Washington is waiting for winter, waiting for war. A lovely, unnatural protracted Indian summer has made ice and snow a distant prospect; war seems more imminent. Everyone is prepared for the fact that they could come together and end this golden pause.

"This is an important moment," said the Rev. Brian Hehir of the National Catholics Bishops Conference to a symposium at the National Cathedral. "We have time to look into the ethical, political and military questions. It's not like 1941 when we woke up one morning at war, because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; it's not like Grenada, when we heard about the invasion after it happened. We have time to think and discuss."

Said Harold Saunders, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, "If one-tenth of one percent of the time being spent on the deployment of troops were to be diverted to finding a political solution, we would be better off."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is, to the consternation of the Bush White House, running a seance on political solutions in the committee room. To express its displeasure with the exercise, which "could send the wrong signal to Saddam Hussein," the president withheld star administration witnesses, and Nunn, who is accustomed to more respect, has had to make do with has-beens.

The sessions are riveting all the same: it matters less who is talking than that there is talk going on. George Bush is careening across the planet, whether in pursuit of consensus or in flight from the polls is not clear. From his speeding plane, he strews out a reason a week for our presence in the sand; recently, he went nuclear. The newspapers chronicled painful Thanksgiving Day partings -- farmers, teachers and doctors being snatched from their daily rounds for desert duty. Bush was pictured braying with laughter in a tete-a-tete with our new terrorist ally, Hafez Assad of Syria, and later in Mexico with a sombrero the size of his problem.

So Nunn, his possible '92 rival, has slipped into the void to lead the discussion that Bush does not want to hear. His first witness was James R. Schlesinger, former secretary of defense and energy and durable hawk turned dove. This time, he wants to give peace, and the sanctions, a chance.

Next came two members of one of Washington's larger clumpings, the Truth-Seen-Too-Late Squad, retired military officers who give the advice that their kind never gives while on active duty, at least not in public. They are like those high officials who told us when the Vietnam memorial to 59,000 dead was being built that they secretly opposed the war. Once out of uniform or out of office, they tell us what they really think.

Retired Navy admiral William J. Crowe Jr. and retired Air Force general David C. Jones, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were eminently worth listening to, as is ever the case with high brass who oppose military action. Besides, they have a professional grasp of the subject under discussion, and treat strutting senators like midshipmen and deal briskly with their maunderings. The Democrats can hardly believe their luck in having them on their side.

"The issue," said Crowe, "is not whether an embargo will work, but whether we have the patience to let it take effect."

At one point, he said, when Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) was going on about the evil of chemical weapons, that guns are equally deadly.

"You see starving children on television," Crowe said, sighing heavily, "then you hear we should bomb them."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) commended him for "more refreshing than usual" testimony. "I don't know whether it is because you have retired or because you have a smaller staff -- you are a voice for what many people are saying."

In his opening statement, Jones found a parallel to the present buildup in World War I, when "the contending powers set in motion a mobilization and deployment juggernaut that soon achieved a momentum of its own."

But, in the end, it is Vietnam that haunts them. Unity, it seems, is more vital than patience. Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) repeatedly asked them if they thought that Bush should ask Congress to echo the expected U.N. endorsement of the use of force. The admiral copped out and the general grabbed the mike to give a message to Saddam Hussein: "We are unified, we are not divided on the fundamentals."

One witness had not changed. Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, the merciless bomber of Vietnam, urged once again the use of force, preaching "selective destruction."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) reminded him of the consequences of his "surgical strikes": 52,000 civilians dead.