The question of which particular Americans -- from what class, from whose families -- might fight Saddam Hussein rises insistently in discussions of the Gulf. It is a difficult question that takes us to Washington's most accident-prone intersection, where public policy and private sensibility meet.

Much is made of the fact that we now have an all-volunteer army containing few sons and daughters of the leadership class, which is thereby supposedly freed up to make decisions on the Gulf without having to weigh the consequences for its children. The common assumption is that our leaders and the circles whence they spring feel readier to go to war as a result. Thus is a social fact endowed with immense political implications.

I am with those who feel that a democracy's army should have a high citizen component, so that the burdens of civic duty can be fairly allotted. Many of you with children in their teens or twenties will know how remote an idea this appears to the young. Not that they all oppose national service, or better, personal service in some socially purposeful activity. But the military is not an organization many of them are drawn to join.

Still, in the eyes of many people we are now testing the notion that a president commanding a professional army is tempted to conduct a different, more adventurous sort of foreign policy, one too ready to put fighting men at risk.

Others might contend we are testing a contrary notion: that the commander in chief of a professional army is enabled to conduct a different, more responsible sort of foreign policy, one where his conception of the national interest is not unduly inhibited by a concern for draftees. It depends where your policy proclivities lie.

In fact, it is a very damning thing to say that a commander in chief makes decisions about the life and death of Americans by considering whether they volunteered or were compelled to serve, or whether they are of his station. Again, not that presidents are incapable of that sort of cynicism. But you would have to know more than most of us know about George Bush, a man of the leadership class who was a volunteer for combat in his war, to say that this is how he is proceeding against Saddam Hussein.

I think one can observe among the public a distinct reluctance to regard our professional soldiers as paid "mercenaries" and therefore dispensable. Think of the constant references to body bags, the theme of mail and gifts for the troops, their humanization through officially encouraged media coverage, the nervousness about the women among them, the favor indicated for a supposedly less costly air war. Much of the national hesitation about Iraq arises precisely from this concern. It suggests the public is being faithful to the men and women in the Saudi sands. It is treating them not as cannon fodder but as fellow citizens whose fate must find its place in the policy equation.

At one and another dinner table, meanwhile, I observe that a good number of middle-aged folk feel they should not support a policy they believe is pointed toward war unless they would be prepared to see their own sons fight. They pose this extremely demanding test confident -- well, pretty confident -- that their sons and daughters are not going to volunteer and that the draft is not going to be reinstituted. But -- parents identifying with parents -- they wish to keep faith with those whose sons are exposed. In this respect anyway, they abandon any claim to advantage by virtue of their class. The moral tail waves the policy dog.

We have come a long way from Vietnam. Then the sons of privilege used the loose rules of the draft to avoid service. Realizing that others less fortunate or less skilled at manipulation remained in harm's way, they assuaged their guilt by opposing the war and by bringing the draft to an end.

Now many of the same people who banned the draft on grounds that, as it was applied, it unfairly burdened the poor and the black, are finding that the volunteer force tips things the same way. Numbed by fear of the endangerment of their sons in the one war, they are sobered by awareness of their children's safety in a possible next one. The social distribution of peril becomes too onerous. The response is to move to the high ground of preference for negotiation and compromise. Far from making Americans more warlike, the absence of a draft turns some of them more toward peace.