Robert St. John was an Associated Press correspondent in Belgrade and Greece in World War II. He was demoralized by the official lying and by the carnage around him. "All of Corinth," he wrote, "was permeated by the smell of burning human flesh. Human flesh burns with a sickening sweet smell. It's a smell you never forget." It is recorded that he came upon a man with his hands blown off and his intestines spilling out. St. John tried to give him a lethal dose of morphine. All night long he listened helplessly to the cries of a 5-year-old girl whose "right arm hung in black tattered shreds."

In the end, St. John said of his trade, "We were just leeches, reporters trying to suck headlines out of all this death and suffering."

To some extent, I suppose, all of us in journalism in peace or in war are leeches of a sort. We do not consider it "news" when the aircraft lands safely, when the healthy baby is born or when the mayor or senator escapes indictment. Our fires are lit by the air disaster, the "crack baby," the crooked cop.

The war in the Gulf offers us, as it offers the politicians, great opportunities for exploitation. An NBC news executive, appropriating the phrase of the month, spoke to The Post's Howard Kurtz about the possibilities: "There are very few moments in television history where a news division gets to define itself. The Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, civil rights and the space shuttle have been seismic events. The Gulf war will be such an event."

The people hunger for "news" of the war. Television transfixes them. Newspaper sales soar. We feel relevant and, hence, important. Young reporters, as Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal observed, "are dying to go to Saudi Arabia. They come into my office and lobby like mad. It's kind of like the guy in the basketball game, with the game tied in the last seconds, who wants the ball. This is what a great reporter wants. {But} I don't think that suggests {our} people are dying for war or are insensitive to the costs of war."

He probably is right. We will suck headlines out of this war although its death and suffering up to now are mere abstractions; we have seen no bodies or wailing babes. Our sales and ratings will rise. Some reputations may be made. But the materialism of journalists and journalism is not the whole story. The people and the democratic system are being served, however imperfectly.

It is our task, in Rebecca West's great phrase, to "set the face of the age," to contribute to the accountability history will impose by leaving a record not only of battles and deaths but a record of the politics, debate, miscalculations, doubt and uncertainties that always attend the complex enterprise of war.

In its first days, the face of war in the Gulf, as it has come to us through the "media," has been extraordinarily benign. Like Valium, the news has soothed and comforted. Smiling young men in their flying machines come and go on our screens, applauded by cheering ground crews. Film out of Baghdad of anti-aircraft barrages holds no more menace for the viewer (and little more novelty) than fireworks on the Fourth of July. Military briefings, conducted in pleasant and unscarred quarters by competent, unruffled and reassuring figures, reinforce the comfort level. The resulting euphoria has been so pronounced that government officials, the president included, issue warnings against complacency.

But these first images of the battle, while incomplete, are not therefore "false." Waiting and boredom are a far bigger part of warfare than the mad moments of intense combat. For every F-15 in the sky, 30 mechanics, ammo loaders and clerks plod through chores on the ground. As for the pilots, aerial warfare has always been something of a game, dangerous, of course, but played in an antiseptic environment far above the muck and bodies below. The joustings and times on target are measured in seconds; when that's done it's a commute home to clean sheets. How it is for the Iraqis at the end of a 2,000-sortie day, we have no way of knowing. That is one of our limitations, not overcome by dangling microphones from hotel rooms in Baghdad.

When and if the ground war begins, different images of battle and its costs will come into our consciousness. Journalists will risk much to record them for us and for history and some of them may, like Robert St. John, come to hate their work rather quickly. But the work will get done, and for that they will deserve the thanks of us all.