WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- With hopes for peace dwindling rapidly and war against Iraq perhaps only days away, many U.S. soldiers in Operation Desert Shield are looking inward, measuring the challenge and danger that await them in the northern reaches of the Arabian desert.

"Some tempers are a little shorter, a little frayed with the stress. There's a little more intensity in the training," said John K. Wilson, 29, of Parkersburg, W. Va., an Army technician assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. "Everyone's taking training seriously, no messing around. It's the uncertainty . . . and also the excitement. No one wants peace more than a soldier -- and no one wants to be tested more than a soldier."

The test could begin anytime after Tuesday, when the U.N. Security Council has authorized Operation Desert Shield to drive Iraq out of occupied Kuwait with force. With the events of recent days -- including the failure last Wednesday of the Geneva talks between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and the approval by Congress Saturday of the use of force -- the United States has moved closer to full-scale war than at any time since Vietnam.

This has left soldiers here with little to do but prepare for combat. The training is finished, the weapons are cleaned, the letters are mailed. "No one here has given up hope for a peaceful solution, but most everyone here is a realist," said Air Force Col. Walter Schauffele. "Let the politicians do what they do, and we'll do what we do."

What soldiers do is make war, and with physical preparations all but complete, soldiers turned toward the psychological. Some call it apprehension, others call it anxiety, even butterflies. But fear -- of dying, of being maimed or of combat itself -- is for soldiers an occupational hazard, a demon confronted before every battle everywhere.

"We tell them that if you feel apprehensive or afraid and not sure of why you are here, join the club," said Col. Ron Rokosz, 45, of Chicago, commander of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade. "The first thing is to convince a soldier . . . that if he is afraid . . . he might get killed, that is a very normal reaction. Fear is a healthy thing. It is not healthy when guys run around and say, 'Yeah, we can kill them, we can take care of these guys.' "

In dozens of interviews last week, pool reporters in Saudi Arabia spoke with soldiers as they readied themselves for combat. For the most part, they found soldiers who hoped for peace, anticipated war and wished the waiting would end.

"We've been preparing since we got here for things not working out" in peace talks, said an Air Force F-15 fighter pilot, Capt. Steve Adams, 28, of Middletown, Conn. "The worst thing for us is that it seems like every week we've had emotional ups and downs. We're going to war, we're not going to war. That's kind of tough on your mind."

Yet few of those interviewed were particularly eager to fight. A Marine battalion commander, Lt. Col. Cesare Cardi, of North Plainfield, N.J., said soldiers are "the least likely to look forward to war," because they understand "the devastating effect of war."

And for Scott Schabacker, 22, of Hadley, Ill., an enlisted man who jumped into Panama with the 82nd Airborne in December 1989, "combat is not all that it's cracked up to be. I don't think anyone will get upset if we don't go north, and I'll be just as glad if nothing happens."

Still, with Tuesday's deadline looming, most of those interviewed had all but discarded the possibility of peace. Instead, soldiers were preparing for war, using whatever personal strategies came to hand.

Some chose bravado to psych themselves up. Army Pfc. Jerry Smith, 25, of Alva, Okla., said, "I can't wait" for Tuesday's deadline. "It may be the day you can legally kill somebody." And an Air Force F-15 pilot, Capt. Greg York, 30, of Mesquite, Tex., said, "These guys don't scare me. I respect our technology, and I respect our pilots. We are better than them."

More common than swagger, however, was hatred of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: "We've been out here so long we could kill Saddam Hussein for keeping us out here," said Jeff Rinaldi, an Army enlisted technician from North Hollywood, Calif. For Marine Lt. Col. John Himes, of Dayton, Ohio, the Persian Gulf crisis "has become a personal thing" because Saddam had disrupted peoples' lives. "You coop Marines up, deprive them of their freedom, liberty, families and special occasions, and how could it not become something personal?" asked Himes. "When we come get him, he's got to understand that."

But for many soldiers, Saddam's sins went far beyond inconveniencing them. Several described the Iraqi leader with loathing -- as an evil to be exorcised at any cost. Several said they would rather fight than make compromises. "If we don't have an armed conflict now, I wonder if one of my nephews or my son will have to do it," said Marine Cpl. Michael Roundtree, 23, of Chicago. "One way or another, he {Saddam} will have to be dealt with."

A Marine air controller, Capt. Vinnie Savoia, described the Saddam dilemma more starkly: "As far as I can see, there are two options. Saddam can stay in Kuwait and lose his whole army, or he can pull out and I'll be back here in two years' time."

And Army Capt. Bob Young, 30, of Rockville, Md., said he felt that by threatening to use poison gas, Saddam had forfeited any claim to leniency. "Ain't nobody who volunteered to suck chemical weapons," Young said. "Bush should stop at nothing to level him. He should have no hesitation to go nuclear before one American inhales anthrax and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons should be the first thought, not an afterthought. Give me the button, I'll push it."

For most of those interviewed, however, preparing for combat was a personal matter. Many soldiers shed their personal possessions. At the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), commanders ordered troops to mail home the presents and boxes of letters they had received during the months spent in the desert.

Others kept their possessions. "I've got my weapon and I've got my gas mask, but my letters and pictures are what keep me going," said Sgt. Mitchell Louviere, 25, of New Iberia, La., with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Still others found solace in fatalism. "Fear to each individual is unique to that individual. Some people have no fear at all. Some people are just made to be warriors," said Army Chief Warrant Officer Keith Kettell, 31, of Boston, a battalion medical officer in the 82nd Airborne Division. "I have seen troops die and get injured in combat. Some were friends, some were regular Joes. It is not a nice thing -- death is never nice. I am not afraid of dying; if my number comes up, it comes up."

And others simply remembered their obligations. "I don't think anybody out here wants to die," said Army Pvt. Eric Mann, 19, of North Providence, R.I., "but I signed my name and . . . I'll be there."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, soldiers leaned on their friends. "When the time comes, they won't need some fiery speech from me," said a Marine company commander, Capt. Brent Smith, 33, of Hollis Center, Maine. "Every Marine from the commandant on down who's ever been in combat has asked that same question about what war is like. "You just reassure them, and they'll do fine. They have the best training, the equipment, and they have each other."