WASHINGTON -- In the first dank minutes after midnight, they were drawn to the shrine of America's last war, wondering whether the country would soon be in another.
A spectral figure in a trench coat eased down the path to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial just as the United Nations deadline expired, authorizing military action against Iraq. He stooped to read the names etched in the long, sad granite walls.
"I just want to be here. I feel bad," said the 45-year-old investment banker from Connecticut. "Iraq scares me and bothers me. I'm torn up about it."
He thought of friends listed on the wall, and his eyes welled with tears. "I don't want to lose 55,000 kids again," he said quietly. "This country seems to go to war every 20 years."
"Seems like the place to be right now," said Steve Bishop, 38, a newspaper advertising representative who had just come from the nearby Lincoln Memorial, where he had read the words of the Civil War president over and over.
"I started reading the line, 'these dead shall not have died in vain,' " he said, "and couldn't make sense whether it will be the same in this war." He drifted away.
"Boy oh boy," murmured Dennis Rundell, 37, of Mendota, Ill., as he stood before the wall with some co-workers in the chilly darkness, gazing at the vast sweep of names. The ghostly reflections of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol were on the wall's high-gloss finish.
Young Americans are again poised for war in a foreign land, and Mr. Rundell said he supported the move to force Iraq from Kuwait. "I back my president. I back Congress," he said. "If that's what the decision is, I say we go."
"We may start building another wall," said his friend Susan Willard. "I don't think we belong over there."
Others descended this angle cut into the earth: students and young executives from a demonstration at the White House, a Vietnam veteran whose brother is stationed in the Persian Gulf, a couple who drove past and then made a U-turn back.
"I just came from the White House. I wondered why there are so many people there and so few here," said Scott MacGregor, 29, of Washington. "There's a lot of thinking going on tonight."
As a light rain began to fall, another couple walked the length of the memorial, softly crying, their arms wrapped tightly around each other. The woman stopped at one point, placed her hands against the wall, and began weeping and shaking.
"We were just on our way home, and I just said I wanted to go there," said Jim Singerling of Alexandria, his face lined with tears.
He recalled his own days as an artilleryman in Vietnam. "We just kept firing because it was the right thing to do," he said, as he broke down in sobs. When he came home from war, he said, he was spit at and shunned.
Now he sees the protest buttons sprouting around town, the ones saying "No blood for oil," and wonders whether history will repeat itself. "That's the kind of stuff that hurts the most," he said.
At the base of the wall, tiny American flags and flowers had been left. Tucked among the offerings was a handwritten letter:
"Dearest Comrades: Thank you. Thank you for giving us the most precious gift. You gave your lives in a war which many could not understand.
"I was too young to know what was happening. . . . Today we are at the threshold of another terrible war. I love this country and what it stands for but there has to be a better way.
"We do not need another wall. I along with the rest of the country pray for a peaceful resolution to this situation. Thank you all, we love you.
"Your sons, daughters, friends and neighbors."