WHAT IF a shooting war started in the Persian Gulf and no one in the United States could agree on why we were there? It's a sign of the postmodern era we live in that multiple versions of the same reality coexist side by side. And it is also a reason why any domestic political consensus could crumble very quickly if the U.S. were drawn into a long and costly war.
There is, to begin with, the Hitler-marches-again reality. Many people, especially those old enough to remember the events leading up to World War II, see the invasion of Kuwait as a replay of Hitler's march into Austria, when he dared the rest of the world to do anything about it. Then when he wanted a chunk of Czechoslovakia, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain -- backing down in the interest of ''peace in our time'' -- let him get away with it. The result was further aggression and world war. For those who interpret the current crisis this way, the lesson of history prescribes clearly what we need to do: Hit Saddam Hussein early and hard.
But there is also the war-for-oil reality. In some publications of the left, and at campus protest rallies, the Gulf crisis is being pictured as essentially a battle to make the world safe for the big oil corporations and for America's gas-guzzling way of life. From this point of view, there is no justification for excessive expenditures of human lives or public money.
Then there's the emerging-world-order story, which appears to have become the consensus reality among government and media elites. According to this scenario, the Gulf crisis is essentially the first test to a post-Cold War system of global peacekeeping. A successful outcome would be to restore order -- perhaps even to resolve some of the chronic tensions in the region -- without having to resort to warfare.
Another story getting considerable attention in some intellectual circles is the North-South conflict interpretation. The Gulf crisis is seen as evidence of a fundamental shift of alignment in world politics, in which the Cold War enmity between Communist East and Capitalist West is replaced by enmity between the poor nations of the South and the big powers of the North.
Each of these interpretations makes a certain amount of sense, and some of them are more or less compatible with others. But there are major differences, and they could add up to big trouble for the United States if the present standoff escalates into a shooting, gassing and bomb-dropping war.
A nation can't fight a war, particularly a prolonged and expensive war, without a consensus among its people and its leaders on what the war is about. Social consensus, especially in democratic societies, is as important as military and industrial power.
In some of its wars, notably World War II, the United States was able to achieve a strong consensus. The story was clear, the good guys and the bad guys readily identifiable, the effort justified. This was helped along enormously by the mass media: Popular songs about servicemen and their loyal girlfriends, Rosie the Riveter and movies about John Wayne going over the top.
But in more recent military conflicts, notably Vietnam, consensus unraveled spectacularly. Irreconcilably different stories about what the war was about competed for public attention. The official, we're-the-good-guys reality was challenged in the marketplace of ideas by views of the United States as a champion of dictators and oppressor of liberation movements. The center did not hold.
So far the U.S. government has been able to get public support without really having to put it to the test. President George Bush has been extremely effective in engineering diplomatic consensus among leaders of other countries, and reasonably effective in engineering political consensus among congressional leaders of both parties. Polls have generally registered public approval of his actions.
But the domestic political consensus could crumble very quickly if the United States were drawn into a long and costly war. The protest movement is already there, waiting in the wings -- and on the campuses. The New York Times recently cited a poll showing that, although Americans overwhelmingly support Mr. Bush's goals, 9 out of 10 are not ready to start a war. Even more serious in terms of the likelihood of maintaining a strong social consensus if war came, more than 40 percent indicated they would not fully trust the government's story of who had caused it.
Multiple realities -- different stories about what is happening and why -- abound in open and pluralistic societies. They are what freedom brings, and they are also, in a sense, the price we pay for it. They make it extremely difficult for a mass democracy like the U.S. to go to war -- especially to stay in a war -- however great its military might.
*Political scientist Walter Truett Anderson's recent books include ''Reality Isn't What It Used To Be'' and ''To Govern Evolution: Further Adventures of the Political Animal.''