The people in the Bush administration charged with figuring out the cost in dollars, lives and devastation if war occurs in the Middle East are getting frightened.

Nobody - certainly not President Bush or his top aides - knows whether war will break out. Mercifully, Bush is determined not to start a war.But that may not be enough to prevent war; those in the White House know that war is perilously close.

Figures such as $1 billion a day and tens of thousands of body bags are quietly being discussed. Oil could go quickly to $65 a barrel and a worldwide depression would be likely.

If there is war, someone has to be in charge of being sure the nation is ready.

Struck by the parallels between what they're doing during the day and the fascinating tableau of what the nation went through between 1861 and 1865, many of the people working on the Middle East crisis have been drawn at night to their TV sets or VCRs to watch the superb series about the Civil War on PBS.

In many ways, the haunting, close-up photographs of the handsome youths who died in the bloodiest fighting the nation has seen are reminders of the jaunty, can-do modern men and women in Saudi Arabia who say "hello" to their families every morning on the TV talk shows.

As the nation has been moved by listening to the elegant, poignant words of another generation of reluctant warriors, so too is it listening to a new generation's sometimes awkward but always wrenching letters home.

Bush's speechwriters know that personalizing a thought and making an image real are crucial to communication; that's why Bush chose excerpts from a letter written by a young Tennessee soldier to state his case for being in the Persian Gulf to Congress not long ago.

But it is that same personalization and imagery that contribute to a nation's pain when war is remembered. Day by day, through the media, the 150,000 Americans sent to the gulf are becoming real to those back home.

Those in the White House are watching Saddam Hussein's intransigence and puzzling moves with alarm. They don't know how to read him or predict what he'll do. They know that a flashpoint could come any time.

And just as the toilers in Bush's vineyard watched Abraham Lincoln age from photograph to photograph, they have begun to study their man with some anxiety for signs of stress.

As the gulf stalemate continues, they're beginning to see it in Bush: A tinge of impatience, a tightening of the mouth, a worry in the eyes that didn't use to be there, a new emotional cast to the voice, wrinkles that seem deeper by the week.

Lincoln was determined to preserve the union. Bush is a stubborn man who will not back down in demanding an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait.

His success in building an international coalition through the United Nations is a carefully constructed insurance policy that won't permit him to back down, start a war or give in to demands for negotiation.

If there is war in the Middle East, it wouldn't be a one-day wonder, as in Grenada, or a three-day Panama invasion. White House calculations are that the United States would win - but only with a serious loss of lives on all sides and at a cost of tremendous damage to the U.S. and world economies.

Worse yet, it would not settle the Middle East tensions that bubble up decade after decade. It would not remove nuclear weapons or terrorism from the area. It would inflame Arab hatred for the United States.

Somehow, in all the hand-wringing by diplomats around the globe, a peaceful resolution has to be found that will not be seen as a defeat for Bush or Saddam.

Otherwise, the letters being written by pencil stubs on gritty paper in the Saudi desert and the forced cheerfulness on young televised faces could become the fodder for another documentary.

As the PBS series reminded us so rivetingly, war is not glamorous.