Playing against type, America's generals are refusing to fight the last war again in the Persian Gulf. They have learned the lessons of Vietnam, which is more than can be said for the politicians and retread anti-war activists who argue today that the threat to world peace comes not from Saddam Hussein but President Lyndon Baines Bush.

The Persian Gulf crisis represents the professional military's revenge for Vietnam. By ruling out a deceptive "incremental" buildup in the Gulf, the generals are forcing the politicians in Washington to take immediate and clear responsibility for the decisions (including those of the generals) on how this confrontation will be waged.

Comparing what is happening in Washington today to the stealthy buildup that Lyndon B. Johnson undertook in 1965 requires enormous imagination, or perhaps just ignorance of recent history. President Bush's Gulf policy, agree with it or not, resembles Johnson's drive to Executive War as night resembles day.

The idea that the Bush White House is stifling "debate" over the Gulf buildup is ludicrous. We are awash in debate. Bush is out in public baring the details of his expanding mobilization, frequently debating himself or his secretary of state over the details and goals if no one else is available.

The secretary of defense and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff debate their troop-rotation policy (or rather the lack of one) in public view, after firing the Air Force's top general for singing the joys of napalming Baghdad on a summer's morn to reporters.

The decision of The New York Times and The Post in 1972 to publish the Pentagon Papers renders the Bush White House an enormous service today. If you have forgotten or never knew how and when Johnson crossed the line into secret war-waging, you can look it up in National Security Action Memorandum 328 of April 6, 1965, as described in the Pentagon's own words.

Bush, Baker, Cheney & Co. may look foolish out there talking inconsistently about the new deployment to the Gulf. But they sure look honest and open by comparison to the effort by Johnson's White House "to go to war without arousing the public ire," in the telling phrase attributed to Robert McNamara by historian Barbara Tuchman and others.

Bush has little choice but to arouse the public in these circumstances. The generals saw to that in 1973, when the draft was ended. The new "total force" Army that Gen. Creighton Abrams designed works only if reserve units are called up to round out active-duty forces in a massive deployment abroad.

Johnson had refused to call up the reserves because of the political alarm bells it would have set off in congressional districts. Abrams and his successors made sure future presidents would not have that option. The generals have already curbed the president's powers, quietly and indirectly, but more effectively than have all the congressional critics of the Executive War.

Congress passed the War Powers Act, also in 1973, to restrict the president's power to deploy troops into hostilities or "into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances."

It is hard to imagine a better description of the Persian Gulf situation today. Yet Congress refuses to trigger the act -- which it, as well as the president, has the power to do. There are no gags over the mouths of Democrats in Congress that they have not placed there themselves out of political prudence. The Democrats prefer to criticize Bush for his fractured syntax and fuzzy rhetoric and let him take the heat. They lunge for the capillary.

The problem in Washington is not who holds the authority to wage war. The Constitution divides that authority between the president and Congress and requires them to treat this divided responsibility seriously.

The problem is the lack of political courage and mutual confidence needed to make the difficult decisions that a potentially long, costly conflict requires. This is a legacy of the divisions and disillusionments of Vietnam, one that is exacerbated by the War Powers Act, which Congress and the White House disregard in fact but argue over in theory, reaping the worst of both worlds.

Was Bush's invasion of Panama not war, as defined by the War Powers Act? Certainly it was. But the invasion of Panama, of Grenada and the bombing of Libya were so popular that Congress did not challenge the White House afterward for evading the 1973 law.

If Bush feels that Congress would rather not know what he is up to, he has good reason. Executive Wars are okay, Congress said in effect, as long as they are quick and popular, as long as only a few unfortunate Panamanians had to pay the price of Manuel Antonio Noriega's being taken to Miami to be made a legal cause ce'le`bre by Cable News Network.

Iraq is not Panama nor is it Grenada. And the generals are determined that it will not be Vietnam. It is unlikely that a politician, as concerned with reelection as is the present occupant of the White House, would risk turning himself into Lyndon Baines Bush. But if the temptation rises, it would be the generals, not today's timorous Congress, who would move to stifle it.