Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) was incorrectly identified as Rep. DAvid E. Skaggs (D-Colo.) in a caption Sunday. (Published 1/15/91)

Randy "Duke" Cunningham returned to his new congressional office on Capitol Hill at 3 a.m. Thursday. He sat at his desk, alone, surrounded by empty shelves and filing cases and bare walls, and anguished over his vote on sending Americans to war. "It was like a nightmare revisited," he said.

As a freshman Republican representative from a conservative San Diego district, Cunningham came to Washington this month strongly backing President Bush's Persian Gulf policies and with no doubts about the rightness of America's last major war in Vietnam, where he flew 300 combat missions, won many medals and became America's "first ace" by shooting down five enemy planes. He also came caustically evoking names of the Vietnam protest past -- Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden -- and speaking bitterly of "Democratic liberals" in Congress who had tied the military's hands.

Yet here was this political warrior-patriot sitting alone in a darkened Capitol Hill building hours before the crucial congressional debate on war in the Persian Gulf was to begin, experiencing a "sinking feeling" in his stomach and uneasy doubts about his judgment.

For the third or fourth time, Cunningham reread briefing materials supplied by the CIA. He jotted down notes listing the pros and cons of the case for war. He turned on his television and watched a replay of congressional comment on CNN. "I asked myself 10,000 questions," he said. "Just because I have a gut feeling on this, does that make it right?" He thought of his family and wondered "would I be willing to send my own son or daughter to war now?" He worried whether the country was in danger of becoming as deeply divided as it had been during Vietnam.

He was searching, he explained, "to see if I could justify making sanctions work and every time I came to the answer: No. I don't believe sanctions are going to stop Saddam Hussein now or a year from now. I not only don't believe it. I know it. My concern is what's going to happen afterwards. That's not as easy."

In the end, Cunningham voted for the president. "It's easy to pick a scorpion off the sand without being stung," he remarked, "but if you allow it to burrow in its hole you're going to be stung when you try to pick it up."

In other times when Washington wrestled over the question of war or peace, Cunningham would have been easy to categorize: a hawk, not a dove. In this time of decision those labels no longer fit so neatly, as Cunningham's example and those of three other members of Congress interviewed during the debate that ended yesterday showed. All had fought in Vietnam, all anguished over their votes, all expressed an unusual degree of sympathy for colleagues on the other side.

"I started out thinking the liberal Democrats were out to do the same thing they did in Vietnam -- slow us down every way they can," Cunningham said. But pointing to a TV monitor showing the debate, he said, "I look up here . . . and I see some of them standing up for the president. . . . Maybe I misjudged them."

Duke Cunningham was born on Dec. 8, 1941, a day when roars of approval echoed through the Capitol as Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Washington entered that war united and ended it transformed from a relatively sleepy city into a booming world capital brimming with self-confidence about the future.

By 1950, when the next major war began in Korea, Washington met the threat of all-out war with the belief it was possible to have "guns and butter too." That war ended in stalemate with nearly 54,000 American deaths and spawned a bitter political debate.

By 1964, when war in Vietnam was authorized by the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Washington was again united. But Vietnam ended in defeat, and the shattering of political consensus at home.

The Persian Gulf war looms in sharply altered circumstances. The memory of Vietnam still dominates debate, and the severe economic downturn and mounting debts make infinitely more difficult all decisions on domestic and international questions. All of these factors weighed on the Vietnam-era veterans who wrestled over their respective votes yesterday.

Like Cunningham, David Skaggs, a 47-year-old, third-term Colorado Democrat and Marine Corps veteran, found himself going back to his office late at night as the decision neared. He turned on the telephone answering machine Wednesday night and listened to the messages from his constituents, most of them saying, "David, please don't vote for war."

That was the overwhelming sentiment at the town meetings he held in his district, centered in the university city of Boulder. But clear as the mood may have been, Skaggs saw this as "the most profound moral issue I've ever experienced," one where there has been "blessedly litle talk about the political consequences" -- and little political pressure. On Thursday afternoon, Skaggs received a call from Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner, who knew him from his Public Works Committee assignment. "Clearly, he'd been assigned to talk to me because of our past relationship, but he was absolutely proper. He made his arguments on the merits. There was no glibness in his approach. We had a good discussion but it didn't change his mind -- or mine."

Nor did the White House session on Friday morning, where Skaggs found Bush "completely earnest" and wondered, as he looked at the president standing "in front of that brooding portrait of Lincoln in the State Dining Room, what Lincoln would think."

When Skaggs spoke on the House floor Friday night, it was more of his doubts than of his certainties. "This is not the time for pridefulness or willfulness, or self-righteousness or false certainty," he said. "This is the most profound moral decision a government can make."

Then he declared his own decision. "It is impossible for this Marine to support his president this time. . . . In some core place of my being, I cannot vote for war now."

Growing up in a blue-collar family in northwestern Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge did what came naturally: He volunteered for Army service in Vietnam with the Americal Division. Now 45, the fifth-term Republican keeps his service medals, including his Bronze Star, framed behind his desk, and the Pentagon firmly in his sights. He has opposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, and criticized procurement policies. At Friday's White House briefing, Ridge questioned Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney closely on the readiness of other nations to join in actually fighting Iraq and on the implications for the anti-Saddam coalition if Israel is drawn into the conflict.

Still, on the core question, the Harvard-educated lawyer thought the issue was crystal clear: The United Nations demand on Saddam was minimal, and it must be enforced. "I think of Iraq as somebody that's come through the back door of my house and made off with my possessions and taken away my family. And all we are asking is, 'Hand them back and walk out the front door.' "

On that question, Ridge told Secretary of Treasury Nicholas F. Brady when he called on behalf of the president, "You're preaching to the choir." Ridge was convinced that the United States could not back down from a threat of war and that war, if it comes, "has to be swift and all-out."

But this was still a tearing decision. On the wall facing his desk, Ridge years ago hung a lithograph of an Army medic, sprawled on the ground, under fire. On his helmet is inscribed: "God Loves the Grunt -- Nobody Else Does."

The expression on the medic's face is unforgettable. "You look at those eyes," Ridge mused Friday, "and you see -- what? Uncertainty, pain, anxiety, a lot of doubt in those eyes. It's a reminder to me of a lot of things. . . . That's been the tough part for me. . . . "

Pete Peterson spent 27 years in the Air Force, 6 1/2 of them in a North Vietnamese prison camp after being shot down on his 66th mission. Last November, in his first try for public office in the rural, conservative Florida Panhandle 2nd District, Democrat Peterson, 56, defeated Rep. Bill Grant, who had switched to the GOP in 1989.

Peterson called the arguments on both sides "gut-wrenching," but added that he may have agonized less than others because "I am a decision-maker. . . . We've made Saddam Hussein a 10-foot man when in fact he doesn't measure up to 6 feet. . . . Really, there were better reasons to go into Vietnam."

Early this week, Peterson declared his opposition to the president's policy at a Rotary Club meeting in his home town of Marianna and came away believing he had changed most club members' minds. He declined an invitation to go to the White House on Friday, not wanting to have his mind changed, which it wasn't, when he voted yesterday.

But speaking of his freshman class, he said, "After this, nobody will be able to intimidate us. We will have hit the ultimate crisis in our first vote. Probably for most of us, it's not only our first vote, it's the vote of our career."

In conventional terms, Cunningham and Ridge were on the winning side, Skaggs and Peterson with the losers. But there was no exultation in the outcome -- rather what Cunningham and Skaggs both called "a feeling of sadness," mixed with an unexpected sense of pride.

"This was probably the most searching and solemn and reflective mood I've sensed since I've been here," Ridge said. "If the Congress of the United States took all its responsibilities as seriously as it did this one, we'd be a much more widely respected institution -- what the drafters of the Constitution envisaged us to be."

There was also a feeling that a kind of political catharsis had occurred. "I was impressed by the dignity and somberness of both sides," Cunningham said. He found himself moved by the words of a liberal Democrat, Tom Andrews of Maine, who voted against war and confessed that he could not understand the other side. "I told him I had some of the same kind of problem in understanding his side," Cunningham said. "I suggested that members of this freshman class . . . open up and understand each other better than we did. Maybe this class can begin to change this place."