The war in Vietnam is ritualistically described as "the most divisive" in our history, but that was not the case when it began. Virtually the entire country was aboard at the start, most especially the leading organs of the "Eastern Liberal Press." Susan Welch, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, described 20 years ago how the "media" had ensured that "the reading public would view the war as a struggle between Communism and the Free World, vital to the preservation of all of Southeast Asia, and perhaps all of Asia." She cited, in particular, the collaborative roles of The Washington Post, The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, all of which switched horses in midstream and became critics of an "ill-advised" adventure.

Today our government, with broad support from the "media" and substantial public and political approval, is propagating a similar view of the Middle East and our interests there. No Communist threat is seen, nor, as President Bush has declared, is "our action in the Gulf ... about religion, greed or cultural differences." It is about "access to energy resources that are key ... to the entire world. Our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries around the world would all suffer if control of the world's greatest oil reserves fell into the hands of that one man -- Saddam Hussein." We might plunge, Secretary of State James Baker added, "into a new dark age."

The first substantive challenge to these assertions was made last week, not by the relentless inquisitors of the press, but by an energy economist, David R. Henderson, who served on President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. If Iraq, he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, were to take over the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and the emirates as well as those of Kuwait, the economic impact would be minor: "The annual cost to the U.S. economy of doing nothing in the Gulf would be less than half of 1 percent of gross national product. The vaunted oil weapon is a dud." That is less than the present cost of doing something.

His analysis may be wrong; the American "way of life" may be in peril. But his dissent goes to the heart of our principal rationale for intervention. It is an argument that the press, including its roving television celebrities, has not adequately explored. Instead, the tendency among columnists and editorial writers has been to articulate reasons for going to war that neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Baker has publicly advanced.

"What makes an interest 'vital,' " New York Times columnist William Safire declares, "is its centrality to life and death. The world interest in bringing down Saddam Hussein is to ensure that the means of mass destruction never fall into the hands of a mass murderer."

His colleague, A. M. Rosenthal, writes: "The U.S. moved into war position to stop a psychopathically ruthless killer from controlling a resource that is basic food to industry and can mean the difference between economic life and death." But beyond that Iraq's power to "threaten the world with mass destruction must end . . . {Its} missile, nuclear and chemical warfare bases" must be destroyed.

"Ridding the Middle East of Saddam Hussein," says The Wall Street Journal, "should be the minimum goal." The optimum? "Take Baghdad and install a MacArthur regency."

"The aim of American policy must be to deal a crippling blow to Iraq's military menace," says The New Republic. The National Review concurs: "Should the Iraqis give us the occasion, American air power should (as it can) reduce the Iraqi air force to twisted metal, Iraqi military factories to smoking rubble and Iraqi tank parts to scrap yards. We would be wise to be quick on the draw."

New York Times editorials scold Mr. Safire, Mr. Rosenthal and people of that ilk as "Hasty Hawks" but essentially agree with their central point: the destruction of Iraq's military potential is essential to our national interest. The Post reasons editorially along the same lines: "An enduring result cannot be achieved until the Iraqi threat is ... brought to an end. {That} threat consists of Saddam Hussein and his huge army and his gas-missile-nuclear complex."

If the destruction of Saddam Hussein and his arsenal is the primary goal of American policy and if "our way of life" is not at risk from the "vaunted oil weapon," the hundreds of hacks scurrying around the Middle East, the White House and the Pentagon should let us in on the secret. Then, if we choose, we can get on with it.