For months, Woody Landers and his co-workers at the General Services Administration easily met the needs of the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Paper cups, plastic forks, paint -- GSA, the federal government's chief supply agent, had bought it all for years.

Then came the order three weeks ago for millions of sandbags. The precise number is classified, but "it was incredible . . . shocking," said Landers, a special assistant in the federal supply division. Some GSA officials were uncertain whether that much burlap was even manufactured.

The usual contractor couldn't possibly meet the demand, so GSA hurriedly arranged emergency contracts with eight other suppliers. Luckily, the Army needed only sacks, not sand. "They've got plenty of that where they are," said Landers.

The Persian Gulf war has set off similar mad scrambles throughout the federal government, commandeering hundreds of workers for unfamiliar tasks at unexpected moments. Suddenly, workers find they need to speed up, rearrange priorities, learn new procedures, be more secret.

The call to action is a relief for some. A role, however small, can be a comfort. It can also drive home with disturbing immediacy the reality of the war.

Landers, for instance, can now visualize a sea of men shoveling sand into burlap bags to build fortifications. For him and other GSA employees, the war descended off the television screen with the sandbag order and the subsequent rush orders for tank tools. "It is extremely real to me," Landers said.

The war is remarkable for its vast but haphazard reach, keeping some normally quiet offices lighted night after night, while leaving a massive bureaucracy such as the Labor Department virtually untouched.

Stress points vary: Postal workers are handling what officials call the biggest overseas mailing in the agency's history. A unit within the Health and Human Services Department has run itself ragged greeting and arranging services for the 2,264 Americans who have flown in from the Middle East since Labor Day.

Laboratory analysts for the Food and Drug Administration are working all hours testing the military's stockpiles of medicine and its antidotes to chemical and biological warfare agents. "We're really pushed," said Frank Flaherty, in charge of quality assurance for medical products for the FDA. "It started in August and it's not let up; {it's} even gotten more hectic."

The gargantuan demand for supplies has stretched well beyond the Defense Department, which has its own purchasing agency, and the GSA, which supplies the military with items used throughout government.

In September, the crying need for maps drove the Defense Mapping Agency to the noisy, windowless basement of the Commerce Department. Two huge, five-color printers there usually spin out aerial maps for air traffic controllers and airlines and nautical maps for ships.

But the army needed 600,000 maps of the Saudi desert and the mapping agency's presses were overloaded. So for two weeks, Commerce Department printers ran off military maps around the clock. Their regular work was postponed, except for critical aerial maps, said Frank W. Maloney of the department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We were prepared to drop it all if necessary and we still are," he said.

One whole slice of the government is basically devoted to keeping watch for economic and security threats. Customs agents are alert for illegal transports of embargoed goods. The FBI, the CIA and the Secret Service are on the lookout for terrorists.

On the night hostilities began, James M. Lister, 47, stayed up monitoring Far East financial markets for the Treasury Department. At 6 a.m., he crawled onto his office couch and nodded off for a half-hour. Then he retrieved a few clean clothes he keeps under his desk in case of bad weather, showered in the rudimentary locker room, and went back to work for another nine hours.

As director of the office of foreign exchange operations, Lister watches the price of gold and other indicators to help determine whether the federal government needs to "intervene" in the economy. No such need has arisen in the past 10 days, which required another all-nighter by one of Lister's economists. Treasury has delivered a longer couch.

In the basement of the Energy Department, a few blocks away, analysts in a secure room keep a 24-hour eye on the flow of oil from the Saudia Arabia and other Persian Gulf centers. Not long ago, the main worry at the "Emergency Operations Center" was a nuclear accident. Now it is an oil shortage.

A "black gold" network connects the center to the Saudi oil ministry. Computers that can accept classified information are tied with red ribbon.

The amassed data on tanker movements, refinery outputs and U.S. consumption is grist for energy "war games," said John J. Easton Jr., an assistant secretary of energy. He said officials need answers for "what would happen if we lost another 2.5 million barrels a day, or if the conflict goes on a year or more, or if we get another cold snap like the one we had last winter?"

The Justice Department was pressed into service early in the conflict, defeating a legal attack from some members of Congress on the president's war powers. Its lawyers are now defending the Pentagon's restrictions on the news media and its use of certain drugs to protect soldiers against nerve gas and chemical warfare without first obtaining their consent.

In all, the war has dumped about 35 new cases on the civil division, according to Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Gerson. Many plaintiffs are what he calls "summer soldiers," reservists fighting gulf-related orders to report for duty.

An anesthesiologist in Spokane, Wash., for example, has offered to repay the military for his medical education if he can stay out of the war. The doctor, an Air Force captain, claims his religious beliefs prevent his participation in combat. The government argues the doctor should fulfill his four-year commitment.

The country is ravenous for information, putting new demands on communications workers. At the nonprofit National Captioning Institute in Falls Church, stenographers help get the news to the deaf.

The Education Department and the television networks fund a "closed-captioning" process that brings news and public affairs programs to an estimated 1.4 million hearing-impaired Americans. There is a three- to four-second delay between the time a newscaster speaks a word and the word scrolls across the bottom of a television screen.

Tammie Shedd, a manager at the nonprofit captioning institute, said stenographers must remember to keep their feelings in check when transcribing events.

"When the news correspondents say missiles are falling on Tel Aviv, as they are right now, you have to save your emotions," said Shedd in an Friday afternoon interview. "If you get upset, you can't do your job."

Normally, Shedd and her co-workers would know when a newcast will begin. Because networks now break in with news at any time, the control room is constantly staffed.

The night the war began, Shedd's stenographers transcribed 42 1/2 hours of nonstop news, alternating every 10 minutes to maintain a pace of 250 words per minute, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, live coverage of President Bush's news conferences and some Pentagon briefings is being beamed to more than 1,500 radio and television stations around the world by the U.S. Information Agency. USIA produces and transmits Worldnet television programs and Voice of America radio broadcasts.

In Africa, USIA offices "are being deluged by huge crowds coming to watch Worldnet television replays of the latest news on the war," said USIA spokesman Charles Bell. Arabic broadcasts of Worldnet are up by 50 percent. Voice of America has added tens of millions of listeners since mid-January, officials said.

"We work eight hours and 45 minutes a day," said Mahmod Zawawi, a Voice of America official. "With 45 minutes for lunch."

The scene is more hectic at a leased warehouse near Dulles International Airport, where 90 postal workers in three shifts sort mail for U.S. troops. A rising tide of Valentines has replaced the flood of Christmas presents.

The volume of mail is about double what was shipped to U.S. servicemen during the Vietnam conflict, postal officials estimated. "It makes you feel very good," said Deborah King, a supervisor at the warehouse, one of four facilities opened to handle Desert Storm correspondence.

"Television has brought this war close to the people," said Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank. "The entire country is embarked on a letter-writing frenzy."

From her corner of the federal bureaucracy, Connie Boatright is trying to make sure there is another distinction between Vietnam and the war against Iraq. A Veterans Administration nurse, she has spent much of the last 15 years helping Vietnam veterans deal with lingering psychological traumas.

Last week, she flew to a Long Island hospital to teach VA doctors and nurses how to treat Desert Storm wounded differently. "What we're preaching is. . . . Don't forget you're dealing with the whole person," said Boatright. Look for psychological injuries "up front, not down the road."

The Peace Corps, in a strange way, reflects Desert Storm in reverse. The more soldiers go to the front, the more Peace Corps volunteers are called home. Thus far, because of the situation in the Middle East, the Peace Corps has withdrawn about 330 volunteers from five Moslem or Arabic countries, mainly in Africa.

The Peace Corps volunteers see themselves as kind of bridge that is breaking, officials said. "There are not too many populations in this country that understand Moslems or the Islamic world," said Jack Hogan, in charge of the volunteers in Africa. "They're being wrenched out of a village they've come to love, and they don't know why."

Staff writers William Booth, Kenneth J. Cooper, George Lardner Jr., Thomas W. Lippman, Bill McAllister, Steven Mufson, Dana Priest, Spencer Rich and Curt Suplee contributed to this report.