THE SMELL OF WAR returns to Washington and this time I am listening seriously. I am thinking about August 1914, and the slide of accidental events which led to World War I. I am wondering if the American people fully grasp the preparations that policy makers and politicians are now espousing.

What time is it? The time is late.

What is the situation? The situation is grave.

What is required? A major effort.

This somber counsel comes from Dr. Henry Kissinger, interviewed the other day in The Wall Street Journal. I know Kissinger is brilliant but sometimes I wish there were a little button in his neck which ordinary citizens could push for a free translation of what exactly he said.

What must we avoid? We must avoid ad hoc decisions.

How should we think? We should think through how it all fits together.

Then what must we obtain? National resolve behind carring through whatever it is.

Kissinger's pale shadow, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, offered his own historic declaration. The "Post-Vietnam Era" is over, he announced in one of those semi-anonymous background griefings. As I listen to the war talk, the language of deployment and escalation, moves and countermoves, I can see that he has a point.

But I do also wonder, in this steamy winter of crisis, if the government is recreating another "pre-Vietnam era" -- a season of strategic steps which lead in time to another swamp.

Ordinary citizens, far away from the policy storms of Washington, may begin with simpler questions about Afghanistan. Where exactly is Afghanistan? What do they have in Afghanistan that we want? What are we supposed to do to get it back from the Russians?

Nothing. The short answer is nothing. Afghanistan is a nothing country with nothing we really want and we aren't going to do anything to get it back.

We are not talking about Afghanistan, citizens. We are talking about a new domino theory, born again for the Eighties. It is popularly known as the "Arc of Crisis," but Time magazine calls it the "Crescent of Crisis," which is more poetic than dominoes.

Why must we struggle over Afghanistan? Because Pakistan is next and then Iran and Arabia and soon the Russians will be toasting themselves in the cafes of Paris and the tearooms of London. Our world will be swallowed up by Red aggression if we and our ally, Red China, do not resist.

These are serious arguments, serious perceptions of danger. Still, I am compelled to note that these global thinkers -- Kissinger and Brzezinski included -- made the same arguments 20 years ago in another part of Asia. Only then we were told to struggle in Indochina against our enemy, Red China, who would swallow up Asia if we failed to act. It was better to fight in the streets of Saigon than the streets of San Francisco, as I recall.

I recognize that in the present climate these sentiments sound exceedingly wimpish, know-nothing, even craven. This is the hour for rallying and anyone who interrupts with simple-minded questions about the location of Afghanistan is automatically dismissed from the dialogue. It is also possible that the gunpowder I smell is merely a whiff of talc -- a powderpuff crisis for the voters of 1980.But I keep thinking back to the news story about the first casualty in Vietnam, a boy from Tennessee, as I remember it. They went around to interview his family. fHis father did not know where Vietnam was.

Did we learn anything from Vietnam? My main feeling of dread about the present situation is that the government and its auxiliary policy makers are in danger of repeating the same fundamental errors which led to the ruined strategy in Indochina. I am not talking about errors of diplomacy or military tactics -- though those were abundant. I am talking about errors of domocratic leadership.

The Middle East is different from Indochina and so are the current events of crisis, but I do not hear the plain talk that citizens ned if they are going to sign on for "national resolve," as Kissinger calls it. What I hear is the same kind of elliptical rhetoric which preceded Vietnam, heavy in portent and failing in precision. It sounds strong but lacks definition. It describes the consequences of inaction in the gravest terms but it evades the consequences of commitment.

Thus, for example, out Republican statesmen who are running for president, who depict themselves as knights stalwart of democracy, scurry away from the question of the draft. No point alarming folks in an election year by suggesting that their sons and daughters might go to Oman or Pakistan or wherever.

Likewise, none of those who are proposing U.s. deployment of troops in the Middle East are talking about what this might mean, down the road a ways. The idea is to signal the Soviets of our "national resolve" but nobody has spelled out exactly what we are resolving to do, in the event that the Russians or someone else start shooting in the vicinity. Since war on one level or another has been a constant for 30 years in the Middle East, is it unreasonable to ask now, rather than later, what we are committing ourselves to do?

What I hear these days are essentially two different conversations. One is intense dialogue among the policy makers, full of prescriptions for action but too opaque for general understanding. The other, political rhetoric directed to the nation, is not much more than a rumble of patriotic thunder.

Everyone thrills to thunder. It's only later, when lightning strikes and the barn burns down, that folks get angry. This is essentially what happened to public opinion during the Vietnam war and I see a present danger forming of the same disastrous dimension.

Jimmy Carter added his own bracing presidential thunder last week, which, again, was strong on portent and weak on precision. He warned the Russians that he might have to resume the military draft -- maybe after the election, certainly not before. He did not explain, for instance, how Gen. Zia of Pakistan, once regarded as unstable and repressive, had suddenly become our new bulwark of freedom. Carter said we are sending arms and maybe troops to defend our "vital interests" in a troubled region, but he did not define how these new commitments in the Middle East will be more successful than the old ones in Southeast Asia.

My question really is about how leaders in a democracy prepare people for a dangerous struggle without losing the next election. President Johnson essentially lied in 1964 and everyone can agree now that the nation paid dearly for his deception. Among other lessons, Vietnam left some commandments which the "arc of Crisis" commanders ought to honor, if not for themselves, for the country.

Tell the truth . Americans can take it. They are more comfortable knowing the truth of the situation than with a lot of gauzy rhetoric and vague warnings.

I am not talking about the deep secrets of war strategy or the names of spies. I mean an honest account of waht events are propelling us toward war and what the possible consequences will be.

I do not think we have gotten that yet from the Carter administration or the presidential challengers who love to talk tough. My hunch, which I cannot prove, is that we do not yet know the full truth about events in Afghanistan or in Iran, for that matter. If Americans learn later that they deceived or conned, they will not feel as resolute as the national leaders about continuing the struggle.

Obey the laws and the Constitution . That does not seem like too much to ask of the U.S. government, but the great scandal of Vietnam which no one would confront, including the Supreme Court, was the sleazy legal tricks used to justify the escalating military engagement and the suppression of citizen dissent.

This means, if the president wants to fight a war, he sends a declaration up to Capitol Hill and Congress votes on it. He does not segue into war by secret CIA armies or masked adventures by military advisers.

Tell us why. Why lmust we struggle for Afghanistan? The answer must be something more tangible and durable than the reasons supplied for Vietnam. That war was cast as a "war of honor" or a "test of strength" but it left the United States looking both weak and dishonored.

Forget the abstractions; give us concrete reasons. If the answer is oil, then some other tough questions must also be answered first. Why, for instance, do our European and Japanese allies seem so relaxed about Middle East oil supplies, so willing to let us do the nasty work? Isn't their oil at risk too? And, furthermore, what has the Carter administration done at home to insure emergency supplies of oil? The answer is not much, a modest scandal by itself.

Finally, there is a fundamental rule which I borrow from the Strom Thurmonds and Richard Russells and George Wallaces of American politics: If we get into a war, we should get in to win it .

Most Americans, outside the realm of policy theorists, instantly grasp the common sense of that rule. Only people who think war can be fine tuned and graduated into clever diplomatic signals will defend the gradual escalation of the Vietnam struggle.

War making was not invented in order to send signals to the Kremlin or anywhere else; war is meant for defeating an enemy force and capturing territory. If that's not the intended purpose, then don't send our boys to fight.

Simple as they sound, these are not easy rules for our leaders to follow. Each in its way poses a firebreak against careless adventure, against belligerent posturing which later slides into real bloodshed. And it makes diplomacy and war preparations much more complicated if a leader has to bring the general citizenry along with him on each step. But that is literally what global danger requires. Nobody ever said domocracy was easier. l