NEW YORK — War, we now know, has changed as much as everyday life over the past two decades; the new technologies are both wonderful and merciless. There is a terrible symbolism in the fact that it is in Arabia, in the land of Islam, that the United States, the agent of change in the world, is trying to destroy (or decapitate) a half-modern Muslim nation with new weapons we call ''smart.''
It is symbolic, too, or ironic, that one of the best current analyses of the events in the Persian Gulf does not mention them. ''Our Universal Civilization'' by V.S. Naipaul, in the current New York Review of Books, is an attempt to come to grips with the conflict between ''the West,'' or universal modernity and change, and the angry passion of fundamental, or medieval, Islam.
Iraq? Kuwait? George Bush? Saddam Hussein? Places and names are not central to Mr. Naipaul's thesis. Passing events are like sands in the desert, like the confrontations between the Crusaders from the West and the Arab defenders of the East in the thousand-year struggle over holy places and ideas, old and new. You cannot read or think about Mr. Naipaul's argument without realizing that this new crusade, too, will come to no good end.
He begins by remembering an encounter 11 years ago in Indonesia -- a country that is Muslim though obviously not Arab -- with a young man, already 28 years old, who wanted above all to be a poet, to live a life of the mind. But he could not tell this to his mother, though she was a woman of culture and elegance.
How could this be? Because, the young man's professor told Mr. Naipaul, ''She would find this absurd. She would reject it as an impossibility.'' To her, a reader of the sacred texts of her culture, all the poetry necessary had already been written. It had only to be learned, not changed or supplemented. If there is a Christian (or Jewish) equivalent, it would be a boy telling his mother he had decided to write a new book of the Bible.
''Islamic fundamentalism'' as a modern explanation for such things, or for anything at all, surfaced only 10 years or so ago with the Iranian revolution. Only eight years ago, in Pakistan, when intellectuals were trying to reconcile the tenets of the faith with modern progress, I asked an important teacher in that country how he would preserve the old ways against the universal pressures of outside changes.
''Preserve the way people live here?'' he said in perplexity. ''Why would anyone want to do that?''
I accepted that. Why indeed? Islam as an all-encompassing system of culture, politics and economics dictated by the Koran and interpreted by intellectually narrow religious leaders, may have worked in the hard deserts of the Middle East and the Middle Ages, but it could not truly complement modern life.
But my friend in Pakistan was wrong. Not far to the north, Afghani men were going to war against the might of the Soviet Union because the Soviets were modernizers who wanted to change the old ways, who most particularly wanted to educate and ''liberate'' women. Islam was used there to reject modernity; it was held up as a perfect shield against change.
''Immensely satisfying, that renunciation,'' said Mr. Naipaul. ''But is intellectually flawed: It assumes that there will continue to be people striving out there, in the stressed world, making drugs and medicines.''
And missile-guidance systems, smart bombs and all the deadly paraphernalia to lacerate the Iraqis. The only defense for Saddam Hussein, who had been a secular, anti-fundamentalist Arab leader, was to retreat behind the old shields of perfect faith. A Moroccan journalist, quoted in Time magazine, accepted that to the point of saying: ''I don't care if he is a fascist. At least he doesn't gamble and chase women.''
To us, that is a world turned upside down. It means that the enemy we have chosen will not accept defeat, will call it martyrdom and victory instead, proof of the endless hostility of the Universal Civilization.
This time it is the U.S. that represents the civilization many Muslims want to reject. Except as faraway descendants of the Crusaders, we have rarely touched or been touched by Islam. The anti-modern anger and poverty of millions of Muslims is fundamentally a European problem, as it has been for centuries. After the assimilation of Eastern Europe, the next phase of European history will be a fearful and sometimes violent coming to grips with the inexorable movement north and west of expanding Muslim populations.
''Philosophical hysteria,'' Mr. Naipaul's phrase, will be the reaction of the latest Islamic martyrdom to the smartness of the Universal Civilization. The passion cannot win, he says, but will survive in suffering and hatred. That is what you feel walking through Palestinian refugee camps on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Quite rationally, you sense the passion of other men. ''Philosophical diffidence meets philosophical hysteria,'' he writes, ''and the diffident man is, at the end, more in control.''
In his lecture, Mr. Naipaul quoted something Joseph Conrad wrote in 1896:
''A half-naked, betel-chewing pessimist stood on the bank of the tropical river, on the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless, empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips. . . . ''
There are men standing at the edge of the deserts, too. They will be there still when we return home to build even smarter weapons to kill them if we think it is once again necessary.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.