There has been an inclination on the part of some who initially offered the president provisional support for the bombing raid in Libya to back off once evidence of civilian casualties appeared -- in particular reports that small children, including those of Col. Muammar Qaddafi, were among the wounded and the dead. But anyone who supports military action of any kind should do so with the understanding that he is supporting activities that will almost inevitably result in a certain amount of unwanted, unjust and unbearable suffering on the part of innocent bystanders and unintended victims. If you do not think this should be countenanced for any reason whatever, then you have a pure and respectable position: you are in some degree a pacifist, against military action of any kind, except, conceivably, struggling back, on the scene, against someone who assaults you directly. And if you think that a military strike against Libya was just plain a bad idea, that is also a reasonable argument to make.

But it is something else to be for military action only so long as none but demonstrable villains gets hurt. That is not the way it works or can work. To be for such an action is a nonposition, a phony. For when you endorse a military enterprise you are saying you believe some terrible killings and maimings may be a necessary cost of achieving an es- sential national objective. For a country to arro- gate this power to itself is always a consequential and dangerous thing, and it should never be undertaken lightly or without great humility and reluctance.

The debate-minded will immediately observe that this business about ends justifying means is of course what might be said in extenuation of Col. Qaddafi's own violence: that it is undertaken by him and his collaborators for what they regard as an ultimate greater good and in the name of eradicating what they consider a monstrous injustice. But you really need to be a moral nihilist to accept that any violence in furtherance of any collective purpose is indistinguishable from any other. There is a difference between firing automatic weapons randomly into waiting lines in airports to get your political way and striking back at the people and installations responsible for these brutalities with a view to thwarting them. The goal in this case was to inhibit further murderous assaults on Western innocents by Col. Qaddafi by destroying some part of his military and intelligence capability and indicating to him that there would be a high price to pay for his crimes. The question is not whether that was accomplished without civilian casualties -- it probably could not have been -- but rather whether sufficient precautions were taken to limit the incidence of such casualties. In this connection, the administration would do well to clarify once and for all exactly what the targeting objective was vis-amily. Were they targeted?

We do not credit the cynical, even ludicrous, complaints of such Libyans as Col. Qaddafi's defense minister who told reporters on Sunday: "Nothing can forgive attacking civilians." It would be interesting to know if the minister speaks for his chief, for if he does, the dispute between the United States and Libya could be transformed. "Attacking civilians," after all, is precisely the policy of Libya's that the United States cannot abide. All of the political differences -- including those centering on Israel and Palestine -- are tolerable. Col. Qaddafi's calculated attacks on innocent civilians alone are not.

We come back to the key questions: what was the American intention? What were the American calculations of what would happen? There are things you do not do -- strikes you do not undertake, desired objectives you forgo -- if the pro- spective civilian casualties are too high or if the cost is disproportionate to the gain. Administration spokesmen have said they adopted this criterion.

The question that skeptics should be seeking to have satisfied is whether they did -- that is, whether care was taken to avoid excessive or unnecessary civilian death and destruction. It is a narrower and far more difficult question to address than the larger (and largely meaningless one) of whether there was any loss of innocent civilian life at all, the misguided theory being that if there was, the military action was a mistake, while if there wasn't it was justified. As the first blush of uncritical popular support for the bombing fades, the administration should be taking pains to address and dispose of that narrower question quickly if it can.