The crisis is about interests, not ideals. It has purpose but lacks passion. It inspires uneasiness in the stock market but only modest moral outrage.

President Bush has implicitly compared Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, a simile that has caught the national ear. But the enemy also threatens Middle Eastern oil, a resource so important that the United States is willing to fight to protect it.

But for those who fought the last American war, this confrontation with Iraq in the Persian Gulf is likely to resolve itself into a question of commitment -- ours, not theirs.

"If it's for a genuine national-security reason, then we should be there," said Bill Gay of Marlinton, W.Va. "But you don't want to see the politicians mess everything up. The thing that bothered me most about Vietnam was that we fought so long and poured so many billion dollars down the drain, and we got nothing from it. If you fight, you want to fight to win."

Gay was one of many Americans who spoke about the crisis late last week with Washington Post reporters and special correspondents who interviewed people from Alaska and Texas, from Minnesota and Virginia, from northern New Jersey to southern California.

The craggy-faced father of two draft-age boys, Gay, 49, is an insurance agent in Marlinton, a stunningly beautiful mountain town tucked away in the piney Appalachian woods of Pocahontas County. Twenty-three years ago, as a Marine in Vietnam, he was shot in the arm and chest and flown by medevac to the United States. He convalesced for a year and has never regained full use of his left arm.

But he has "no regrets," nor do other Vietnam veterans of Marlinton. In West Virginia, service in the U.S. armed forces is a proud tradition, and West Virginia has the credentials to prove it.

"If you came home on leave here, everybody gave you a big hello," said Norris Long, 44, a soil conservation expert with the Department of Agriculture and a former Navy shipfitter. "You were expected to visit your high school -- in uniform."

West Virginia was the state with the nation's highest per capita rate of Vietnam War deaths -- 39.9 for each 100,000 people. Pocahontas County, with a death rate of 100 for each 100,000, was the most severely affected in the state.

Yet the gulf crisis has left Marlinton largely unmoved. "I've really not thought much about it," Gay said. His sons are in college, and neither contemplates military enlistment. He thinks that Saddam has "maybe realized he made a mistake" in invading Kuwait. The crisis, he thinks, has "peaked," and a political solution seems likely.Varying Degrees of Concern Across U.S.

Others are not so sure. Post interviewers found a nation somewhat supportive of Bush's hard-line response to the Iraqi invasion, but worried about the possible consequences and suspicious of government motives:

"I think the money could be better spent," said Ed Purley, a community and youth activist in south central Los Angeles. "We have such a crisis here in our own country, and I wish we could get the same kind of response."

But even though "all it is, is the importance of the oil," Purley added, it "would be detrimental" for Saddam to control the Middle East. "We do have a lot at stake there."

As U.S. military bases have emptied out this month, it became clear soldiers regard the gulf crisis as something significantly more serious than a quickly resolved Third World adventure. At the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., last week, 33 ceremonies, more than five times the weekly average, were performed at the wedding chapel. Weddings planned later in hometowns were rescheduled sooner at the base. "They're really not saying much of anything, but everyone knows why," said Marcy Pinuelas, wedding coordinator at the chapel.

A Navy recruiter in Sacramento, Calif., reported quickening interest from veterans trying to return to active service, and at Fort Stewart, Ga., vets working with the Army's 24th Infantry (Mechanized) Division were spending their off-hours telling war stories.

"You go to the VFW {Veterans of Foreign Wars} club, and all the old vets want to go" to the gulf, said retired Army warrant officer Billy Leedy, a Vietnam veteran and chief of division maintenance. "The spirit is up. The attitude is, 'We want to go kick their ass.' It makes me feel proud to be American. I've never seen employee morale so high."

But among young civilians who traditionally join the service to do the fighting, recruiters detected little fresh enthusiasm. New people "come in for the same reasons they always come in," said Staff Sgt. Clarence Moment, an Army recruiter manning an office at Manhattan's Times Square. "They want to pay for college tuition, to travel, to get out of New York City or to get job training." None, he said, even asks about the Middle East.

"My friends are unwilling to go," said Chris Dubay, 23, a graduate student at Seattle University in Washington state. "I'm unwilling to go. I killed myself for four years at a Jesuit college. I've paid my dues."

While the gulf crisis has generated interest nationwide, the degree of concern waxes and wanes depending on people's politics and self-interest. Carole Arnold, host of a three-hour talk show on Oklahoma City radio station KTOK, reported hearing "a lot more pro-Bush" comments and "getting the feeling the people of Oklahoma would like to nuke the guys."

But near Minneapolis, assistant Anoka County attorney Tony Palumbo said, "The further west you get from Washington, the less pressing it is. There's not a sense of urgency. There's more a sense of 'How's this going to affect me at the gas pumps?' "Gulf Buildup and Lessons of Vietnam

Despite the public interest or indifference, the gulf crisis is, for the United States, unquestionably a momentous occasion, the first time in nearly two decades that the country has committed massive amounts of manpower and materiel in a foreign military action.

Today, on the ground in Saudi Arabia and in the waters bordering it, the United States has put tens of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of war planes and three aircraft-carrier battle groups. When the buildup is completed, 200,000 military personnel could be in the region at a cost over the next six weeks of about $1.2 billion.

In its magnitude and its remoteness, the gulf buildup gives a flavor of the Vietnam War in its earliest stages, but the differences are more profound than the similarities:

The gulf region is desert; Vietnam is largely tropical. Iraq's is a conventional military force fighting a sudden war of territorial expansion; North Vietnam's was a guerrilla army fighting a years-long revolution. In its opposition to Iraq, the United States can count as allies most of the world's nations; in fighting North Vietnam, the United States faced constant criticism and international rebuke.

Most important, perhaps, the United States appears to have learned one of the crucial lessons of Vietnam. "Our involvement was incremental, we sort of oozed into it," said Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History." "Here Bush is coming clean. We're seeing pictures of planes taking off and soldiers leaving home. This is much more clearly a major undertaking."

Bush won early support for the buildup with a nationally televised speech Aug. 8 that described the Iraqi invasion as a "blitzkrieg" and spoke of the dangers of "appeasement."

He did not mention Hitler by name, but the comparison was implicit, and people across the country have found in it a justification and in some cases an obligation to act. "We cannot make the same mistake we made with Hitler," said the Rev. Cecil L. Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. "We have to become a part of events and not just stand by."

Don Russell, 27, a business major at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., said he would take up the fight "if I could. I'm for it 100 percent. Us and Russia -- who's going to take us on? Nobody. I see a parallel with Hitler. Economic sanctions aren't going to work on a lunatic."

But when the first blush of patriotic fervor wears off, some Americans said they wondered where and if the United States could find the commitment to press on. Can this battle be won, people asked, or will the United States muddle into another tragic limbo, unsure of its motives, unsure of its goals, caught up in another Vietnam-style catastrophe.

"Yes, I think it could end badly," said Grace Underwood, 65, of Pocahontas County, whose son Watson, 21, was killed in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet offensive. "That's what I'm afraid of with this oil thing. I think my son died a senseless death. He didn't have a chance, because they wouldn't let him shoot unless they shot at him. He couldn't defend himself."

Unease gripped many Americans as the crisis deepened last week. In Jersey City, N.J., an older generation compared the gulf to earlier wars and could find nothing to like.

"Terrible," said Jean Kennedy, 75, resting on a bench at the Newport Centre Mall.

"I don't think we should stick our noses in everything," said Rose Sheehan, 72.

"We should worry more about people in this country, spend more money on people who need housing," said Josephine Kropkowski, 68. "Why do we have to come to the rescue of other countries? Other countries don't worry about us. We're the rich ones."

"It reminds me of World War II," said Grace Tartaglia, 64, having her hair done at a beauty salon in the mall. "It started small, and before you knew it, it was serious."

"I'm worried about the boys," she added. "I get the chills because all my brothers went and all my cousins and some friends. Some of them didn't make it back."Impact, Good and Bad, on Economy

In other parts of the country, war fever had begun to give way to more tangible concerns. Apart from the dangers and the dread, many people began to anticipate an economic pinch.

The the Dow Jones Average of 30 industrial stocks fell nearly 71.78 points for the week, with market analysts attributing the losses to investor unease and skittishness because of the gulf crisis.

Outside military bases, local economies began to slump. Residents of Clarksville, Tenn., were watching endless truck convoys pull out of nearby Fort Campbell, which straddles the border with Kentucky, as 19,000 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division packed for the trip to the Persian Gulf.

The 101st was leaving for the gulf 25 years after its predecessors left for Vietnam. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono inspected departing troops at Fort Campbell Friday, then told reporters the primary difference between now and then is timing. "This is a different deployment," he said. "We started from no notice without any kind of buildup."

The massive troop exodus, said Clarksville Mayor Don Trotter, could cost the local economy about $2 million each day. Young Ook Choi, 32, a cobbler who owns Eagle Shoe & Boot Repair in Clarksville, said she decided not to hire a new employee and will "wait and see" how things go. "I don't know what we're going to do when the soldiers are gone," she said. "I hope they're not gone too long."

In Hinesville, Ga., outside Fort Stewart, the story was much the same. At Studio 99, a topless bar near the base, a bearded trucker who would identify himself only as Michael, 34, was grousing about being unable to haul much from the Georgia Port Authority in Savannah because the 24th (Mechanized) Division had all the piers tied up.

"This shuts our regular jobs off," he complained. "It's hurting us drivers real bad, especially with fuel prices going up."

But for every loser, there was a winner, at least initially. Bethesda-based Survival Technologies Inc., a medical supply company, was awarded a $2 million Pentagon contract to produce special syringes full of nerve gas antidote at its St. Louis manufacturing plant.

And in Oklahoma, the Native American tribal firm Sac and Fox Industries worked overtime to finish 500,000 chemical-resistant garments for the gulf effort. The company expects to add 1,000 people to its payroll to complete the contract.

"It's a curious place," said Carole Arnold, the Oklahoma City talk-show host. "The oil and gas producers are walking around saying, 'Ain't it awful for those people over there, but ain't it great for us!"

Indeed, for the U.S. petroleum industry, the gulf crisis may be a dream come true.

At the Western Cafe on Main Street in Bozeman, Mont., the farmers, ranchers and construction workers tend not to talk about the gulf but are "more concerned about the weather, crops and the price of gas," waitress Linda Thoreson said. "Now, the price of gas I've heard a lot about."

In Anchorage, the annual oil dividend check received by each resident this year is expected to be $900, but with the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait and the subsequent surge in oil prices, that figure could rise.

Still, many Alaskans minimized the benefits of war and focused instead on the profligacy of the American consumer. The gulf crisis, said Dick Snider, 51, an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey, "affects us very grossly in terms of oil production.

"On the other hand, we haven't done anything to curtail oil consumption or develop alternatives," he added. Saddam could "create chaos" in the world petroleum industry, he said, and "we have to work to make that chaos not so bad" by developing alternative sources of energy.Enlistees, Reservists Are Main Players

But that was a strategy for the future. Last week, the focus was on mobilization, and nowhere did Americans have a better look at the scope of the U.S. commitment than on the Atlantic beaches south of Norfolk, the world's largest naval port complex and headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet.

Mary Milligan, 44, a bookkeeper on vacation from Pittsburgh, was lying in the sun with her daughter Stacey, 20, at Virginia Beach last week, when the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy steamed out of port on its way to the gulf with attendant escorts. "It was so incredibly sobering. The whole skyline was lined with the warships and planes and tankers," Milligan said.

Stacey, however, said the buildup was "all a bluff" that sought to force a political solution. "They made such a big mistake in Vietnam, lost so many lives," she said. "They're not going to do it again." Still, she conceded that she was "a little nervous" because her boyfriend was 23, a college graduate and unemployed. If the draft is reinstated, "he's the first picked to go over."

Late Friday, however, Bush decided to activate as many as 80,000 reserves. It appeared that the nation's draftable youth would remain undrafted for the immediate future.

This is perhaps the biggest difference between the armed forces of today and those of the Vietnam era. Vietnam was a draftees' war, while the gulf is for enlistees and reservists -- those who volunteered and presumably want to serve. In Marlinton, Bill Gay's sons need never think about the armed forces, because the armed forces may never touch them.

"I've never said anything to them, and they've never said anything to me," Gay said. "I can tell you it was all I thought about after I got out of high school. I think I wasted two years of my life trying to stay out of the draft. Looking back on it, it was a positive experience. I wish I'd joined right away."

During the Vietnam War, Uncle Sam came looking for recruits. But today, recruits have to go looking for Uncle Sam, and Uncle Sam is a lot choosier than he used to be.

"Generally speaking, we recruit high school graduates," said Army Public Information Officer John Moss, a civilian whose district includes Arkansas and parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. "These bright young people aren't likely to do anything on impulse."

Indeed, for Darnell Dorch, 17, of Brooklyn, N.Y., the decision to join the Army was a long time coming. "Since what happened, happened" in the gulf, "it made me want to go more," said Dorch, assistant manager of a messenger service. "I want to do my part to help out. I'd do whatever they find for me. Front line I'd do gladly, no questions asked."

Dorch, who appeared at the Times Square recruiting station after work, has all the necessary credentials and likely will be allowed to join the Army.

Less fortunate was John Sanchez, 20, a recent arrival from Florida, turned away at Times Square because of insufficient education. Sanchez said he had not thought much about the Persian Gulf, but going to war would not have bothered him.

"One day you gotta die, right?"

Gugliotta reported from Marlinton, W. Va. Contributing to this report were staff writers Peter Baker in Virginia Beach; Art Harris in Fort Stewart, Ga.; David Maraniss in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Michael J. Ybarra in Killeen, Tex., and special correspondents Hal Bernton in Anchorage; Nan Chase in Boone, N.C.; O. Casey Corr in Seattle; Robert Ekey in Bozeman, Mont.; Laurie Goodstein in New York; Elizabeth Hudson in Austin; Lauren Ina in Fort Campbell, Ky.; Susan Stanich in Duluth, Minn., and Jill Walker in Camp Pendleton, Calif.