WASHINGTON — Washington. Out in the Cumberland mountains of eastern Kentucky, where they never have hesitated to do their duty, the Mountain Eagle last week printed the names of 51 Letcher countians serving in the Persian Gulf. One of them was a woman, a sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division.
That same day, another 1,100 Kentucky reservists were called to active duty. The former sheriff volunteered to go back on duty. The Pulaski County judge-executive has been called up, and the McCreary County judge-executive, 62 years old, has offered his services. The Whitesburg chapter of MASH -- Mothers Against Saddam Hussein -- is sending packages of ''personal hygiene items" and snacks to troops in Saudi Arabia.
Lonnie Hogg Breeding, whose Eagle column usually concentrates on family reunions and home-town folks far away, helped explain this attitude: ''Mountain people have often been pictured, most of the time falsely, as having many weak characteristics, but I don't believe cowardice was ever among these.
''If old Saddam Hussein knew who he has drawn as a sparring partner, I believe he would pull in his claws. I read once where a man had said after traveling through the mountains that if a war was tossed at him, and he wanted to win, that he would go to the Appalachian mountains to get his his soldiers.''
Mountain men have always had a fierce reputation, but now that is shared by mountain women, Lonnie wrote, citing an ex-schoolteacher's granddaughter who is now a lieutenant colonel of military police in Arabia. ''Watch out, Saddam Hussein.''
If any of those called from the mountains have complained about sharing the burden of war, that has not made the public record. Yet even in Letcher County, there were a few serious citizens who tried to keep America -- their friends, sons and husbands -- out of it.
About 60 gathered at the courthouse in a ''vigil for peace'' the day before fighting started. They carried signs saying ''No War for Oil'' and ''Bring Them Home Alive.'' Unlike some big-city demonstrators, they were not drawn by the prospect of reliving Woodstock, or appearing on television. They were, in Whitesburg, a quiet and lonely little crowd.
Yet since then, they say they have been getting nasty phone calls. Somehow a rumor started that they had burned an American flag. To say the least, that is frowned on in the mountains. It never occurred to them to do such ''a terrible thing,'' said one demonstrator.
A few students from a high school class at the county library saw the gathering and walked over. Someone driving past made a vulgar remark, and a student said something back. As a result, the school board is said to be threatening to fire the class' teacher. This has stirred response in the Eagle's ''Speak Your Piece'' forum.
''I thought this was supposed to be a free country and freedom of speech was one of our rights,'' said one correspondent. So did a parent, who added that ''If anything is done to punish this teacher I assure you some of us parents will picket the school board and they won't get our votes next time.''
All this, obviously, is democracy in action. It mirrors what is happening in Washington, and in a thousand Whitesburgs, as the country goes to war more calculatedly than ever before. Unfortunately, it mirrors the grubby as well as the inspirational aspects of democracy.
In Letcher County, one demonstrator asserted that since fighting has started, she fully supports the effort to defeat Saddam Hussein: ''I hope we'll get it over with and our boys will get out of there fast.'' That is exactly what congressmen who voted to give the president authority to go to war -- and those who voted against it -- are saying here in Washington.
There also are a few here who play the role of the Kentucky man who drove by and made a vulgar remark, those who placed the nasty phone calls, who equate all dissenters with flag-burners, who threaten to fire anyone remotely linked to protest.
The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, for instance, could not wait for his swearing-in to assert that Democrats would pay for their consciences at the polls. Sen. Phil Gramm signed a letter asking funds to defeat ''these wolves in sheeps' clothing, appeasement-before-country liberals.'' Ex-drug czar William Bennett, still politically ambitious, joined the chorus.
Even during wartime, politics drives such men to divide rather than unite the nation. As big-time operators, they should know better, but their conduct matches the nasty remarks and anonymous phone calls that mock free speech in small-town America.