BOSTON — ''I can't believe we'll go to war,'' says one neighbor to another, chipping ice off a car window on a January morning. The two are amateurs on war. But then so are the experts. The neighbors seek some small comfort from the exchange.
''Something will happen at the last minute to stop it,'' says an acquaintance at the check-out counter. He says this with bravado or is it denial or perhaps bewilderment?
In a dozen such daily exchanges, I sense the surreal quality to this approaching war. The pre-war maneuvers have been so deliberate, so apparently rational, as to appear somehow ''unwarlike.'' And so, war seems incredible.
Never in our lifetime have Americans walked up to war with such a strangely studied pace. We approach this battle without battle cries. The occasional claim that Saddam Hussein is a ''madman,'' his cry that Americans will ''swim in their own blood,'' carries a melodramatic edge that merely seems more unreal.
Indeed, the international air is as full of claims to reason as promises of destruction. In Geneva, hopes for peace are --ed, but with civility. Negotiators and ambassadors who appear for post-meeting interviews are intransigent but cool, diplomatic. Enemies are polite in their television-ready responses and television-friendly suits.
Again and again, the president says that if only the Iraqis ''got it,'' if only they understood what was in store for them, they would withdraw. As the Congress debated the use of force, it was hard to realize how swiftly the competition to appear most rational, most righteous, can deteriorate into a killing field.
This time, if the worst happens, we won't need a historian, a future Barbara Tuchman, to describe in retrospect the march of folly. The tragic miscalculations, of leaders and people, are right there in front of us. We are watching our own pre-war archives, in the news reports, in the press conferences, in the videotapes.
We have on record the first, vast miscalculation by the Iraqis that the world would let them take over Kuwait. We have in full color the miscalculation that brinksmanship would succeed. And we have ample evidence of the equally vast miscalculation by Americans that we could have a war without everything that ''war'' is.
In the latest polls -- the means by which most Americans now assuage their sense of powerlessness in this democracy -- 63 percent of Americans say that we should go to war if Iraq doesn't withdraw. But when the human costs are factored in, how quickly that support drops.
What if it means 1,000 American lives? people were asked. Only 44 percent said they were in favor of war. Ten thousand lives? Only 35 percent would go to war. When Rep. Les Aspin cavalierly suggests that casualties of ''3,000 to 5,000 with up to a thousand deaths'' would be an acceptable price, his lines are jammed by protests.
What will future historians make of this? That we wanted a war without any dead? War rarely comes that way.
Our inability to really see war, to believe in it, may be a byproduct of confusion. Or perhaps it's because of the months we have spent waiting and watching. We may have been lulled by the endless previews, the familiar cast of characters, the scenarios played over so many times they seem scripted.
It has seemed at times like play-acting. Americans are well trained as an audience, people who wait to see what happens next, whose problems are solved by the end of the show. Will historians write about our behavior with the same irony they reserve for the Europeans before World War I?
Barbara Tuchman wrote about the folly of political leaders: ''Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps.''
This time, we all sit at the edge of this road, equally in thrall. We watch as these ''practitioners'' drive two cars on a collision course. They are not careening madly, but (this is most unsettling of all) driving consciously, studiously, deliberately, head on.
Everything seems under control. Right up to the moment of impact.