Memo to File:

This wartime gig is one longgggg nag. I feel like that Irish general at the Pentagon, the one with the jowls -- Kelly, I think. One salvo of questions blurs into the next; it gets harder every day to convince carping critics that we know what we're doing, that in our war coverage we're kickin' you-know-what, headed up that old Victory Trail. "Trust me," I say to the cynics and doubters. It doesn't work.

Every straphanger and "armchair expert" in the country thinks he's an editor or combat correspondent. Most of them wouldn't know a dateline from a deadline. But they think they can run a newspaper. They'd nitpick Shakespeare. Or Buchwald.

They pry into everything. Why did you print this? Why didn't you print that? I'd like to cut off the damn phones, but the corporate politicians are wimps. They'd be all over me about the "right to know" and all that chaff. That's okay. I've got a secret weapon: the Mark II Obfuscator.

A wise guy named Anderson (D. R.) hit me with this one:

"Some 42 inches into today's lead story about the war, one reads that, according to a report in Izvestia, Iraq has stocks of botulin toxin, 'the most lethal bacterially produced substance known to science. {Small amounts} could bring death to hundreds of millions of people.' . . .

"Are we all at risk or not? If we are, what the hell are you doing burying the story in the 31st paragraph {on the jump page}? If we are not {why did you print it}?"

He obviously doesn't understand the journalistic principle of vertical envelopment or the classic vacuum cleaner maneuver. I choose not to get into all that, so I use the Obfuscator: "Well, that matter will be clarified at an appropriate time. But I'm not going to comment specifically on any future actions we might take. There are a lot of people out there who don't wish us well. They'd give a lot to know how we plan to react."

He's not the only one who reads the paper a little too closely for my taste. You've seen the type on television -- the know-it-all-crowd. A woman called just the other day, sounding like a Wheel of Fortune winner. Why did you publish that story? Why did you put it on E-16? It was one of those Jack Anderson-Dale Van Atta specials. They always produce a lot of flak. This particular bombshell contained the plan of "the CIA and security services of two friendly Arab countries ... {which} are ... planning the kidnapping ... {and} trial of Saddam {Hussein} in an Islamic court for crimes against Allah... . If convicted, Saddam would be sentenced to die by beheading in a public square, probably in Riyadh."

I confess I was a little flustered by the questions, but with the help of the Obfuscator, I kept my cool: "Madam, that gets into sources and methods, which, as you understand, we can't discuss." The placement question was troublesome, too -- why E-16 for such a fantastic scoop? I launched another guided response: "That decision was made at a Higher Authority, which I am not at liberty to disclose. I don't mean -- heh, heh -- to pass the buck, as we say in our business, but you'll just have to wait for the Top Banana's postwar memoirs." (In fact, a higher authority had intervened and published the item for its "entertainment" value. But you can't explain those technical things to nonprofessionals. They wouldn't understand.)

Then there was the big Doonesbury flap that, for a while, looked like it never would quit. A Sunday strip had a pin-up cartoon of a topless starlet in desert cammies. Women in uniform were not amused: "You jerk! I'm an Army captain headed for the Gulf. I may die for you {deleted}. So what's my sendoff? You make us look like a bunch of {floosies}."

Thank God for the Mark II. After an initial stumble, it saved me again: "That's a very perceptive observation, captain, with which many equally perceptive people would wholly agree. However, Doonesbury is not part of this outfit, and as you understand, I must refer you to his commanding officer at syndicate headquarters. It is located in Mission, Kan. Thank you for sharing."

Kibitzers simply do not understand the pressures and fog of wartime journalism. We ran more than 250 sorties -- I mean, stories -- and dropped 230,000 Gulf war words last week. Our success rate was at least 80 percent although the SIA (Significant Impact Assessment) is incomplete. What we have so far indicates only one significant error:

In last week's column I misspelled Faye Wattleton's name.