A LITTLE less than a week into the war in the Gulf, people in this country are, we judge, being yanked around by a conflict of emotions and perceptions. We don't mean just the classic mixture of sentiments that traditionally animate civilians in wartime: pride (in the troops) and regret or, more nearly, horror (at the carnage), anxiety, uncertainty, anger, resolve. This particular war brings its own peculiar sharp contrasts. One is between the conventions of antiquity and the weapons of modernity; another is between an information glut and a paradoxical absence of key information; a third is between the seemingly bloodless Nintendo warfare seen to be being waged and the knowledge that these weapons can inflict horrendous bloodshed and loss -- somewhere offscreen. All of these odd pairings are experienced, in the first instance, through the electronic media.

At this moment nowhere is this tension so acute as in the film of the captured allied pilots. There is something poignant about the way humankind over the centuries has doggedly attempted to establish and enforce rules of civility to govern certain aspects of war. The treatment of the enemy dead, wounded and captured has always been high among these concerns. It will no doubt strike some as absurd that when the bombs and missiles are flying, we expect our prisoners of war to be handled according to Geneva conventions. But these hard-won conventions are among the most precious of international assets: they are among the critical few links that can remain between warring peoples and armies, that can survive hostilities and serve as a kind of residual civil relationship (on which ultimately to rebuild) and a mode of communication when all else is broken off. The instincts involved are timeless and universal -- they are to be read about in the most ancient literature.

What appears to be a cruel violation of these standards in relation to the captured coalition airmen in Iraq will not help the Iraqi cause in any way that we can imagine. It will understandably sharpen anger in this country and help to generate a more unforgiving attitude among the public, feelings that cannot be of help in containing the violence.