Vietnam was the first war that came into our living rooms. The Persian Gulf may be the first war that won't leave them.

If Vietnam brought us film on the evening news of battles and victims, the Persian Gulf already is bringing us satellite down-link updates of attacks before the missiles land. Jets can now drop a "smart" bomb through an open door. But technology also allows the person inside that door to tell the world, instantaneously, that he can see it coming.

With the Buffalo Bills on the verge of scoring a touchdown yesterday that would virtually ensure them a trip to the Super Bowl, tens of millions of Americans suddenly saw NBC correspondent Arthur Kent on their TV screens. "Missile attack! Get us up on audio!" Kent yelled to his crew, excited and apparently scared, yet fairly composed. "Hello, New York. This is Saudi Arabia. This is not a drill. {Holds up gas mask to camera.} We're firing Patriots. Let's go, focus. {Sound of explosion.} There goes a Patriot! Let's go."

As Kent gave his report, he often looked over his shoulder and never put down his gas mask. In the communications satellite age, we don't know if the person we're watching is simply reporting the news or about to become the news. That brings a new level of chill into our homes, even in this age when we sometimes wonder whether we still can be shocked. Will the Patriot kill the Scud? If the Scud lands, will it have nerve gas in it? From launch to explosion, a missile attack in the Gulf takes about five minutes.

Yesterday, the air raid sirens went quiet. Kent got his cool back, wrapped up his report and signed off. But we all knew it didn't have to end so innocently. The words, "Now back to the game," never sounded so odd.

When NBC returned to its AFC title game in Buffalo, announcer Dick Enberg barely remembered to mention that the Bills had scored their touchdown to go up on the Raiders by 34-3. "That's sobering news from the Middle East. The perspective changes so dramatically when you get the really important news of the day," said Enberg, adding, "The Bills scored the next play."

As if we needed further illustration of the way our global village has changed, we got it early in the Giants-49ers NFC final from San Francisco. CBS's Scott Pelli, speaking from inside a gas mask in Saudi Arabia, had that you'd-be-scared-to-death-too look as he told Dan Rather, "The air base is under attack." After a few dozen more NFC plays, Rather was back, reporting "a missile war over Saudi Arabia" and showing minutes-old video of the Patriot-Scud conflict. "Boom, down goes the Scud . . . Boom, down goes the other Scud," said Rather, sounding more than a little like John Madden doing a punchy telestrator voice-over.

Vietnam was a disturbing new experience for Americans. Many a family braced itself each evening to listen to Walter Cronkite as he made the sight of the day's horror slightly more bearable with his fatherly manner. Now something basic has changed. Until the Gulf War ends, no TV program is going to be "entertainment" in the safe, traditional sense. We're going to be subliminally on edge in a way we weren't 20 years ago. During Vietnam, civilians back home felt empathy for those at war. Now, as "fourth and goal" and "incoming missiles" chase each other across our screens, doesn't it feel as though modern times have transported us halfway to the battlefield itself?

The jarring juxtaposition of war with sports -- especially a violent sport like football -- puts our emotions in a special quandary. Football uses small, manageable versions of warlike emotion to give us the thrill of battle without much of the lethal danger. It's commonplace in war reporting to note that battle elicits both the most exhilarating and the most frightening emotions of which we're capable. Many who survive combat find civilian life tame.

Much of football's popularity is grounded in this ugly little truth. Playing the game is a rush because it's dangerous and all our animal adrenaline systems kick in spontaneously. Watching the sport is a milder version of the same thing. But when Joe Montana goes deep one minute and Saddam Hussein shoots a real missile the next, we have a true emotional conflict. The little, manageable football emotion we've learned to enjoy like a tame pet -- blitz 'em, sack 'em -- grows up in a split second into the feeling that fuels real war. The passion for aggression and domination that makes Lawrence Taylor an American hero is not as far removed as we might wish from the personal qualities that may motivate Saddam to invade his neighbors.

To shift, in a second, from enjoying the violence of football to feeling traumatized by reports of the violence of war is an emotional whiplash. It speaks to the power of sports that the fourth quarter of the Giants-49ers game was so excellent and exciting that it completely expunged for a short while any thoughts of those captured pilots being paraded, blindfolded, through Baghdad.

Even the historic final play of that game had the war as a sort of subtext. The sideline Giants, kneeling in a circle of prayer as Matt Bahr lined up his winning field goal, looked . . . well . . . very silly. Bahr, the hero, seemed far more in touch with the moment. As he ran off the field, he waved the yellow armbands his team had worn to honor the allied troops. Doing a tough job under enormous pressure, he seemed to say, was definitely possible.

Besides, shouldn't the teams in the Super Bowl, the Bills and Giants, be two of only three in the NFL whose team colors are red, white and blue?

Despite the thrills in "Giants Bahr Threepeat," we may not feel as comfortable as usual around TV and radio in coming weeks. If it is release from stress that we need, the impulse to hit "off" will be strong. "Mystery" and "Cosby" can be preempted too. Our electronic escape sanctuaries, which always seemed so intimate, now feel easily violated.

Because many of us feel so invaded by this war, it's important we not fall into the trap of regarding everything that's not war-related as trivial, or almost shameful. Sports -- like cooking, gardening, fishing and our countless other pastimes and passions -- did not suddenly shrivel in the last week. Sports was fascinating, valuable to us but not terribly important then. Same now. In fact, if we ever needed our emotional refuges, now is presumably the time.

After yesterday's experience, however, a lot of us are probably going to watch less sports on TV for a while. Maybe we'll go to a game instead. Worrying about the Persian Gulf War at times of our own choosing is bad enough without wondering whether Jim Kelly's next pass will start its flight as a football but land in our living rooms as a nerve-gas warhead.