This then is the state of the world.

In the Atlantic Ocean, the British fleet has been steaming half-speed ahead toward the Falkland Islands. Above the fleet and in the fray, the American secretary of state has jetted full-speed ahead, from Argentina to Britain and home again.

At the northern end of this oceanic shuttle zone, Britain's Maggie Thatcher has vowed, "Failure? The possibilities do not exist." At the southern end, Argentina's dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, has vowed to "fight against colonialism in all its forms." On the ground again, Haig can be heard squawking, "Time is running out."

Each country is convinced that history, if not also God, is on its side. Each country proclaims its readiness to reduce the other, and perhaps the 1,800 Falklanders and their 700,000 sheep, to rubble to prove the point. Each may vaguely remember that one of the natural inhabitants of these bleak islands is the albatross.

From a distance, it is popular to look upon this scene as if it were just a throwback to an earlier, vaguely irrational period of gunboat diplomacy. International relations as staged by Gilbert and Sullivan.

But I don't see this as a revival. What I see here is mainstream state-of- the-art foreign affairs. An active aggression and an instant threat to match it. Two leaders who want to hang on to their jobs. Two countries posturing their way to the brink because of personal ego, national pride, and party politics.

I see another classic setup for disaster, created by leaders historian Barbara Tuchman once described as "woodenheaded" in the act of woodenheadedness.

I don't say this lightly. I have spent a good part of this Ground Zero Week listening to and reading speeches about war, nuclear war. I have seen the markers--within this radius of Ground Zero there is nothing but a silent crater, within this radius firestorms and fallout--and I have seen the people at these events.

Most of them, most of us, would like to believe in the orderly, rational conduct of foreign affairs. They would like to believe in authority and feel safe within a "policy."

But instead, they have been shaken from their comforts. They no longer believe that the absurdity of any war, even a "comic opera" war, is a defense against it. They no longer regard the finality of nuclear war as some perverse protection. They have less faith today in leaders and more anxiety about wars that escalate through madness, misjudgment, mistake, woodenheadedness.

It's no surprise that this "Ground Zero" week was begun by a recovered "authority," Roger Molander. A former nuclear strategist on the National Security Council, he discovered firsthand how little expertise there was.

The people above him who were supposed to be thinking about The Big Questions looked to him for answers. Reluctantly, with all too clear a sense of his limitations, Molander became the authority. He asked himself the question first posed by a White House science adviser, "Where are the grown- ups?"

"There was too much opportunity for machine error, for human error, for errors in judgment. Nuclear war," he writes now, "could occur far more easily than people in the White House, in Congress and in the country at large seem to realize."

He asks us to consider what we already know in some unconscious way. We can't soothe ourselves with the notion that "grown-ups" have everything under control. We have to remember how easily presidents and prime ministers are reduced to childhood games: tug-of-war, follow the leader, tit for tat, button, button, who's got the button?

This is what distinguishes this emerging anti-nuclear movement, what fuels it. The people who have come to Ground Zero looking for community and information and action, question the omniscience of authority and accept the possibility of technological accident and human frailty.

They seem less impressed by the idea that nuclear war would come through deliberate aggression, World War II style. They seem more impressed by the vision of a holocaust through blundering, posturing, escalation, World War I style. The Falkland Islands could be our Sarajevo.

With any luck, war can still be avoided in the place Samuel Johnson once described as "an island thrown aside from human use." With luck, we may see the peace that comes when tired or frightened or thoughtful people sit down to discuss the shape of the table.

But this week the Atlantic was full of reminders about the alternative. How quickly war can break out, how stubbornly it can escalate through miscalculation, ego, woodenheadedness.

There is no time to negotiate when missiles are in the air.