BERKELEY, CALIF. -- Outside Sproul Hall where, for at least a generation, University of California students have strolled past small tables bearing literature about the burning cause of the moment -- racism, feminism, consumerism, environmentalism -- three students were discussing the issue of the moment: war or peace in the Persian Gulf?

"All of a sudden, we've got nearly 500,000 troops there, and there's been no debate, nothing," said a young man passing out anti-war literature behind his table to two fellow students. The others nodded in agreement and added similar opinions.

That was Monday. On Tuesday, campus police arrested 18 demonstrators who had barricaded themselves inside a classroom at campus ROTC headquarters. They were protesting U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf and, in familiar Berkeley fashion, the U.S. military's policy against recruiting homosexuals. On Wednesday, faculty members joined students in a day-long "teach-in" on the gulf intended, as a faculty organizer explained, "to galvanize public opinion about the crisis."

That same morning, in his seventh-floor office overlooking the magnificent campus, Berkeley's new chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien, cited these day-by-day developments as signs growing protest was coming. He added, voicing an attitude expressed commonly among university officials, professors and students, that confusing signals from Washington contribute to increasing unease.

One day, President Bush stresses the defensive nature of America's role there, Tien remarked, then he talks about the need for an offensive capability. Similarly, one day, the administration's rationale is halting international aggression and then Secretary of State James A. Baker III cites saving jobs as motivation. It all contributes to more uneasiness.

If this strikes familiar chords for those who remember how campus anti-war protest made places such as Berkeley symbols of powerful organized public opposition, a quick caveat must be added. Dissent at Berkeley in 1990 in no way resembles Berkeley in 1965 when Vietnam War protests were beginning to have such strong impact on national attitudes.

In fact, the strongest impression after three days of conversations with students and faculty members here is of pervasive ambivalence about the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf. From students to chancellor, there is general support for checking Iraq's Saddam Hussein, especially with an international alliance to back the U.S. position.

A second factor in the ambivalence is the degree to which Vietnam and its national trauma is only a distant memory among students here. As one said, "Vietnam isn't that big a thing. Look, even Nixon's talked about with respect as the former president and, to many of our group, we associate Vietnam more with Rambo I, II and III -- you know, the good guy winning one for Uncle Sam -- than with a wrong war."

There's another reason for the largely quiescent campus mood. These students, unlike those of a generation ago, can afford to feel more remote from the war. They face no draft and no immediate prospect of being forced to serve. They know that, as several volunteered, for now, this is not their war. It is a war for less favored Americans.

Listening to these students, I kept recalling the words of a father who wrote to me last week from California:

"It disturbs me because I have a son in the Army who will be going over to Saudi Arabia soon. I wonder who is going to take the blame for all the young men and women who are in harm's way over there if there is a shooting war. I sympathize with the hostages in Iraq and Kuwait and hope that Saddam Hussein allows them to all come home soon, but I also feel that the sanctions and the embargo need to be given a lot longer to work out, prior to going to war.

"The president and his staff have done an outstanding job in getting all the countries to agree on the sanctions and the resolutions of the U.N. against Iraq, but this is supposed to be a defensive stand in Saudi Arabia with all our 250,000 troops on the line over there. I hope it stays defensive."

He concluded:

"I don't think many people in the Beltway have sons or daughters or husbands or wives over there, or more of them would be trying to avoid a shooting war, rather than trying to excite the people into one."

The same can be said for the sons and daughters at the Berkeleys of America. For now, they have no direct stake in the Persian Gulf. And they won't until prospect of war touches them personally.