The prime-time war, commencing just in time for the evening network news feed, came so suddenly and amid such dramatic electronic flashes from Baghdad that all memories of what had preceded it were obliterated. Instantaneously, it was as if the preceding events -- how and why war began, with what future consequences -- had never happened. In keeping with the immediacy of the Television Age, the entire world was living for the moment.

That's natural. War rivets attention on grim life-and-death realities. But while war continues in this uneasy present, this also is a time for thinking about the future by applying painfully learned lessons of the past.

For those here, it's also worth remembering the heavy feeling of anxiety and doubt that palpably hung over the capital as the clock wound toward war. I, for one, will long remember the reaction of two senators in those final hours when Washington lay suspended between fast-dimming hopes for peace and resigned acceptance of war.

No one better captured those starkly conflicting emotions than Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine). "I find myself doing some very mundane things and at the same time experiencing a feeling of foreboding," he said Tuesday.

As he went about his daily routine, Cohen kept thinking of a book that he had been reading the night before and that depicted the struggle for survival of two black youths in the urban ghetto. The mother, in frustration, responds to the hopelessness of their situation by continually cleaning her apartment. "I found myself doing something like that," Cohen said, "doing menial tasks, cleaning my desk, but always with a sense of foreboding."

Cohen then did something most unusual for a politician but in character for someone also a published poet and novelist. He began rereading the story of Agamemnon, the tragic warrior-king of Greek mythology whose siege of Troy ended in triumph and then his own destruction. The powerful imagery of those ancient verses struck him with special force. "As I read," he recalled, "I thought it's like so much of what's going on now."

At that time, Cohen's Democratic counterpart from Maine, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, also was reacting characteristically to events. He was forming a task force of Democratic senators on the Persian Gulf and saying: "Someone must be planning for what happens after military action is concluded."

The example of these senators -- one looking backward, the other ahead -- are useful as the nation faces numerous questions that must be addressed after this crisis. Among them are how America can avoid past mistakes in the Middle East and also deal with mounting domestic problems. But one question transcends all others today as war again envelops the Mideast: How can the United States assure its energy independence so it never again will be forced to rely on Middle East oil and despots for its economic lifeblood?

This crisis, coming after the oil shocks, incidents of terrorism, hostage-taking and threats of economic blackmail that have plagued America since the mid-1970s, reinforces the need to free the nation from the Mideast oil stranglehold.

It is time, in short, to act as America acted during World War II and begin today to commit whatever resources are necessary to put its energy house in order.

Nothing less than another Manhattan Project is needed. That effort led to unlocking and harnessing the forces of the atom. A similar one can give America energy independence.

This is not an idealist's dream. As many thoughtful people already are suggesting, energy independence can be achieved in perhaps a decade if the nation adopts a comprehensive, all-out national plan to achieve it.

Its components include a national conservation policy with better public-transportation facilities; developing and employing substitute fuels, including methanol and hydrogen; converting electrical generating plants that use oil to ones using coal, and increasing production of electricity by water power, tidal power, geothermal power, wind power and solar radiation.

A proponent of this is Roger Hilsman, former director of intelligence and research and assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs and now a professor at Columbia University.

"Although the initial expense would be large," he said, "it would probably still be smaller than what may well be the cost of the American intervention in the Middle East."

And no less, surely, than the vast expense of developing and deploying the extraordinary military force that appears to be fulfilling its mission with such deadly proficiency in the Middle East.