The Middle East crisis has claimed its highest-ranking American casualty yet. He is the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael J. Dugan, who was sacked yesterday after shooting himself in the foot with this conflict's weapon of choice: the Big Mouth of almost everyone involved.

Dugan, in office a bare three months, got what he had coming. In an interview with The Post's Rick Atkinson on Sunday, he not only outlined what he said was the Air Force's battle plan should war come, but suggested it might include the killing of Saddam Hussein's family, bodyguards and even his mistress. "I don't expect to be concerned" about political constraints, he said. It turns out Dugan was mistaken.

Dugan's firing must have come as a great relief to Hussein's mistress, a lady who presumably has more than enough on her mind nowadays. But it also must come as a relief to those of us who think that high-ranking military officers not only should not give away strategy but ought to talk about their business with some restraint and decorum. After all, war is about killing.

That restraint, that decorum, is precisely what was missing from Dugan's remarks. I doubt the general gave away anything Hussein did not already know. The Iraqi leader must suspect that there are bombs with his name on them. After all, the United States attempted the assassination from the air of Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and, from every direction, of Manuel Noriega of Panama. We're not particularly good at that sort of thing, but we are dogged. Hussein knows that.

It was, rather, the tone of Dugan's remarks that was truly offensive. Here was some talkative flyboy airhead out of "Dr. Strangelove." We learned from Dugan that he asked his planners to give him bombing targets that were out of the ordinary. No mere power stations, roads, petroleum facilities and the like for him. He wanted more -- targets that "would make an impact on the population and regime in Iraq." Presumably, someone said, "Pop the popsy," and Hussein's mistress was targeted.

But it's understandable if Dugan wonders where he went wrong -- how what he said was all that different from what others, including President Bush, have said. After all, Dugan is not the first military officer to talk about a possible war with Iraq as if it were a football game. From the chief of staff on down, there has been a rah-rah atmosphere to this operation. There has been no weapon the military leaders won't describe, no base it will not exalt, no capability it will not praise -- all in way that makes you wonder whether they could possibly be speaking of killing.

Not too long ago, the American military had a sobering influence on policy makers. When, for instance, someone in Congress or the Cabinet would react to some crisis by saying: "Bomb 'em," it was usually the military that offered instructions in reality: It is war we are talking about, the taking of life -- wounding, maiming, blinding, orphaning, widowing, destroying. This is not football nor some stupid Rambo movie but war, gentlemen. It's what you do when you have no choice.

But ever since the invasion of Panama (or was it the bombing of Libya?), the American military has employed the mindless lexicon of football coaches: everyone has come to play. In Panama, the military boom-boxed Noriega, both mocking him and harassing him with loud rock music. The entire operation was over-praised, cheered even by the president.

The pattern of treating little victories as major triumphs was set with the invasion of Grenada. For that operation, the Pentagon awarded medals to anyone near the Caribbean. A kind of grade inflation for heroism has set in, cheapening valor. Now we have language to match.

If war were prize fighting, Iraq would never be paired with the United States. It's a Third World country, universally considered weaker than Israel, a nation of fewer than 4 million people. If war comes -- and I still cannot see how it can be avoided -- it ill behooves us to talk of a necessity as if it were a virtue and of a weak enemy as if it were strong. Our language ought to suit our purpose. It should be serious and mature. These were precisely the qualities missing in Dugan's remarks and why his firing was deserved -- and, maybe, a lesson to others as well.