The anti-war people never really found a doctrine after the argument ran dry that we should continue with the sanctions. Some still hang in there with the cry, "We won't die for oil!" but that moral-geopolitical analysis is also tending to run dry as the perception widens that "oil" is simply the convenient symbol of the kind of worldwide aggression that Saddam Hussein had in mind when he overran Kuwait. "Oil" is or can be as pointed a weapon as bread or water: industrial societies cannot operate without oil.

Perhaps in recognition of how straitened their arguments are, we hear now the personalization, the argument about human life. Anna Quindlen of The New York Times, scoffing at the low casualty figures in the Persian Gulf war, says sure, it doesn't matter if only a small number of American servicemen have been killed -- unless one of them is "your father, your brother, your husband or your lover." And from Arthur Schlesinger Jr., no less -- a renowned historian -- the comment that the Gulf war is "not worth one human life."

Now such formulations as these are perilously easy to use, and are guaranteed crowd pleasers. But they are, really, most dreadfully irresponsible. The uses of the argument about a single human life being worth more than everything else you can think of have the appeal of causing the listener to think of his wife or her husband or of their baby child, causing them to ask the question: Would I trade the life of my dear one in exchange for a return to $18 oil? The answer, if not the reasoning process, is instantly clarified -- or, rather, made more obscure. And the only way to fight it is by turning the melodrama upside down and asking the question: Was it reasonable for Patrick Henry to say, "Give me liberty or give me death?"

But back up for a moment. There are 50,000 Americans who are killed every year driving their automobiles. Why doesn't Schlesinger say that automobiles should be banned, because the pleasure he takes from them -- going to Americans for Democratic Action rallies, driving to the White House when he had offices there, driving down to Coney Island for an afternoon of fun -- are all very well, but are they worth the life of his wife, child or sister?

I mean, stop and think of it: Let us suppose that I am addressing a 30-year-old man with a little 3-year-old girl, and I say, "I am the god of justice and balance, and I ask you to choose between giving up for the rest of your life driving an automobile, or losing the life of your child." What will you say? Yes, me, too: The child will live, but the god who gave me the alternative I'll stick pins into for the rest of my life.

The attempt to answer military questions by asking the question, How much do you love the kid over there who just got married, the youngest son of proud and devoted parents, is a sentimentalization of important calculations that are necessarily made, so to speak, in cold blood. Liberty, Thomas Jefferson once said, needs to be watered regularly by the blood of tyrants and patriots. That is a little like saying it in Hollywoodese, but you can dry out that observation and ask: Is it or is it not historically the case that a society needs to defend its freedoms?

If the answer is that yes, this does need to be done, then you accost the second question: Does the threat to your freedom begin on the day that the Nazi trooper deposits you in a train to Buchenwald? Or does it begin a little bit before that time, say, when Hitler took over the Rhineland and it was still possible to stop him? Or, for that matter, when Hitler seized absolute power in Germany a few years earlier and became visible, to the farsighted, as a genuine threat to European peace? It wasn't just Joey who died finally stopping Hitler, it was 50 million Joeys.

A mature society alert to timely action against destroyers of the peace makes its bid. It might say -- to use a round figure -- that one-fifth of 1 percent of the population is going to die every generation in order to preserve freedom and sovereignty. That's 500,000 people -- about what we lost in the three wars that spanned a single generation, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It is calculations of that order that arm us for the casualty figures ahead, and it doesn't mean that the death of Joey won't be heartbreaking to those who love him.