It hurts to admit that the critics of your adopted home town were right after all. But Washington turns out to be, as charged, an elitist place. And yes, the political and journalistic establishments of this city do live in a different country from those Americans whose lives are now at risk in the Persian Gulf.

That unflattering judgment was delivered by the deafening silence here that has followed both the official announcement that yet another 100,000 Americans were being sent to Saudi Arabia and a succession of grave statements from authoritative public figures that war with Iraq was all but inescapable. This noisy, contentious city turned mute because almost without exception no Washington dinner party guest -- liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican -- personally knows a single one of the 1.8 million enlisted Americans serving in our armed forces.

This is not the way it was supposed to work. A wise and just manpower policy is the foundation of our national defense. The all-volunteer American military, it was agreed, was to be a peacetime operation. Any major military engagement was to be a signal for a resumption of the draft. The reasoning was straightforward: If the goals of our nation are worth fighting for, then we ought not to hesitate to ask all Americans to share the obligation and the perils of that fighting.

War is hellish and hateful. But even more hateful are those hypocrites who endorse, encourage and champion war while avoiding any personal involvement in that war for themselves, their relatives or their friends.

The current advocates of escalation without personal participation abuse this nation as well as social justice. In his landmark book on today's infantrymen, "The Mud Soldiers," The Post's George Wilson quoted Col. Steve Siegfried, a combat veteran, on why the United States must have a draft in time of war: "Armies don't fight wars. Countries fight wars. I hope to hell we learned that in Vietnam... . A country fights a war. If it doesn't, then we shouldn't send an army."

Jim Webb knows that hard truth firsthand. Long before he was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, he was a 1968 graduate of Annapolis. As a Marine platoon leader and company commander in Vietnam, Webb earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and, after several operations, a medical discharge.

With characteristic bluntness, Webb criticizes the "complete separation of people in power in Washington from the people at peril in the Persian Gulf." He continues, "If the U.S. military was truly representative of the country, you would have people going through the roof right now." Webb abhors what he sees as the detached, depersonalized mind-set of policy makers and the privileged toward American soldiers: "Their attitude strikes me as: 'You volunteered. You took the money. Shut up and die.' "

Today, power is being wielded and policy fashioned by a number of ex-chicken-hawks from the Vietnam era who never heard the sound or smelled the stench of death on the battlefield. But now many of them appear to be spoiling for war. To those, Jim Webb issues a challenge: "How many American lives are worth retaking Kuwait? Anybody who advocates an American invasion should have to look into a TV camera and tell the mothers and the loved ones of the soldiers who are there why their sons' death is worth that price." Up to now, there have been no takers on that challenge.

From the enlisted ranks of today's American military, the sons of the powerful and the privileged, of the policy makers and the politicians, are overwhelmingly missing from action.

If this war is worth Americans' fighting and dying for, then it must first be worth calling to service the sons of anchormen and of senators, of Cabinet members and college presidents, of columnists and CEO's. That would be a guaranteed antidote for Washington's current indifference.