In this season of excess, no one should be surprised to hear talk of using nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf. Hundreds of tons of conventional bombs are being dropped, but the subject of small tactical nuclear battlefield weapons has been raised by Rep. Dan Burton, a conservative Republican from Indiana.

Burton, a graduate of the Cincinnati Bible Seminary and a veteran of six months of active and 5 1/2 years of reserve service, took the House floor Jan. 23 to say that if conventional bombing does not force Iraqi infantry to surrender, we ought to use tactical nuclear weapons instead of sending in ground troops who could suffer great casualties.

The life-saving argument was used in 1945 when the choice lay between the bomb and massive U.S. invasion deaths. The United States dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on Hiroshima and the second on Nagasaki. The debate over the consequences, physical and moral, is still going on.

The last public person to advocate the use of tactical nuclear weapons was Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who was fascinated by military gadgetry in general and by compact nuclear weapons in particular. In his 1964 presidential campaign, he often pointed out that they were as small as a fountain pen and could be worn on a soldier's shoulder tabs. He wanted them to be distributed to NATO forces and thought of as "conventional nuclear weapons." But they were too much for the general public -- at least as they were explained in President Lyndon Johnson's speeches and commercials -- and Goldwater was crushed in the November election.

The response to Burton's initiative has been heavy and equally divided, according to his press secretary, between the outraged and the "really supportive."

Burton has made several appearances on CNN to press his point, but has received no support from fellow conservatives, who apparently remember the Goldwater debacle.

Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), who said just before the war broke out that if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made good on a threat to spread spent nuclear fuel on the battlefield, the United States should reserve the right to escalate, says now that there are no practical military benefits of using tactical nukes, and there are "political liabilities."

"The coalition is experiencing some strains," he said, "and cannot bear the weight of a debate on nuclear weapons."

Spurgeon Keeny of the Arms Control Association agrees: "The use of nuclear weapons is one way of making sure that Saddam Hussein is lifted from a thug who is being mistreated to a martyr."

Vice President Quayle, the administration's prime war cheerleader, spoke about nuclear weapons over the BBC during a recent trip to London. He said that "we could not rule out any options." But when he arrived home the next day, he had plainly been spoken to. His new position, when asked if we would attack Saddam with nukes, was, "I just can't imagine that happening."

Our doctrine, called the Vance doctrine after Cyrus R. Vance, President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, was laid down in 1978. We pledged no first use against any party to the non-proliferation treaty or any comparable international agreement except in the case of an attack on the United States "by a nation allied to a nuclear-weapons state." This was meant to cover East Germany.

A timely documentary called "Losing Control" is being aired on Channel 32 at 8 o'clock tonight. The work of documentary-maker Gary Krane, it shows what can happen when two hostile nations, Syria and Israel, in this case, start swapping tactical nukes and chemical weapons. The world ends up, through a series of inadvertencies -- human and mechanical failures, misjudgments, miscalculations -- on the brink of a full-scale Soviet-U.S. nuclear exchange.

Richard Perle, a Pentagon enthusiast who plays himself in the chilling drama, keeps saying that anti-nukes exaggerate the potential for human error, but admits that a "nuclear event of almost any kind is going to create an instant crisis with unpredictable results." Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), another player in this eerily apropos war game, speaks dryly of the discomfort of having your future on hair-trigger, to be decided by technicians in Russia who can't really run elevators very well.

"You don't know how people are going to behave in a crisis," Perle glumly observes, when discussing the calculations being made in the bunker when paranoia about the other side's intentions and actions is rampant.

The point is that nuclear weapons are dangerous and never should be discussed without the dread and reverence due a taboo.