Is That a Van Halen Song Or an Incoming Scud?

From a lance corporal's boombox perched atop an olive-drab ammo crate, English rocker Edwin Starr gave amped voice to an age-old question: "War! What is it good for?

"Absolutely nothing."

Playing backup percussion was Cpl. Joseph Taylor Jr. of Boston, whose fingernail rat-a-tat-tat on the housing of his 30mm machine gun more or less kept beat with the band.

"Can't be making war without music," said the Marine infantryman as the thunder of high-explosive shells and the noxious mist cast by burning oil fields rolled down from Kuwait, not many miles to the north.

The bomb thudded, the ground trembled, Taylor cranked the volume higher. "Rock 'n' roll is C-Rats for the soul," he said, using the military slang for field rations.

Americans are once again marching into battle in a far corner of the world. But the young warriors of 1991 appear to be adopting as their own the songs of another era -- Vietnam.

Portable tape decks lugged out to desert fighting posts in camouflaged rucksacks blare the apocalyptic sounds of the Doors, Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain," the metallic riffs of Jimi Hendrix and the bluesy wail of Janis Joplin.

"Close your eyes and you could be back in Saigon," said Marine Maj. Joe Kirkman of Excelsior Springs, Mo., a Vietnam veteran.

That might be the case on the ground, but the noise of choice in the air, one Air Force pilot said, is heavy-metal rocker Van Halen. Some pilots reportedly like to slip cassette deck earphones underneath their flight headsets so they can whistle while they work. Officially, though, the Air Force does not approve. Reservations for 500,000

Some British soldiers waiting to do battle against Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait are developing reputations as pranksters.

Col. Charles Rogers, commander of the British Army's Staffordshire Regiment, approves. He says humor, even black humor, "is absolutely essential for keeping the lads' spirits up."

Recently, four soldiers from his unit managed to put a telephone call through to the Baghdad Sheraton Hotel and asked to reserve a suite of rooms for the end of February.

"The receptionist was quite happy to take the booking," said Rogers. "Then she asked who was calling. When they told her they were British soldiers, she slammed the phone down." One for the Road

As U.S. pilots fly off to war, military chaplains often stand on the flight line clasping their hands in prayer and giving them a thumbs up for a safe return.

"It may be the last picture that they see, . . . and sometimes that may have a positive feeling with them that makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful mission," said Capt. Michael Thornton, a Protestant chaplain at the largest U.S. air base in Saudi Arabia.

Although the U.S. military has gone to great lengths to bar media coverage of religious activities to avoid offending the Islamic country, military chaplains have been intensely involved in the buildup for war and believe they can play a vital role in the conflict itself.

For years as a Protestant chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, Maj. Raymond Hart said he would give pilots a thumbs up as they were about to take off from bases in the United States, but often it was only a quick one.

"But here, when I do it, it's very firm, strong, steady . . . and when I do it I'm saying, 'You're coming back. I have faith that you're going to go out there and do it, and you will be back, that God's going to take care of you,' " he said.

"We all need God, now," said the 46-year-old African Methodist Episcopal minister from Marlton, N.J. "Of course, we always needed him, but some people -- they may sense it a little more now. So I want to give all that I have."