Mixed feelings accompany any plunge into war, but the PersianGulf conflict has raised the uncertainty to a new level. How is a black man to feel? As members of an oppressed, non-white minority, many blacks can understand the deep anger of Arabs at their continued domination by the West. And the high percentages of blacks in elite units such as the paratroops and Marines means blacks are, as in Vietnam, up front in the line to face brutal combat while still being shoved to the back for benefits at home.
That has led some black leaders to protest. How can America ask blacks and other minorities to pay such a heavy price enforcing its priorities halfway around the world when it continues to neglect their priorities at home?
Predictably, some white Americans have tried to brush the complaints aside: Now is not the time. But realistically, there is no finer moment to push the black agenda than when the country needs strong support from all segments. What the blacks are saying is that there is always a bill to be paid. For the extreme sacrifice being asked of thousands of black families, the society which has pushed aside black perspectives should now be required to address black needs.
That is exactly how everybody else in America has operated all along, especially in wartime. A. Phillip Randolph figured that out during World War II, to Franklin Roosevelt's intense discomfort.
Besides, look at how we got here. President Bush, convinced that only force could push Iraq out of Kuwait, pushed uniformed buttons early. While he temporized in public, he had aides cutting orders to the troops through secret military channels. While he telephoned world leaders, lining up a near-airtight embargo, Mr. Bush was working military deals with many countries, including the Soviets, for the upcoming conflict. While he proclaimed the value of diplomacy, Mr. Bush made it all but impossible during a televised shouting match with Saddam Hussein.
To Mideast watchers, that magnified Saddam Hussein's importance in Arab eyes even as it compounded the misunderstandings that made war inevitable.
It is no wonder peace protesters, convinced that another Vietnam is at hand, have taken to the streets. News analysts, toting up counters on the scales of war, point out that most Americans support the president and especially the troops, but note also the rapid shift of opinions likely if many lives are lost.
That is because Mr. Bush failed miserably in the first essential task of a president preparing for a large-scale conflict: explaining to the country, clearly and unequivocally, why its sons and daughters should be prepared to die. Self-interest is an entirely valid reason for war, but Mr. Bush has denied being motivated by the obvious American self-interest in unrestricted Western access to Persian Gulf oil.
Perhaps he was moved by the chant of ''No Blood for Oil,'' but arguing ''liberation'' for Kuwait leads into a worse thicket: what kind of regimes are we trying to preserve?
Self-interest remains, when all is said and done. For despite the wishes of the peace movement, no amount of energy conservation can make a nation of 250 million people independent of outsiders' oil. Modern society isn't built that way. It needs petroleum products for fertilizers to feed its people, lubricants to keep its industries turning, feedstocks to produce its highway and building materials, fibers to make its packaging, textiles and carpeting, chemicals to make its pharmaceuticals, cleaning agents, printer's inks and paints -- even for its mining explosives. And above all, energy, for heating and cooling, transportation and military needs. Oil is not the biggest business in America simply because Americans like to drive, but because it drives so much of everything else.
That is the big difference from Southeast Asia. The Vietnam quagmire came about because of Cold War rivalry, but Iraq's invasion of Kuwait aimed a sword-stroke at critical needs of the industrial world. By main force, Saddam Hussein has tried to become everybody's energy czar, expecting the dissent which makes every democracy a noisy, contentious place to constrain military responses.
Squeeze plays against critical needs can always provoke bloody conflict, however. George Bush is politically wrong for not explaining to the country the economic threat posed by Iraqi control of Persian Gulf resources, and the military threat that would follow if a vastly enriched Iraq got its hands on a first-rate ballistic arsenal.
But Mr. Hussein's Scuds have neatly split the peace movement, and in any case the peace protesters are as far off the mark as Mr. Bush.
This is not a war over ideals, but over necessities. It is not a conflict over unconquerable jungle with unknowable enemies hiding among innocents, but a fight against an enemy government with a visible army over a tangible area. Some international situations cannot be solved without force, ideals aside. Even the Japanese, with their constitutional bars against military action, have agreements that say Americans will take action on their behalf.
And no black man could fail to note the color of the GIs who got blown up in a nightclub in Germany when the people Mr. Hussein claims to represent wanted to make a point to Americans. It is a mistake to believe that the blacks' real problems with the way they have been treated in this country make them any less a part of its destiny. American blood, after all, is all the same color.
So the bottom line is, we'll fight. And yes, we'll win. Mixefeelings aside.