BLACK AMERICANS have much to be proud of in their performance in the war against Saddam Hussein.

Black service men and women are playing an important role in the war effort both at a leadership level and among enlistees. Black families can be seen nightly on TV expressing strong support for friends and relatives fighting in the Persian Gulf as well as tremendous allegiance to the idea of defending America.

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a black man, leads the nation's military, projecting warmth, strength and competence that have won him both national and international acclaim. Minorities are playing leading roles in this conflict with a record number in command positions. Black Americans, specifically, now comprise 23 percent of the military while they are only about 12 percent of the general population.

Certainly many black soldiers, like many white soldiers, entered the military with career advancement rather than warfare in mind. But there is no evidence that such soldiers, black or white, are less ready to fulfill their missions. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who visited troops the week before the war began, said he found black soldiers to have "very high morale" and to be "upbeat." He also found "a great degree of interracial cooperation, a much greater sense of family, a greater sense of togetherness among the military people than I see in civilian life." Yet, in the face of this story of strides toward racial equality, black advancement in the military and patriotic sacrifices by black military personnel and their families, a number of prominent black leaders are casting the war in racial terms. They seem determined to drive a wedge between black America and its troops in combat as well as mainstream America, which is strong in its support for Operation Desert Storm.

A steady barrage of shrill criticism from black leaders is surely one reason why support among black American for the gulf effort fell from about 66 percent (equal to white support) in September to 27 percent in early January, the week before the war began. Since the start of the war, black support for the war has risen again to roughly 50 percent, compared to roughly 80 percent support among whites. But even with war underway, and the lives of black soldiers under threat, the criticism has continued from some black leaders.

"There were no troops in Canada on our border about to bomb us," said Jesse L. Jackson, in an appearance on Black Entertainment Television after the war began. Jackson's comment established a strange standard for what constitutes a threat to our interests in the modern world. At a rally two days before the war started, Jackson shouted to an overwhelmingly black audience: "If that war breaks out, our youth will burn first."

Shortly after the invasion of Kuwait, Jackson was paid $125,000 by a TV show to gain an interview with Saddam Hussein. Saddam, who was apparently interested in associating himself with Jackson in an effort to divide American public opinion along racial lines, gave Jackson only a brief, censored interview. The real gift Saddam had for Jackson was a group of hostages to take home in a whirlwind of media attention.

That publicity bonanza may have blinded Jackson to some realities. "The order to start war and drop bombs came from President George Bush -- why?" said Jackson in his BET interview, dismissing the context of the president's decision.

Coretta Scott King has also phrased her opposition to the war solely in terms of the U.S. final response to Saddam's aggression. "I strongly deplore and was deeply saddened by the White House decision to launch a war against Iraq," she said, as if the United States had suddenly begun war without provocation by Iraq and without attempts at a diplomatic settlement, without U.N. approval and without an array of allies. King said she was operating in her husband's tradition, but her husband -- who vehemently opposed the Vietnam War as military adverturism -- said he would have supported U.S. involvement in World War II and was a strong supporter of Israel and of U.N.-sanctioned action.

"I see this war as an unjust, evil and futile war," Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech denouncing the Vietnam War on April 30, 1967 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. "{But} if I had confronted the call to serve in military service in a war against Hitler, I believe that I would have probably temporarily sacrificed my pacifism because Hitler was such an evil force in history."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's new delegate to Congress, has joined Coretta King, Jackson and other black leaders in condemning the war. She told a PBS interviewer that were her son to sign up for service in the gulf, she would take him to a psychiatrist. Later, she downplayed the idea that black Americans might join the military out of patriotism or because they decided on a military career. Blacks, she argued, were in the military because they had few other options.

Damu Smith, a leader of the National African American Network Against U.S. Aggression in the Gulf, agrees with Norton and adds that the United States has been slow to respond to aggression against blacks in South Africa. But there is another point of view: "I remember when blacks couldn't do anything but shine a military man's shoes -- we couldn't be in the military," said Roffle Mayes Miller, Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for the District's delegate seat in Congress. "Now we are flying jets, we are officers, we are leading troops into battle -- and this is a volunteer effort, not a draft. We are just as patriotic as any other American, and it is really unfair for black leaders to act like we shouldn't . . . do our part in the gulf. Nobody wants to be there -- but it is a war, and if there's a war, then we should be there. This is not a white man's war."

At the heart of much black opposition to the war, however, is the belief that many blacks in the military have no choice but to sign up. Says Rep. Lewis: "I think a great majority of black Americans are concerned with the Persian Gulf because so many young black men and women are there in many cases because of economic necessity."

But the type of young African Americans who are able to make the grade in today's volunteer military are not the sort who have no other choices in life.

"It is true that kids go into the military because of better opportunities than they might get in civilian society. But the kind of young men and women going into the military are not the kind that . . . would {otherwise} end up pushing drugs at 14th and U," said Edwin Dorn, of the Brookings Institution, who has studied the relationship between race and the military.

In fact in recent years, as Richard L. Fernandez, a Congressional Budget Office analyst, recently wrote in The Washington Post, "a young man from a community with family incomes 20 percent below the average was only slightly more likely to enlist than one from an area with incomes 20 percent above the average." Essentially, this is a middle-class military.

"These young black people are not from the underclass. Actually they are from the middle class or working class," said Dorn. "Man for man and woman for woman, this military is much better than the draft-era military of Vietnam -- and I say that to address all those who think blacks and women have ruined standards in the military. The fact is that if you go out and talk to those soldiers at the 82nd Airborne or talk to the soldiers in the tank units at Fort Knox, they don't think of themselves as cannon fodder or victims. They think of themselves as professionals doing a job they are very well trained to do." Gen. Powell, when questioned about the proportion of blacks in the military after the U.S. build-up in the gulf began, said he had previously heard complaints that the end of the Cold War meant the military would be shrinking just as blacks were using it as a stepping stone for advancement. But after the general began deploying forces in the gulf, he got a new complaint: "Now I'm sort of getting the reverse, that perhaps they're over-represented."

Powell has also observed that he is "proud of the fact that African Americans have seen fit to volunteer to join the armed forces even if it is a higher percentage" than their representation in the population. In a volunteer force, Powell noted, the only way to avoid disproportional representation would be to "set a limit -- I won't say quota -- on the number of blacks allowed to enlist."

Other voices of moderation are being raised among the black leadership. On Thursday, John E. Jacob, president of the National Urban League, issued a statement observing that "African Americans take pride in our importance to the nation's military efforts" and calling for "a nation willing to go to war for its principles to make the equivalent effort to end the inequality that subverts those principles at home."

Similarly, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, opposed the war because he feels that the president should have exercised "more patience" with sanctions against Iraq. But he began his argument by condemning Saddam's invasion of Kuwait as "immoral, illegal aggression and I think he ought to be dealt with."

Former U.N. Ambassador Donald F. McHenry, now a professor at Georgetown University, agrees that Bush should have given sanctions more time to cripple Iraq but argues "the president was going to have to use force anyway because I don't think Saddam Hussein had any interest in coming out {of Kuwait}." But it is not these reasoned voices among black leaders that are being given prominence by the media in the current debate. Instead, television audiences are hearing primarily the shrill, racially divisive messages being broadcast by leaders such as Jackson.

In one of his more extreme departures, Jackson has even argued that black American participation in the war should not be viewed as part of an American effort against a resolute aggressor, but in light of President Bush's veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Act. "They've got a commander-in-chief who vetoed the civil rights bill," Jackson said on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. "It raises great questions back here at home about how can we keep the morale up . . . ."

"The civil rights bill has no direct bearing on this," said Joseph Watkins, associate director of public liaison at the White House. "In fact, the military is a glowing example of civil rights in action with Colin Powell as head of the Joint Chiefs of staff. The beauty of his appointment is that he was given that job on the basis of his ability and not his color."

Juan Williams writes frequently on politics for Outlook.