The dogs of 82nd Airborne Alpha Company 2-505 meet the night with rifles in hand and boots dangling over the skids of a speeding UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. Peacekeepers patrolling southeastern Kosovo with the latest toys of war, the GIs have night vision goggles on their helmets, a pair of AH-64 Apache gunships on their flank and great big grins on their faces.

"Hanging out of a helicopter in the night, piling out and chasing bad guys is pretty much why you join the Army," said Capt. Matt McFarlane.

But come morning, McFarlane's troops go from being all they can be to being something they never imagined.

Pfc. Steven Hemmer marches into Vitina's town hall, takes off his armored vest, hangs his helmet on a hatrack and takes a seat behind a desk. He will spend the next six hours listening to ethnic Albanians complaining about Serbs, listening to Serbs complaining about ethnic Albanians, filling out reports and wondering how day can be so different from night.

"I mean, we're infantrymen," Hemmer said. "I'm 11 Charlie. My job's to drop mortar rounds down a tube and defend our country. This is . . . " He did not know quite what "this" was. "I guess when I came here I thought I'd be doing something more infantry-like."

Not in today's Army, and not in the current assignment in Kosovo, the latest mission in which U.S. armed forces confront the daunting task of keeping the peace. The world's policeman has to do paperwork, too. And if that means double duty as dogs of war and hounded bureaucrats, it comes with the territory the U.S. military has carved out for itself in the wake of the Cold War: walking the beat, projecting power and, when asked, restoring order in every sense of the word.

"We're involved in peace enforcement," said Brig. Gen. John Craddock, commander of the 7,000-member U.S. peacekeeping force here in eastern Kosovo. "If you look where we're engaged around the world, that's what we're doing."

"Maybe," he added, "if you do this right, you shape the future to avoid the big war."

Almost a month after entering Kosovo, NATO forces remain the only legitimate authority in the province, and Americans have been among the most active of the occupying armies to acknowledge that the situation will be on the long side of temporary.

Virtually abandoned by the Serbs who administered the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population like a colony, Kosovo remains perhaps six months away from the still-unformed United Nations administration assigned to run things under the peace agreement.

"I didn't have barracks filled with administrators, lawyers and engineers waiting in Macedonia to be deployed in Kosovo," said Sergio Vieira de Mello, interim head of the U.N. mission. "It's going to be an incremental process. But I agree we are very, very thin on the ground right now."

In the meantime, McFarlane's 82nd Airborne troops call him "the mayor of Vitina." It sounds like a nickname in the anticipatory ease of early evening at the Serbian special police office that Alpha Company has made its headquarters. On the steps outside, a puppy gnaws an epaulet on a blue camouflage Serbian special police uniform. Officers savor cigars; infantrymen, the prospect of the patrol ahead. Albanian phrases are practiced: "Shut up." "Shut up now." Then it's onto the back of a Humvee and into the summer night.

It might not be obvious from the overland patrol that follows, but the Americans are waging peace much as they waged the 78-day air war against Yugoslavia: with the highest possible technology.

Patrolling the sky above the U.S. sector in eastern Kosovo on any clear night is Hunter, a propeller-driven drone plane. It carries a video camera that once hunted Yugoslav armor and now feeds live images of a countryside still dotted with columns of smoke. Although shootings and other violence have abated in the past two weeks, arson remains at least an hourly occurrence.

When Hunter spots smoke, a commander in an Apache sends in the troops. The Apache gunships -- deployed to Albania with such fanfare during the war, but never allowed into combat -- provide cover plus two more cameras. On one occasion, an Apache gun-sight camera caught an ethnic Albanian man lugging a 50-pound gas tank from a Serbian home.

In Vitina, however, an 8:30 p.m. curfew has proved so effective that the GIs have not been shot at in more than 10 days. Alpha Company stops this night at a pair of homes. The elderly Serbs in both have been visited by young ethnic Albanians threatening to kill them if they did not leave within hours. Serbs, who during the war cast the Americans as villains, in peacetime view them as saviors. In Urosevac 11 miles west of Vitina, elderly Serbs are so frightened they're camping on the sidewalk beside a U.S. command post.

But here an ethnic Albanian neighbor had been staying over to protect the couple. McFarlane shook his hand. If he had to say "two wrongs don't make a right" one more time, he said, he might have screamed.

Back in the Humvee, Spec. Jason Sivells has a question. "Why can't all these people stop spending all their money on guns so they can off each other, just build a Disneyland and be happy?"

At 10:30 the next morning, McFarlane is seated at the head of a table in the town hall, chewing gum as if it is his enemy. On one side of the table sit officials of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group that fought for Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. Opposite them is Vesko Piric, whom the troops call "the man formerly known as the mayor," and other Serbs who until recently ran the town.

McFarlane has made his daily report on fires and robberies. He has thanked both sides for the baked goods sent to the Fourth of July celebration that only ethnic Albanian residents attended. Now it's time to listen, but not forever. Both sides will be timed.

"The Albanians went first last time. The Serbs go first this time," McFarlane said, and glanced at a sergeant. "You ready with that stopwatch? Ready. Go."

The former mayor read a list of Serbian houses burned, wells poisoned, people living in fear. "They will for sure stay there if you provide security," Piric said. "Otherwise they will flee."

"We can't be everywhere at once," McFarlane replied. He looked at the sergeant. "How much time?"

"Ten minutes."

A slender man in a leather vest spoke for the ethnic Albanians. Agron Hoxha, 24, is the KLA brigade commander. He has an office down the hall decorated with NATO and Albanian flags.

"We have problems," he told McFarlane, although he was looking across the table at Piric. "Tell him the roads are not Serb property. They are public property."

It's all a terrific headache. Downstairs, people lined up to rail at the receptionist, Spec. Brandt Gehrke, 20, a sweet-faced Washington state native wearing wraparound sunglasses and body armor and carrying a machine gun.

"There's not a nail that is left of my house!" shouts Arif Audi, an ethnic Albanian who recently returned from Macedonia. Audi, who was a post office employee until Serbs took all the good jobs -- including every one here in the town hall -- wants permission to move into the apartment his former Serbian boss fled. Gehrke sighs.

"In the worst case I can just come and bring my children here to live with you," Audi snapped, and stormed into the hallway, where he was asked: What did you expect?

"Nothing," the ethnic Albanian replied. But when Serbs occupied these offices, he said, he dared not even enter the building.

"I just wanted to come in and let them know," Audi said. "I feel a kind of relief coming and telling them what my issue is. Because they are after all the people who brought us liberty."

CAPTION: Soldiers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division patrol the town square of Vitina, Yugoslavia, to help maintain order.

CAPTION: A car owned by a former member of the Kosovo Liberation Army rebel group is checked for bombs by U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.