SILVER SPRING. — History -- like life, an uncontrolled experiment -- is the enemy of certainty. We'll never know for sure whether President Bush, as some believe, was a macho fool for taking us into war, or as most of us now think, a hero. Because history happens just once, even hindsight is not 20/20 when it comes to heroes.
We call that man a hero who rushes into a burning house to rescue a child. But what about the man who cleans away the kerosene-soaked rags so that the house never catches fire at all? His more foresightful way of protecting us doesn't even make the papers.
Those presidents we call ''great'' tend to be those who were at the helm during the worst of our storms. Would there be a Lincoln Memorial if he had managed to defuse the issue of slavery and to preserve the union without the awful carnage of our fratricidal war? Would FDR hold so high a place in our national pantheon if, early in his presidency, he had rallied the West to block Hitler before his Reich had gained its irresistible momentum? We never know what might have been.
In the months leading to this war, different groups were animated by different fears. One side of the debate feared, above all, an unnecessary war. The other side feared a dangerous peace. The debate showed how conveniently many people could adjust their ''objective'' assessments to fit their fears.
Those who most feared war tended to be sanguine about the effectiveness of sanctions and the benign consequences of letting the Iraqi dictator save face. Those who feared a resolution that might leave the Iraqi threat intact worried that the passage of time would erode the confluence of factors that made possible the use of force; they advocated a diplomatic strategy that cornered Saddam Hussein and made war more likely.
History will never disclose which was truly the more fearsome: the war Mr. Bush has given us or the peace others sought to preserve.
The ugliness of the war confirms both sides of the debate in their beliefs. The war protesters point to the dead civilians and the repulsive fouling of the gulf waters and declare we should have waited, that all this destruction might have been avoided. Those who counseled for use of force point to the Scuds raining terror on cities and to the same wanton attack on the environment as affirmation that it is a good thing we are dealing with Mr. Hussein before he could put nuclear warheads on those missiles and before he could Saddamize the entire planet.
Has President Bush spared us an even greater catastrophe? In the perspective of a future averted, is this war, as violent as it is, more like cleaning away the flammable rags than like running into a burning house?
I believe that it is like the war against Hitler that never happened in 1935 -- a war we would have thought terrible for the tens of thousands of lives it cost, but that would have averted the war that did happen later, the one that left tens of millions dead and half the world in ruins.
But certainly there is a limit to Mr. Bush's claim to being the kind of hero who prevents catastrophe. For a decade, he has been an integral part of American and Western policy that helped to create the Iraqi machinery of death we are now so violently dismantling. Even up to the very eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Mr. Bush's government was resisting congressional efforts to sanction Iraq and was continuing to encourage the Iraqi megalomaniac in his belief that he could get away with murder.
When it came to grasping the threat Mr. Hussein represented -- to paraphrase Senator Bentsen's famous remark -- George Bush was no Winston Churchill.
It is too bad that our understanding of possible futures is so limited that our greatest praise is for those leaders who lead us into disasters and then successfully out of them, rather than for those who steer us clear of trouble altogether.
The truly heroic work, indeed, now awaits the end of the warrior's display. What we really need from our leaders is that they learn the lessons of our bloody history and be foresightful enough to build the enduring structures of peace. As after this century's two earlier world wars, we must press forward toward the creation of effective global institutions of collective security.
The real work of peace lies in building a world order that rests on a firmer foundation than a single superpower with self-proclaimed righteousness. It lies in addressing the countless wounds on this bleeding planet that, like so many kerosene-soaked rags, are easily sparked into conflagration.
Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System.''