pacifist? The grim waste of the battlefield is horribile visu, literally almost too ghastly to see. It leaves deep scars on the memory, "moral cicatrices," one Civil War veteran called them. What man would twice take part in such wanton butchery? The lesson of war is incontestable: When the shooting finally stops, no one walks away with a victory. There is only the awful silence, the anger, the inescapable sorrow.

But my pacifism was not pure, not steady. It was based on anger and dissolute grief, not conviction.

For example, I never say the Pledge of Allegiance. Josh noticed this one night at a Cub Scout meeting. He was proud of his little blue uniform and yellow kerchief; he liked the ceremony of those Wednesday nights -- the dens in neat queues, the approach of Old Glory. "How come you don't salute the flag?" he said, later.

I told him I stood in silence to honor the dead. The memory of them is still strong in me. I could not think of a more apt moment to devote to those who did not come home. I was a Marine keeping faith with his comrades.

But that was only part of it. I did not tell Josh that I was still furious with the government. My silence was a protest, a way to say that a lot of good men had been sent to their deaths by politicians with muddled and, as it turned out, morally corrupt motives. All this in the name of the Red, White and Blue. No, I'd never again give my allegiance to a piece of cloth; such oaths give too much license to ignorant and profligate men.

So I was more the iconoclast than the pacifist. And my posturing for peace only confused my son, for he could easily see my anger, my aggression, my political belligerence.

Then came January 16 and a new war.

I HAVE LET HIM STAY UP LATE. IT IS THE THIRD DAY of fighting. We have been reading the newspapers and watching television, trying to locate Marine positions, trying to guess when the corps might be sent into battle.

He is sitting behind me on the bed, but I know he is watching me. I can feel his eyes on my neck. I know too that since the first night of war he has been carefully reading my face and my voice. He's looking for subtext. The joke, you see, was no joke. And I think he knows it.

I want to go to war.

I had called my old newspaper and asked to cover a combat unit. No visas, they said. But Beth was furious. "How could you want to do that to your family? How can you tell your son you'd never let him fight over there, then try to run off yourself? What would I say to him if his father got killed?"

It is very late. Josh is asleep now, in his own bed in the other room. He is a big boy; we almost wear the same size clothes. A few years back he slipped on my old dress-blue uniform. I think it would nearly fit him now.

I do not worry that footfalls from my old campaigns will one day echo in his memory. For part of the last three summers, he has gone south to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to visit my old company commander. One year, a young corporal asked Josh if he planned to become a Marine.

"No," said Josh, politely.

"Why not?" the eager corporal demanded.

"Because," said my son, "I do not want to die."

The lesson of the claw is not lost on him.

Still, it is hard to deliver the truth. Why am I so drawn to the battle being fought on the great granite plate of the Arabian Peninsula? A true pacifist would take to the streets in front of the White House to holler at the man who pulled the trigger.

And yet, I want to go.

I could tell Josh that while the moralist in me hates war, the poet longs once more to be a part of it. I do not want to carry a gun again, I just want to be there. Perhaps it should not be written or said, but the battlefield can be a place of frightening beauty and fierce love. To try to convey the magnificence of war -- and make no mistake, the men, their strength and suffering, their loyalty and generosity, are magnificent -- to say such might be to glorify it. Yet in the struggle to survive, a struggle complicated by the urge to self-sacrifice, are answers to the most basic questions. No other venue reveals as much about the condition we call life, the mystery we call death.

I might also tell the boy that like many writers, I feel an obligation to try to make sure the record of war is accurate, complete, well-written. Only writers combing the sands for details can break through the chest-thumping banalities and propaganda served up by government censors. And yet.

It's not really ontological inquiry or literary duty that draws me to the desert. I want to be among Marines in combat again because there is something in me left unfinished -- or made incomplete -- by my war. I cannot say what, exactly, but it is there nonetheless.

I do not mean adventure. The waste of war is undeniable; it leaves the battlefield foul and obscene, not exciting. And I'm not suggesting that, this time, I want to take part in a fight that government officials assure us "we will win." All victories are hollow. The first casualty marks a failure that only deepens with every grave. In the end, there is only the memory of the dead and the sound of old soldiers weeping.

What, then? What?

All I can say for sure is that war uprooted me, set me spinning. Whenever, across the last 23 years, I've tried to come back -- to school, marriage, family, a career, old comrades -- I get close. But there is a part of me that is still dispossessed. I am not talking here about lost youth or innocence either. I mean that something much more fundamental was effaced, disrupted.

"War," wrote the World War I nurse Vera Brittain, "had con- demned me to live to the end of my days in a world without confidence or security, a world in which every dear personal relationship would be fearfully cherished under the shadow of apprehension; in which love would seem threatened perpetually by death, and happiness appear a house without duration, built upon the shifting sand of chance. I might, perhaps, have it again, but never again should I hold it."

In other words, I could not be at peace, the one thing all men need to declare they are complete. Perhaps, I thought, if I could get back to the place where I lost it, I might at last come to rest.

How do I explain that to the sweet boy now asleep on the other side of the wall?

Michael Norman, author of These Good Men, is an associate professor of journalism at New York University.