As the Gulf war lurches toward its climax, verbal and ideological hostilities between the "media" and the national government intensify. The humanistic impulses and sentimentality of the correspondents recoil from the prospect of awful land battles that may lie ahead. They can contemplate the lines Ernie Pyle scribbled hours before he was killed by a Japanese sniper in 1945:

"Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. These are things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures."

Few of the hacks now in the Gulf know much of war or its violence. But they have been sensitized by books and films and stories and their nearness to the killing fields. They are disturbed, too, by visions of distant slaughter from the frightening air campaign.

They are restive and fractious for personal reasons, as well, principally boredom and professional guilt. Great numbers of the journalists who have poured into Saudi Arabia and Dubai -- or who have discovered in the past 25 days that there is a Pentagon -- are underemployed. Their employers spend millions but are getting little blood or "bang bang" for their bucks. No mutinous troops have been found, no rotten rations of beef, no drug rings, no exploding mortar tubes. No prizes are in sight.

A self-pitying mob psychology sets in. There is plenty of mob to sustain it. As of last Tuesday, 1,152 correspondents, photographers, technicians, secretaries and "go-fers" of every description and from all parts of the world were "in theater," milling around in commodious hotel lobbies, watching television or occasionally eating sand in the boondocks with the troops. They spend hours bitching at their lot, nurturing paranoias, muttering about "censorship," desperately reaching for inconsistencies in the daily feedings by their briefers and handlers. One of them nailed a brigadier general the other day, proving that 24 divided by 6 is not 3 but 4.

On any given day, this bloated corps consists of two species: the 15 to 20 percent who are chosen on a rotating basis by the military for the "pools" sent out to the "front" with the warriors, and all the rest, who remain in the rear with the briefers. Antagonisms arise between the two groups. When the little battle for Khafji erupted, correspondents from the rear area, including a reporter and photographer for The Post, set off on their own to get a piece of that brief action. They were spotted on the outskirts of the town by the "pool" correspondents who immediately protested their presence to the military commanders. A British reporter described the scene:

"An ... NBC television reporter who was a member of the military 'pool' tried to obstruct {us} with the words: 'You, {expletive} -- you'll prevent us from working. You're not allowed here. Get out. Go back to Dhahran." The man from NBC then summoned a military officer, and the "unauthorized" reporters were sent packing.

This illustrates another truth about the coverage of this war. For all the cant about the First Amendment and the "people's right to know," powerful instincts of commercial and professional survival are always at work. Beating the competition is the religion of capitalism. Failure has real consequences as we can see in the television rating battles that may make of Dan Rather the most conspicuous casualty of the conflict. Remember that: the collection of "news," whatever our self-serving claims, is not bean-bag played selflessly by romantic bohemians. It is one of many profitable and vital activities of an American communications industry that accounts for more than 6 percent of our GNP and boasts of revenues greater than the Pentagon budget.

The government has learned over the years from the private sector -- principally its journalists and PR men -- ways and reasons for restricting and shaping the information that reaches the public. We in the press have developed countermeasures to satisfy our commercial and professional needs. There is a lot of harrumphing about "censorship," but there is no claim that anything of significance to the "public interest" has yet been suppressed. But then the "system" will not truly be tested until the whistle blows and we learn as Pyle did that "all the war of the world {is} . . . borne by the few thousand front-line soldiers . . . destined merely by chance to suffer and die for the rest of us."