LAST SUNDAY, The Washington Post published an article with my byline and the headline, "U.S. to Rely on Air Strikes If War Erupts." The story and accompanying photograph got great play -- six columns across the top of page one -- because it recounted, in some detail, the Air Force's recommended battle strategy in the event of war with Iraq.

The story, and a similar piece in the Los Angeles Times, had an unanticipated consequence. On Monday, Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney fired Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan, the principal source for the article and one of five Air Force generals quoted, on the record, regarding U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf. Cheney charged Dugan with "poor judgment" and revealing classified information. And the article probably had another, more enduring consequence: In all likelihood, the Pentagon will rebuild the wall between the media and the military that has stood since the Vietnam War.

The story behind the story is as follows: On Thursday afternoon, Sept. 6, a Dugan aide called and asked if I was interested in accompanying the chief on a five-day swing across the Saudi peninsula while he inspected Air Force operations. Seats on the plane were limited; John Morrocco of Aviation Week, John Broder of the Los Angeles Times and I were the only reporters going. I'm not certain how the list was made up; I'd never met Dugan and had only spoken with him once on the phone.

Several complications nearly scuttled the trip for me. I was supposed to leave for a reporting assignment in the Soviet Union on Sept. 14, the day before the Air Force chief's scheduled return to Washington; that was resolved by pushing back the departure date for Moscow by two days. Then on Sept. 10, eight hours before our departure for Saudi Arabia, the Air Force reported that their plan to have a trio of reporters shadow Dugan throughout his visit -- including a stop at the secret F-117A stealth fighter base -- was adamantly opposed by at least two host governments and the staff of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the region. Despite the diminished itinerary, the trip still seemed exciting and worthwhile and I replied that I was anxious to go.

As a final obstacle, the three reporters lacked Saudi visas. The Saudi embassy said it would take "weeks or months" to process our applications, and the Air Force wasn't having any luck either. When Broder, Morrocco and I arrived, without visas, at Andrews Air Force Base at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10, we were told that we'd have to remain in Torrejon, Spain, after refueling if the documents were not forthcoming; just before the jet began to taxi down the runway at Andrews, a Saudi embassy official relented and promised the Air Force by phone that we would be issued one-week visas upon arrival in Riyadh.

Any reporter who has covered a national political campaign knows that long plane rides are strangely bonding; they permit relaxed conversation with few distractions. The flight to Saudi Arabia, including an hour's refueling, took 14 hours, aboard a windowless, military version of a Boeing 707 with wide, comfortable seats grouped four to a table. In the traveling party were a half dozen generals, including the chief and his deputies in charge of plans and operations, logistics and engineering, the aeronautical systems division, the Air Guard and the air reserves. After a few hours' rest, the generals took turns sitting at the table with the three reporters. They were cordial, patient and willing to talk in some detail about the remarkable deployment of Operation Desert Shield. Everything was on the record. I arrived in Riyadh with the makings of a good story -- though hardly a barn-burner -- about how the Air Force was prepared for war in the Gulf. The story, though, was no more than an assortment of miscellaneous facts without a compelling beginning.

Dugan's comments on the flight had been intriguing and as we parted company from the generals for two days, the reporters had a chance to ponder what he seemed to be saying, if somewhat obliquely. He had been dismissive, even contemptuous of Iraqi military capabilities, referring to their army as "incompetent" and their air force as "an irritant." Morrocco, who had early deadlines for the following week's magazine, filed from Saudi Arabia; Broder and I, after consulting our editors in Washington, decided to hang fire until the return trip to see what else the chief had to say.

A tall, likeable fighter pilot who had been chief only since July 1, Dugan very much wanted to improve his service's relations with the press. His immediate predecessor had been stiff and aloof, a man equally contemptuous of journalists and many members of Congress. It was probably not coincidental that the Air Force for several years had been hammered in the press on a number of topics crucial to the service's future, including the B-1 and B-2 bombers and the Advanced Tactical Fighter.

Mike Dugan, a 32-year veteran, wanted to change that. "I think that the leaders . . . need to be up front, they need to be the guys on point," he told Air Force officials in a speech Aug. 1. "And they need to take the gaffe that goes with it and the flack that goes with it." At Dugan's direction -- and to the astonishment of reporters accustomed to Air Force stonewalling -- his public-affairs office printed the names and phone numbers of senior officers on a small, laminated card that urged journalists to get their facts right by directly calling those who knew the answers. "He's probably too open for his own good," a colonel told me. "Eventually, he'll probably get burned."

On Friday morning, Sept. 14, we rendezvoused with the generals in Dhahran on the Persian Gulf as they completed their inspection tour with a look at a fighter base. In an air-conditioned tent, Dugan gave a 30-minute press conference to a pool of reporters; he said little that was newsworthy and the three of us traveling with him asked no questions, preferring to wait until we were back on the plane. At noon, we took off for home.

Morrocco, Broder and I were eager to resume the interviews. Having pondered the dimensions of an apparently shapeless story, I had come to realize that the essence of what Dugan and his deputies could best address was the limitations and capabilities of American air power a generation after it had last been used extensively, in Southeast Asia. Could air power alone force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, sparing huge losses to U.S. ground forces? How? What targets would be most effective in reversing the Iraqi invasion? Did you have to destroy Kuwait in order to save it? What made the Air Force believe bombing would be more effective against Saddam than it was against Ho Chi Minh? We really wanted to understand, not just for the sake of being privy to that which is usually forbidden to reporters, but to get a glimpse of this warriors' world, where thousands of lives hang in the balance.

Again the generals obligingly rotated into the vacant seat at our table. They, too, seemed eager to talk and the conversations on the first leg lasted five hours. They were pleased and proud at what they had seen on the peninsula, at the logistical marvels of Desert Shield, at the ingenuity and pluck of Americans consigned to a baking wasteland 7,000 miles from home. Dugan, I think, particularly wanted us to understand that his pilots and crews were ready to shoulder the load if war erupted, potentially sparing the United States a protracted armor war in which thousands of American soldiers might die.

"Air power is the only answer that's available to our country" to avoid a bloody land war that would probably devastate Kuwait, he said. Do the other chiefs share that view? we asked. Yes, Dugan said, and no one voices the sentiment more often than Schwarzkopf. He continued, outlining his vision of how the war would unfold, how "the cutting edge would be in downtown Baghdad," how Saddam would be personally targeted, how the Israelis had advised hitting Saddam's family, personal guard and mistress (a disclosure that particularly infuriated Cheney and other officials sensitive to Israel's role in this crisis).

A few of Dugan's comments seemed improbable or naive. After describing how the Air Force would flatten Iraq, the chief added, "We're not mad at the Iraqi people, and when this is all over we don't want the Iraqi people to be mad at us and the rest of the allies we've brought together." Exhibiting a trait not uncommon among fighter pilots, he also seemed cockier than most of the Army officers I had interviewed, who had a much more sober view of a potential war with Iraq. When he mentioned that he had asked his planners to interview civilian specialists -- including academics and journalists -- to determine "what is unique about Iraqi culture that they put a very high value on," we wondered at the propriety of enlisting such people to help draft a target list. And we wondered, frankly, why the chief was telling us all this.

The 16-hour flight home passed amiably. Reporters and officers played cards and told jokes, shared a quick beer at the officers' club in Spain during refueling and an even quicker bottle of vodka on the second leg to Washington. As we neared Andrews at the end of the journey, an officer confided, "You've made lifelong friends on this trip."

Somehow, I doubt that. And I regret it. I like Mike Dugan and his band of generals; I admire their devotion to duty and their clear concern for the 30,000 Air Force men and women in the Persian Gulf whose lives are their responsibility. But I doubt that we'll see many more of those laminated cards urging reporters to ring up the senior leadership.

I certainly don't regret publication of the story. Reporters have their duties, too. I believe that there are fundamental issues Americans should be thinking about before the first shot is fired: Do we want to level Baghdad? Do we hate Saddam enough to hunt him relentlessly with our bombers? Are we ready to see hostages and civilians die, or captured pilots imprisoned in Iraqi jails? These are issues of national will, not just military planning.

I suspect Dugan agrees; that may be why he spoke so candidly. I'm sorry, truly sorry, that he had to pay for that airing with his job.

Rick Atkinson, a Washington Post reporter, has written extensively on military affairs.