In order to win almost any fight, it helps to believe in the other guy's differentness. The less you identify with your "enemy"--the less you believe they are like you--the easier it is to annihilate them.

In truth, some foes are unusually vile--Hitler stands out even among despots. But often, differences between combatants are subtle or nonexistent.

Except in their minds.

The perception of differentness is enough to fuel a major war or a minor tiff. In Littleton, Colo., it was enough for two youths to justify murdering classmates whose "differences" seemed marginal.

Is it a coincidence that in the most heinous recent killings by local teenagers--the strangling- dismemberment of Alfredo Tello, 19, in 1997 and the throat-slashing of Kirill Varnovatyy, 15, last year--the alleged slayers were American-born and the victims from immigrant families? Please.

In a marital snit, a gang turf battle or an all-out military conflagration, combatants on both sides magnify and exploit real and imagined differences, ignoring the fact that as humans, we really aren't that different.

That hardly sounds like the premise for an oft-hilarious new movie. But "Three Kings," which opens today, was directed by David O. Russell, who had great fun with subjects such as adultery and a man's search for his birth parents in his acclaimed previous film, "Flirting With Disaster."

Quirky and ambitious, "Kings" opens at the end of the Persian Gulf War, with triumphant American soldiers partying. Most are contemptuous of the local Iraqi "towel heads"--Muslim civilians and soldiers--for and against whom they had fought, a population as different from young American servicemen as the Vietnamese once were. And as expendable.

Perceptions of differentness also afflict those fighting on the same side. In a memorable scene, a Texas-born private refers to an Iraqi prisoner as a "dune coon." This outrages an African American soldier, who says he won't tolerate racist epithets from anyone. When a white soldier informs the chastened private that "camel jockey and towel head are perfectly good substitutes," the black soldier responds, "Exactly."

The movie concerns the get-rich-quick scheme of four servicemen (played by George Clooney, rappers-turned-actors Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, and Bethesda native Spike Jonze) to make off with Saddam Hussein's stockpile of stolen gold. Obstacles include Hussein's defeated army, which is more worried about rebellious citizens than the departing Yanks, and Iraqi civilians who mistakenly believe U.S. troops will help them rebuild their lives.

The soldiers couldn't care less about either group. Their single-minded scheme to get the gold goes fine until--quite by accident and to the soldiers' immediate detriment--they begin to see the Muslims as mothers, students, freedom-seekers. As people.

At a reception Tuesday after a Washington screening of "Kings," which Roger Ebert calls a "masterpiece," director Russell recorded viewers' mostly glowing comments with a hand-held Sony videocam.

Aly R. Abuzaakouk, president of the American Muslim Council, praised the movie but noted how antiquated the film's Iraqi village--actually in the Arizona desert--looked compared with the real thing. Fairfax resident Abdallah Omeish was struck by the film's portrayal of each character's humanity.

Omeish, 25, moved to suburban Washington from Libya at age 8. He recalled people reacting negatively to his background. "The minute you mention you're Muslim, everything changes. I understand to an extent. . . . What's portrayed in the media is not 100 percent."

Russell, the film's director, couldn't agree more.

"The more advanced war becomes, the more bizarre it is.--You're still killing people, but you're presenting it as being as clean as a silicon chip," said Russell, 41. The Gulf War "didn't have a human face."

Omeish said Americans have no concept of how many people in the Arab world disagree with their governments because "if you speak out there, you're history."

As a schoolboy, Omeish saw Libyan government officials come into high schools to randomly select boys for the military. "People literally were forced to fight. It's not what you see on CNN, people shouting for Saddam or Gadhafi. . . . So many are scared for their lives."

An aspiring filmmaker, Omeish applauds Russell for using movies to challenge "the biggest disease we have in this country--ignorance." He said few Americans realize the incredible international influence of American film and its power to make distant strangers feel vitally connected to us.

Omeish recalled visiting an area in Egypt so remote that it lacked paved roads. Guess what he saw on T-shirts at a roadside stand:

"A photo of Leo DiCaprio from 'Titanic.' "

Further proof that we aren't so different.