Watching the gallant but doomed charge of the British light cavalry brigade against the Russian guns at Balaclava during the Crimean War, French Gen. Pierre Bosquet commented acidly, "It's magnificent, but it isn't war." The same might be said of recent military operations in Iraq.

Observing them, Americans might be pardoned for wondering just what we think we're doing. One week our troops are clearing Fallujah of Baathist insurgents. The next week they aren't. A month later they're clearing Najaf of Shiite insur- gents. Then, a few days later, they aren't. Meanwhile, casualties and insurgents alike multiply.

Somewhere behind all this, there must be some coherent strategic intention, but for most of us it isn't easily visible. As far as we are able to judge, the war in Iraq has become a sort of military perpetual motion machine, producing plenty of activity but not much evidence of progress.

On Iraq's borders, infiltration persists apparently unchecked. In the heartland, the only month-to-month change seems to be which town or city will erupt in rebellion next. In the meantime, even Iraqis who heartily detest each other are daily more unanimous in detesting our continued presence.

Not long ago, preparing for a history workshop, I found myself rereading U.S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs," widely regarded as among the finest such recollections ever penned by a professional soldier. Reviewing his account of his army's operations in Tennessee and Mississippi, I was struck by the change they gradually wrought in Grant's attitude and that of his troops.

General and soldiers alike were products of the mid-19th century, with a view of war shaped by the formalistic conflicts of the recent past. Grant himself at the outset of the war expected it to end with a few decisive battles. The issues in dispute having been tried on the battlefield, the loser would accept the verdict and make peace.

In the West, however, the war didn't go that way. Instead, enflamed by widespread popular resistance in the areas occupied by Federal troops, it took on a character few on either side had foreseen. It became what it had to be if the rebellion was to be defeated: a war against Southern society, not just its soldiers.

Not all leaders on either side recognized and accepted the change. Grant did. "He had no liking at all for the cruel weight which modern warfare puts on the civilian," wrote one of his biographers, "but he could order the weight applied without the slightest hesitation when it seemed to him to be necessary." Fortunately, in Abraham Lincoln, he had a president who not only shared his commitment to victory but also accepted the moral cost of achieving it.

There are indications that a similar hard realism is beginning to imbue soldiers and leaders in Iraq, but little evidence so far that it has percolated up to their political masters. In an interview earlier this month, multinational corps commander Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz admitted, "As much as I would love the Iraqis to love me, and my doctrine tells me I want to win the hearts and minds, I know I'm not going to do that."

He's right. But few of his superiors seem to have accepted that reality.

Rather, as recent events in Najaf reveal, military operations in Iraq continue to fall between two levels, destructive enough to provoke Iraqi resistance but not ruthless enough to suppress it.

Instead, we continue to play at making war, sacrificing both our own and Iraqi lives to the so-far-vain hope that military self-restraint will promote civility among people who historically have evinced little even among themselves.

There's no future in that, no more than there was in the invaded South of 1862. On the contrary, if it proved so difficult then to subdue a society that, however rebellious, at least shared the language and religious heritage of its invaders, why should we expect to succeed more gently in pacifying one even less predisposed by history, culture and religion to be tractable?

Not all our commanders need be U.S. Grants nor all our presidents Abraham Lincolns. But we can and should expect their successors to recognize and adapt to the unmistakable evidence of the battlefield. Above all, that means dealing with Iraqis as they are, not as we wish they were.

Nor is it any excuse that operations in Iraq must be framed to avoid antagonizing Muslims elsewhere. They're already antagonized. However much, like Metz, we might wish them to love us, it's far more essential to our own safety that they be compelled to respect us.

But respect requires them to believe that we are serious as well as sincere. And, just as it did for Grant, in what clearly also is a conflict of societies, seriousness requires using war's "cruel weight" in a way that makes continued resistance intolerable, not just unpleasant.

In Iraq today our leaders are sincere, but on current evidence they're not serious. Our troops and the Iraqis themselves are paying the price. It may or may not be magnificent, but it certainly isn't war.

Richard Hart Sinnreich writes on military affairs for the Lawton (Okla.) Sunday Constitution.