He stood by himself in Arlington Cemetery yesterday, staring at the already-dead and pondering the soon-could-be-dead. There were law books he ought to study, but Jim Murphy had no stomach for them. There was a war he wanted to prevent, but he had no means. So he came to this place of silence in the last hours of certain peace. At least it was doing something.

"All these guys here," said Murphy, 24, his eyes sweeping the hillside of tombstones. "Is Kuwait really worth adding to the guys here? Because this is the bottom line. This is what happens next."

The attack that brought the United States into World War II had come without warning. Vietnam had come to it in baby steps. This was different: People groped yesterday to find a comparison for a day in which everyone knew the nation might pass from peace to total war within 24 hours.

Some went to church. Some walked out of school. Some got arrested.

Most went to work. They had to, but many minds weren't on it. "I'm trying not to think about the war," said Dianne Wiggins, an employee of the National Telephone Cooperative Association, "but I can't."

Barbara Gale, 65, a retired Senate staff member, said it was like waiting for a hurricane or tornado. "I'm worried sick," she said. "I'm really worried sick. I guess we're at the edge."

Brian Cooke, 52, a tour bus driver, said it was like the day John Kennedy was shot. "I'm going through the motions," he said. "My stomach's in knots."

Ralph B. Roy, 54, a taxi driver, said it was like the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. "I'm not watching 'Matlock' tonight," he said, "if they've got a special on."

And a man from New London, Conn., finished his business meeting early and found himself at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He stood alone in his dark blue business suit, visibly fighting to keep his face from dissolving in grief.

"Normally," said the man, "I'd have gone straight to the Mall and gone to one of the Smithsonian museums." But on this day, "This seemed like an appropriate place to visit."

In the D.C. Council Chamber, nearly 150 people joined Jesse L. Jackson and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in a two-hour appeal for peace. At Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County, about 50 students simply left in protest of any war.

Prince George's County School Superintendent John A. Murphy canceled all field trips to the District, saying it has too many likely targets for terrorists. D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon told a Senate committee it is ironic that so many District residents are serving in the gulf when District residents have no vote in the policies that sent them there.

And there were more demonstrations: Two dozen people appeared outside the Iraqi Embassy at 1801 P St. NW to support President Bush's efforts to free Kuwait; as midnight approached, several thousand people appeared outside the White House to protest those same policies. Eighty-five were arrested.

It was the strangest of all days for Carollyne Hutter. It was her birthday. She had always been happy to be born on the same day as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she said.

And now Jan. 15 would be famous for something entirely different.

"It gives this strange tone to the day," said Hutter, who was having a late lunch at an outdoor eatery on 17th Street NW, "a surreal tone. You look around the neighborhood and it looks the same, and then you realize we're about to go to war.

"It reminds me of when you have a personal tragedy, like a loved one dying, but outside, everything is the same. Life goes on, but you can't quite believe it's still going on."

Hutter said some of her friends seemed to be ignoring the passing of the deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Not her. The deadline was with her all day. "It's hard to enjoy your birthday," she said, "when you're about to go to war."

Gale, who used to work for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said she had spent most of the day cleaning, because cleaning diverts. "I'm doing what I usually do in an emergency . . . . I cleaned my refrigerator. I cleaned several drawers. I scrubbed the floors. And I'm waiting.

"I don't know how I feel," said Gale, who was running errands near Dupont Circle. "Some of the time I want to do it and get it over with. Sometimes I think we should wait. Sometimes I think we shouldn't be there at all."

She added, "I don't think anyone at any level can do anything. I'm terribly afraid we're going to have a terrible war."

On Pennsylvania Avenue NW, at the National Telephone Cooperative Association, which represents small telephone companies, four workers were lounging in the sun on the back steps, taking a break for a cigarette. War talk was the talk.

"People in the office were tuned to the easy-listening stations today," said Wiggins, 36, of Alexandria, "instead of the rap and rock stations, to take the pressure off their minds. I'm trying to forget, but I can't. No matter where you go, you're reminded."

And how does she feel?

She paused. "I am very anxious."

"Anxiety, Ann, would be it," chipped in Jim Walker, 50, of Fairfax.

"That's it," said Wiggins.

"I'm sure there won't be any able-bodied adults who won't be up until midnight glued to the TV," said Walker, who added that an odd thing happened yesterday: He had far fewer business calls than he usually does.

Tom Earl, a family therapist for Montgomery County, didn't do business at all yesterday. He took the day off when a friend told him about a rally at Metropolitan AME Church on M Street NW. He was, he said, "really anxious, because the repercussions will be very devastating."

At the rally, speakers condemned the U.S. role in the gulf crisis, singling out the large percentage of minorities in America's armed contingent. From the church, the crowd marched down 16th Street to the White House, where about 180 demonstrators paraded and chanted.

Miles Hoffman, a financial manager from Atlanta, went to the Iraqi Embassy to support Bush. Hoffman said he was shot while a hostage in Iraq. He carried a sign: "Former hostages say: Iraq get out of Kuwait -- now."

"I'm very concerned of the image that college campuses are on the verge of a revolution," said Tony Zagotta, 23, the chairman of the College Republican National Committee, which organized the protest at the embassy.

At the vigil in the D.C. Council Chamber, Norton urged the crowd to support not war, but continued economic sanctions in an effort to squeeze Iraq out of Kuwait. She also called for an end to the all-volunteer army, saying it had led to a fighting force with too many minority soldiers.

"I'm not claiming this is an army only of the poor," she said in an interview. "It is also an army of those who have two parents but won't get to college without the G.I. Bill, or who come from cities where there are no jobs. It is not an army of people who have other alternatives."

Jackson won a standing ovation in the chamber as he mocked the deadline, noting that Bush had given no such ultimatum for ending apartheid in South Africa or for ending repression in China or for freeing Lithuania.

At Paint Branch High School, far fewer students agreed to walk out in protest of the American role in the gulf than the 400 that organizers had expected. But those who went were worried.

"I think they are going to start drafting," said Ronna Gary, 16. "It's going to be a big mess. All of my friends are going to be drafted. It's really scary."

There was a counter-demonstration, though. A handful of young men at the school came out solidly for Bush's policies. "America is in the Middle East to protect the rights of the Kuwaitis, to win back their freedom," said Nelson Warwick, 17, who added that he soon would meet with a Marine Corps recruiter. "I'm willing to go."

School officials in several counties said they were reviewing their policies on field trips, out of concern about terrorism. Mayor Dixon reviewed the state of non-statehood. "It is our misfortune, our irony, that we did not even have a chance to cast a vote on so solemn an occasion," she told the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, referring to the District's lack of voting representation in the House and Senate.

Meanwhile, Jim Murphy was at Arlington Cemetery. He went to his first-year law classes at Catholic University yesterday, but by the afternoon he felt compelled to do something else. He just couldn't study. He has three close friends from college in the Middle East now, one in the Marine Corps and two in the Navy.

"I just couldn't see going off on a normal routine on a day like this," he said. "Even the headlines in the news last night about the Redskins seemed kind of mindless."

He went to the graves of the Kennedy brothers.

"There's a good quote by Bobby Kennedy up there," he said, and then recalled it from memory: " 'One of society's purposes should be to tame the savageness of man and preserve peace for the life of the world.' "

Staff writers Mary Ann French, Retha Hill, Robert F. Howe, Lisa Leff, Eric Charles May, Rene Sanchez, Avis Thomas-Lester, Jane Seaberry and Elsa Walsh contributed to this report.