The prospect of a bloody war, with no prize worth the tens of thousands of American lives it would cost, can make you a little nervous. I'm getting a little nervous.

It isn't that I doubt the ability of America's fighting forces to take out a third-rate power like Saddam Hussein's Iraq. My doubts concern the purpose for doing so. Saddam is being described as a ruthless and power-mad tyrant bent on achieving political control of the Arab world and economic control of the region's oil reserves. I don't question the description, but it does seem to me that most of the current saber-rattling is coming from Washington, not Baghdad.

At one level, the prospect for Bush may be extremely enticing. By launching an all-out attack on Saddam, he could neutralize that despot for all time, make the United States a major power in the Persian Gulf, and show himself to be a man among men.

But there would be costs as well -- counted not merely in the body bags that would bring the war to American television sets but also in the likelihood that America would become the bete noir of the Middle East. Moreover, full-scale war would reduce Kuwait -- whose rescue is our ostensible reason for contemplating war -- to nothing but a geographic memory.

It seems a dubious trade-off at best. And yet the administration shows all the earmarks of not merely preparing for war but of actually hoping for war. That doesn't exactly make Saddam a candidate for sainthood; his forces still sit in Kuwait despite the demands of almost the whole world that he withdraw, and he has demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his own people to get what he wants. But he does speak of wanting to negotiate, and he has promised to have all the hostages home by Christmas. Considering that he has been using the hostages as human shields against a U.S.-led attack, the unavoidable conclusion is that he wants no war with the United States.

From our side, the opposite conclusion seems equally unavoidable. President Bush continues to reject negotiations, even while welcoming the prospect of the release of the hostages, and to insist as he has from the beginning that nothing short of unconditional withdrawal will deter him from his determination to go to war.

Assuming that Bush understands Saddam's need for some face-saving escape from the situation he has brought on himself, the refusal to allow him even a marginally graceful exit suggests that Bush wants war.

Does he? Is he hoping that America's vigorously advertised power to wipe out Iraq's offensive military capability will intimidate Saddam into quitting Kuwait? Or is he hoping that Saddam will refuse to withdraw and thereby provide the United States with an excuse to wipe out Iraq's offensive military capability?

In short, is the president seeking to avoid war or only to justify it?

It may be, of course, that all our talk of military preparations and strategy and tactical advantage -- including broad hints that we are secretly itching for a war with Iraq -- is calculated to do what our initial deployment, our careful courting of international support and our recent shift from a defensive to an offensive posture failed to do: convince Saddam that his sole alternatives are unconditional surrender or annihilation. Maybe Bush has concluded that the only way to convince him is to convince us.

Well, I'm convinced. I've been hearing the administration's assertion that a full-scale ground war, with the virtual guarantee of tremendous loss of American life, would be the centerpiece of our strategy if we have to resort to force to oust Saddam. Administration officials have been at pains to dismiss the notion of "surgical" strikes that might punish Saddam while leaving his war machine largely intact. As Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress the other day there will be none of the "nice, tidy, allegedly low-cost, incremental, may-work options that are floated around with great regularity."

The clear message is that America is ready -- almost eager -- for real bloody war. And for what? For Gulf oil, which is far more vital to Japan and Western Europe than to us? For the safety of Israel, which has (at our insistence) kept out of this squabble? For the protection of Saudi Arabia, which Saddam could have pulverized long before we were able to move our troops there? For regional stability, as though turning the whole of the Arab world as completely against us as they already are against Israel could enhance stability? For Kuwait, which would be pounded out of existence by the sort of war our military leaders envision? What's the prize?

I have no quarrel with those who insist that if war proves unavoidable we should use the opportunity to neutralize Iraq's military along with its chemical and nuclear war capability. What has me nervous is the growing sense that these secondary goals are being transformed into our fundamental reason for going to war.