At Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River one day in February of 1862, Confederate Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner received a demand from his "obedient servant," Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. "No terms except immediate and unconditional surrender" would be acceptable.

In view of the valiant performance of his troops, Buckner found Grant's terms "ungenerous and unchivalrous," but he accepted. Chivalry suffered, briefly, there on the Tennessee border. But a military legend was born.

Its echoes are heard today in the growing argument that the war against Saddam Hussein should be broadened by the threat of war-crimes trials, which threat obviously implies a demand for "unconditional surrender." You can't try a villain you don't catch.

With Iraq pounding noncombatants in nonbelligerent Israel with Scud missiles and evidently torturing prisoners of war, "unconditional surrender" is a tempting goal. But its allure is treacherous indeed.

"Unconditional surrender" was not an extravagant goal at Fort Donelson. When applied, later, to the intricate politics of a great European war (as it was at FDR's insistence at Casablanca in 1943), it prolonged the fighting and compounded its collateral damage. It arguably limited the enthusiasm of faint souls for the Wehrmacht's heroic assassination plot against Hitler (July 20, 1944). It undoubtedly hindered negotiations with non-Nazi Germans in the closing days of the war and thus opened the gates of central Europe to deeper penetration by the Red Army. The doctrine was modified for Japan a few months later; Japan was allowed to keep its emperor.

In Korea, no "unconditional surrender" was demanded. But there was a surrogate -- the widely approved decision in the fall of 1950 to push for the reunification of the Korean peninsula. As U.N. forces barreled north, the Chinese warned that military activity on their border would be resisted. The warning was discounted. The Chinese intervened. The war was deepened, lengthened, complicated and embittered, and U.S. relations with China were poisoned for a quarter century. Korea remained divided.

The applicability of these fragments of history is debatable, but at least worth bearing in mind now. It is emotionally satisfying but morally extravagant to turn wars for limited, concrete objectives (the liberation of Kuwait) into crusades for righteousness. The temptation is great when the villain of the piece is a Saddam Hussein, a certifiable thug and an appealing candidate for a war-crimes tribunal -- "Saddam dead or in the dock," as columnist George F. Will put it {op-ed, Jan. 23}.

Those who advocate broader war aims astonishingly cite our own Civil War -- how it was broadened from the suppression of rebellion to a crusade against slavery. But to invoke Lincoln, of all people, in support of the legalistic/moralistic approach to war is historical nonsense.

Lincoln -- the shrewd, practical Whig politician -- resisted the pressure of the anti-slavery evangelists to his dying day. He went as far into their program as was politically useful (see the Emancipation Proclamation), but not a step farther (see what the Proclamation actually says). There were many slaveholders in the loyal border states who were strong unionists, far more essential to the Union's survival than easing the conscience of William Lloyd Garrison.

In the Gulf, we should imitate Lincoln, limit ourselves to the job at hand, and leave jihads -- holy wars -- to the Arabs.

In a recent column {Dec. 30}, I described Otto F. Otepka as "the most notorious" of whistle-blowers providing State Department information to Sen. Joe McCarthy. The description was in error and unfair to Mr. Otepka. The fact is that as State Department security officer, he cleared many loyal department employees of McCarthy's unfounded charges and was never a McCarthy informant. His later insistence on the strict observance of department security rules brought unfair and discreditable persecution of him by his superiors. I am glad to correct the record and sincerely apologize to Mr. Otepka for doing him this injustice.