BOSTON — Boston. THE PRESIDENT will spend Thanksgiving in the desert. So will Americans, some 240,000 of them. They will spend their day as part of a unit instead of a family. There will be letters from home. There will be reports for the television cameras. Some of the soldiers will even unwrap the holiday gift baskets being sold that are full of bubble gum and Cracker Jacks and Jujyfruits, as if the soldiers were kids at camp.
All these signs tell us that we are at war again. Not war in the sense of fighting and dying. Not yet. We are at war in the sense of families separated, daily lives disrupted, men and women transported suddenly to foreign places to wait in loneliness and fear for what will happen next.
This is not new to us. The Thanksgiving image most imprinted in our national memories was done when we were at war. It was 1943 when Norman Rockwell painted his family dinner to illustrate Roosevelt's ''Freedom from Want.''
But that Thanksgiving Americans knew what we were doing abroad. That year, home was really the home front. During World War II, our self-image was of a peaceful people driven to combat. We were the Yankees, the G.I. Joes, the brave and disorderly freedom fighters, the rank amateurs of Hollywood films who could nevertheless, when push came to shove, fight back.
What has changed in this half-century? Today, when the president talks of defending ''our way of life'' we don't visualize four freedoms, but great tankers of oil. At home, we are not called on to ration gas, but expected to use it at will. There is no Pearl Harbor to remember.
What else has changed? Today, our troops are volunteers, professionals. Of every 100 recruits, ten sign on ''to serve their country,'' 39 for college money, 26 for a job or job training. Ask them what they are doing in Saudi Arabia and most will say they are doing their job. These are people with a difficult duty, a bad deal, but not a cause.
Finally, what has changed most? Americans are no longer seen as the world's liberators. Indeed, we may be becoming its mercenaries.
In this ''unified,'' ''international'' ''allied'' effort, the world has deplored Saddam Hussein. But we have deployed the troops. The British have offered the fiercest fighting words. But only 16,000 soldiers. The Kuwaitis have given us the reason to fight. But only 3,000 fighting men. The Japanese allotted $2 billion with strings attached. But no soldiers.
We are in this ''together.'' Some 240,000 American troops and some 450 Canadians. The Kuwaiti royal family ensconced in the Taif Sheraton and the American foot soldiers dug into the surrounding desert.
There is, it appears, unified world opinion that we should stop Saddam Hussein. Along with the Saudis, it is our show, our $80 million or more a day, our men and women. Just as we expect our working class to do our fighting, it seems that the world
expects our country to do its policing.
After half a century of war and cold war, of military actions and buildups, I am afraid that conflict has become our specialty. Japan makes cars. France makes fashion. Korea makes televisions. We make wars. Wars 'R' Us.
I do not say this as a pacifist, although I have grave misgivings about this Desert Shield adventure. There are just wars and just causes. The world has reasons to stop aggression.
But we have come to assume the job as international cop, and the rest of the world has come to depend on us as good cop and rail against us as bad cop. We have sadly staked our last, lingering claim to be Number One on the battlefield.
If Mr. Hussein is ''another Hitler,'' if Iraq is close to having a nuclear weapon, then it is not only our cause for alarm. If we are merely alarmists, there is no reason to go it alone. When the world looks casually to America for a low-cost protection, an international security system, it is time to prick the balloon of that fantasy. This is not how we see ourselves. We are not the world's mercenaries.
In that famous Thanksgiving poster of another home front, another era, Rockwell celebrated America's freedoms. The faces around that table exude the ease of a people confident of their moral stand. But that confidence is hard to find this holiday. In the desert, we are threatening to squander not only our people and our wealth, but the truly American ''way of life.''