Outside the library at the University of the District of Columbia, three black men, book bags on their shoulders, talked about the ironies of race and war. It was not just idle chatter, for one of them, Dan Frye, 21, a U.S. Naval Reserve medic, had just that morning been alerted for deployment with a Marine armored vehicle battalion headed for Operation Desert Shield.

Frye said he felt trapped. On one hand, there is duty. "I'm like a doctor to a lot of those men on the front line," said the native North Carolinian. "If I see a man shot, I've got to do my very best to help this man without being shot myself. I'm not anxious to go over there, but once I'm there, people are depending on me. I've got to do the job."

On the other hand, he said, there is race. He joined the military because it could do for him what his parents couldn't -- pay for college. It seems unfair, said Frye, that so many young blacks like him have looked to the military as their only ticket to advancement in a society where they feel civilian opportunities are limited. Now, if war breaks out in the gulf, they could die in disproportionate numbers.

"I think it's wrong to have so many black men out there," he said. "It's not that I'm down on my country. It's like a black man's caught in the middle."

Frye's sentiments reflect the ambivalence felt by many blacks about the U.S. deployment in the gulf as the prospect of war looms larger. While there is now widespread apprehension among Americans generally about U.S. involvement in the gulf, analysts, academics and politicians say many blacks share additional misgivings attributable to their concerns about race.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month after President Bush doubled to about 400,000 the number of U.S. troops deployed for the gulf crisis showed that 45 percent of blacks approved of Bush's handling of the crisis, compared to 62 percent of whites. Asked if the United States should take all actions necessary, including using military force, to ensure Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, 69 percent of whites said yes, compared with 47 percent of blacks.

Analysts offer a variety of explanations for these apparently lower levels of black support, including a general skepticism among some blacks toward government, low enthusiasm among black Democrats for a Republican president, and anger over his recent veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Act.

There also is bitterness about the circumstances that have resulted in a U.S. military that is 20 percent black, an army that is 30 percent black, and the prospect of a war that could produce black casualties in equally high numbers, while blacks constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Of the Army personnel sent to the gulf as of mid-November, 28.7 percent were black, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the military provides an opportunity for upward mobility to those who join and that he is proud of the composition of the force. Risk of combat, and its attendant casualties, is a fact of military life, he said.

Because of the numbers of blacks in the military, "It is undeniable that if the armed forces are sent into combat there will be a higher percentage of blacks in combat than there will be a percentage of blacks in the general population," said Powell, who is black.

"It is mathematical that if any particular group is represented in the armed forces at a higher percentage than their representation in the general population, then it's mathematical that that group . . . will bear a disproportionate share of the casualties. And that's simply a given," Powell said.

This likelihood, coupled with lingering resentment among blacks about the experiences of black soldiers during the Vietnam conflict, are "consistent with a kind of sense of victimization or persisting victimization" among blacks, said Edwin Dorn, a senior staff member of the Brookings Institution.

Tom Wynn, an official of the Milwaukee-based National Association for Black Veterans, said it is a case of "the chickens coming home to roost. It's an issue of the aftereffect of the Vietnam situation."

In the Vietnam War period, from 1961 to 1973, blacks accounted for nearly 11 percent of the total U.S. force in Vietnam and about 12 percent of battle deaths, according to the Vietnam War Almanac. But in 1965 and 1966, when blacks served disproportionately on the front lines, they constituted more than 20 percent of the deaths.

Although the military of today is all volunteer, enlistees still face the prospect of combat. Nobody wants war, said Powell, but recruits know it could happen.

What a recruit sees upon signing up is not the prospect of combat, but the prospect of travel, adventure, security and educational benefits, said Chris Hawkins, 25, a former Marine and a schoolmate of Frye's.

Of the decision to enlist, he said, "Sometimes it's involuntarily voluntary, because you have no other choice. It's like when you're at your last straw and you don't know what your next step is going to be."

"I feel if they'd give the stats on the amount of black people that died in Vietnam I don't think {black} people would easily volunteer," Hawkins said.

Allen Frye, Dan Frye's father and a retired Army sergeant, said he feels his son is being penalized because of a father's inability to provide for college.

"I couldn't afford to send him to college, and he wanted to go to school, and this was the only means he could go to school," said Frye, 56, now a firefighter at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"I don't think he should be penalized for this, for me not being a millionaire, a very wealthy person. I don't think my kid should be forced into it {the military} just because I don't have the money, and if you got the money your kid doesn't have to go."

He said he views it as a class issue more than a race issue. In any event, he said, "That's the unfairness I don't like."

Much of the reaction among blacks to the gulf crisis "has to do with the whole climate in America rather than the Persian Gulf itself," said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, which has not taken an official position on the crisis. Personally, Hooks said he believes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's expansionist moves have to be stopped.

But in light of Bush's veto of the civil rights act, Hooks said, "It's unconscionable to expect this large percentage of black troops to be over in the Persian Gulf fighting for freedom and yet when they come back they still will not be given the same privileges as their white counterparts."

Jesse L. Jackson said the veto, along with the "Willie Horton" strategy in Bush's presidential campaign and negative stereotypes of blacks on welfare in Ronald Reagan's first campaign, has created "a great sense of alienation toward our government now."

"Reagan and Bush policies have encouraged that. The commander-in-chief is not being fair. He is not promoting behavior that would inspire confidence," Jackson said.

Molefi Asante, professor and chairman of the African-American studies department at Temple University in Philadelphia, said blacks see a pattern of U.S. action involving Third World nations such as Grenada, Libya and Panama, populated by people of color.

"African-American people have seen over the years that the government has been reluctant to move aggressively in issues of race relations but is aggressive in moving in international issues, particularly when those issues involve people of color and not the whites of South Africa, for instance."

For Frye the medic, all of these issues are moot. Although he believes he is caught in an unfair predicament, he is resigned to it. "We feel this way, but what other alternatives do we have? So that's it," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

"Hey, man," said Hawkins, his friend. "I'm sorry that you have to go. You signed the paper. You gotta do what has to be done."

And to a reporter, Hawkins said: "I would never say, 'Hey, man, don't join the military.' That's a decision a brother has to make on his own. But you have to understand what you're getting into."