In downtown Baltimore, the U.S. senator talks of war and creases of pain seem to etch themselves into his face. In Annapolis, the retired three-star general talks of air power such as the world has never seen. In Pikesville, a mother screams halfway around the globe to her son.
''Come home, come home, come home,'' the mother cries into a telephone.
''I can't,'' the son says, stifling his own sobs.
The son is 20. He is poised somewhere between adolescence and adulthood and is trying to figure out precisely where. He is living in Israel now, studying the Torah at an Israeli university and hoping to survive what looks like the coming of war.
Nations are drawing lines in the sand, and the mother wants her son back home, and the boy is drawing his own lines.
''I want you home,'' the mother says.
''I belong here,'' the boy says.
He tells his mother he has a place in the coming struggle. Civilians are donning military uniforms. The ones like him, the foreign students, are to replace the civilians. Life, somehow, must go on.
In Annapolis, the military man describes lives in the Persian Gulf ending abruptly. He is retired Lt. Gen. John H. Cushman Sr., former commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which is now stationed in the Persian Gulf.
''No one can be clairvoyant,'' says Cushman, an Annapolis resident now, weighing his words carefully, ''but it seems to me that in a matter of hours, not days, Iraq's air force would be destroyed by the coalition forces.''
Cushman speaks with much familiarity. Two months ago, he completed a study of combat possibilities in the Persian Gulf for Harvard University's Program on Information Resources Policy. The study is called ''Command and Control of Theater Forces: Issues in Mideast Coalition Command.''
While the Iraqi air force was being wiped out in hours, Cushman suggests, a concurrent attack would be launched against its surface-to-surface missiles.
''The coalition force,'' he says, ''has almost perfect real-time intelligence. In other words, as Iraqi missiles move, we pick them up. The movements are detected virtually immediately, and our air strikes can be pinpointed. . . . I'd expect that within two days, at the most, there would be virtually no Iraqi missiles left.''
Cushman, a veteran of three combat tours in Vietnam, conjectures that Saddam Hussein might, at this point, ''realize that further fight would be fruitless, and cease fire. But we can't underestimate his obsession with becoming a martyr in the Arab world.
''So war might continue. It might take two weeks or more to
devastate the Iraqi formations in Kuwait. But I cannot see how Hussein could continue to resist, considering the punishment day after day from the air.''
In downtown Baltimore, a U.S. senator sees it differently. He is Paul Sarbanes. A week ago, he was one of 47 senators who voted against taking military action. Now he braces himself against a frisky winter wind and wraps a scarf tightly around his neck.
''Why does there have to be war?'' he asks. ''The president had this Hussein right where he wanted him. Why didn't he just say, 'Look, I have a big country to run here. Call me when you come to your senses?'
''And then,'' says Sarbanes, ''let the sanctions take effect. Put him in a corner and squeeze. Would sanctions work? Would the coalition hold? It's a risk, of course. But we're supposed to be the leaders, and yet we're the ones saying, 'We don't think it can hold.' ''
He says he has just seen a private poll on the war: 67 percent of Americans want to use force. But, asked if they'd want war if a thousand Americans would have to die, only 42 percent still want force. And, asked if they'd want war if 10,000 would die, only 33 percent still want force.
''What are they thinking about?'' Sarbanes asks. ''Do they think this is a movie? There are possibilities here for thousands and thousands of casualties.''
In Annapolis, John Cushman declares, ''Great results can be achieved with small losses."
"Of course,'' he quickly adds, ''any casualties are too many. And nothing is solace to a family of a casualty.''
In downtown Baltimore, Paul Sarbanes says, ''If Saddam Hussein can't export his oil, then he can't get money to import anything. So he has to give in over time. Isn't that better than people dying?''
In Pikesville, a mother hears her son say he will not flee from the war. The boy's grandfather watches his daughter, and listens to his grandson's words filtering through the telephone. The boy says he is not frightened. The grandfather puffs up his chest a little.
''Youth,'' he says. ''Bravado.''
A television set brings the latest news from the Persian Gulf: President Bush's deadline passes and Saddam Hussein is not budging. Out of his daughter's earshot, the old man talks of generations changing roles.
''Deep down,'' he says, ''I'm very proud my grandson's not a coward. But I don't want to see my daughter bleed. This is her only child. She wants to respect his opinions, but she wants him to be alive.''
So people brace themselves. A retired military man talks hopefully of precision strikes but realizes that some Americans will die. A senator wonders why anyone has to fight at all. And a mother wonders why her son had to choose now to express his adulthood, and when she will hear from him again.