Military people, I have noticed, habitually refer to the enemy as "he." They even do so when there is no particular "he" to refer to. "Now he could send his reinforcements around this way," says the briefer at the map, talking about the government or military of some country whose paramount leader's name we hardly know, "but we could intercept him here ... " etc. This is one of the few areas in which, I believe, the gender-neutrality issue has not been raised: the question is not why the formulation is not he-or-she, but rather why it is so personalized and particularized, as if describing a fight between two individual men. To see things in this oddly foreshortened way can distort judgment and invite disastrously wrong actions.

I will concede that intellectually over-dainty types, such as I, don't even care for the term "enemy," no matter what the offense of those so designated or the degree of our own animosity toward them. We are made uneasy by a concept that seems too inclusive, final and inflammatory. And so we are forever mousing around about the "other side" (which implies that it has its own valid argument when it may not) or, pushed a little farther, the "adversary" (which concedes there is a dispute, but takes no sides). The danger here, of course, is that of cop-out, that we will formulate conflict in a way that makes the reaching of moral judgments not just impossible but also, conveniently, unnecessary. This is phony business, but it is not the main danger in this country at the moment. For we now have both an enemy and a "he," the Iraqi forces we are fighting in the Gulf and their leader, the unspeakable Saddam Hussein. And it matters how we think about them, the voice we give to our feelings and the consequent influence we have on our own government's actions.

My own sentiments are these: (1) We are far from being the first country in history to individualize and demonize the wartime enemy, although our leaders have demonstrated a kind of penchant for becoming obsessed by their individual antagonists (Castro, Noriega, Khomeini). (2) A certain esprit and sense of solidarity can be strengthened by defining the conflict this way, especially when ridicule of the loathed one is involved -- from the Spike Jones lyrics of World War II about spitting in "der Fuhrer's face" to the ayatollah dartboards of the '80s, this has been true. (3) Certainly Saddam Hussein, by virtue of his documented atrocities and his overt aggression over the years, invites demonization and qualifies for designation as something less gummy than the "adversary " or the "other side." (4) All this must nevertheless be watched -- it can lead us to see one man as the source of all our problems and/or to project his sins upon all those of a similar racial or ethnic character.

As a child of World War II, I was susceptible to the propaganda that depicted the Japanese prime minister, Hideki Tojo, as a subhuman monster and went on from that to project onto all Japanese a kind of mutant monkey's nature. Likewise, the portrayal of Mussolini extended to the defamation of all Italians as ludicrous cowards, and so on. We should be very careful not to let this happen in relation to Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi population. At some point our government may need to make really hard calculations concerning the amount of aerial pummeling it will administer in Iraq. The national mind-set at that moment should not be one that considers the Iraqis a nation of expendable subhumans.

In fact, this is probably less of a likelihood now than the opposite (equally undesirable) instinct to locate the source of the trouble exclusively in this one man -- another upshot of the overly personalized national conflict. The reason I think it is less likely is that as a result of revolutionized travel and communications and also of our own searing national experiences at home and abroad since World War II, we are as a nation much more skeptical and sophisticated and much less given to mindless group stereotyping. Too many people in this country have seen too much and heard too much in the past couple of traumatized decades to come at any national or international issue with a headful of the simple racist or chauvinist imperatives that motivated some before.

The single-bad-man theory, on the other hand, a kind of work-of-freaks theory of history, has always had a particular hold on us. It helps us to explain away trouble as an isolated quirk of history: We know how nice and well-meaning we are and so must everyone else (because they, of course, are nice and well-meaning too, as all people are), and therefore it is just the manipulations of this one really bad actor that have created all the -- yes -- misunderstanding. The implication of this reading is not just that things would be better, but that all would be well if we could only get rid of the troublemaker. That has, as we all recall, been tried by our government in the fairly recent past, and it is currently forbidden. As a result, it seems our government cannot try to remove a foreign leader with a handgun, but may use a B-52. The president claims we are not trying to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but what else can he claim?

The Iraqi president, with his cult of personality, his octopus of secret police and his uncontested reputation for ruthlessness and willingness to employ any weapon, not to mention his clearly aggressive ambitions in a region of huge importance to the whole world, has surely qualified for enemyhood. When there is no Saddam Hussein sitting astride an arsenal of chemical and prospective nuclear weapons and at the helm of a gigantic army, most of the world will be better off. But by now we should have learned that no matter how much terror bolsters their rule, these enemies of ours are not just loners: they represent at least an element of their own population and the problem does not necessarily disappear or die with them.

We are fighting more than one man. And our success will be met with less than universal joy in the region. The American government that for so long cozied up to Saddam Hussein in order to balance off other demons and dangers knows better than any of us that he is not the beginning and the end and does not wholly define the trouble there. Rallying a population to imagine otherwise could lead to a terrible crash in the end.