There are few times in the lives of Americans when we come face to face with who we are. For me, in my 38 years, this is one of the clearest. This season, this month, this week has helped me see.

Who are we?Many years from now, books of history will look back on this as a defining moment: We are the nation that stood up to evil when we did not have to.

We stand on the brink of war, and all of us, including the president who may lead us into battle, pray it will not come to that. But even if, as the seconds tick down, Washington and Baghdad find a way to inch back from bloodshed, it will not change what our 400,000 soldiers have taught me.

Who are we?

In a time when great economic powers like Japan and Germany have wrung their hands at the prospect of conflict, when historic nations like England and France have sent to the gulf only a token number of troops, America stands alone as the nation that would not be intimidated by a dictator.

One of the more cheerful telecasts from Saudi Arabia crystallized it for me. I turned the channel and came across footage of Bob Hope entertaining the troops, and then the camera panned to the audience, and there, in this sea of military fatigues, was America.

It was America at its best: lean, strong, young. But the faces reflected an even more important symbol of our strength. Side by side sat white men and black men, Hispanics and Asians; here were dozens of women, here were Catholics, Protestants, Jews - even American Muslims. Here sat the world's greatest experiment in pluralism.

A nation so constituted is not supposed to work. The world today speaks of that. Throughout Eastern Europe, newly free nations are being torn by ethnic rivalries. History has taught the same lesson: differing peoples have seldom found a way to live in harmony under a single flag.

But somehow, here, we've found a way. And the reason is the same reason we are now in the gulf: because America is founded in principles all our differing citizens hold in common - liberty, equality, the right for individuals to live as they please.

Few understand those principles as we do. It is in the blood of virtually all our soldiers in the gulf. Their ancestors - whether they be the first Pilgrims or the Irish, East Europeans and Central Americans who came afterward - almost all came here because of a hatred of tyrants. And yes, many in the gulf are black Americans who've doubtless suffered discrimination, who've seen America at its worst, but they also know what it can be at its best, and that is why they fight, too.

Still, the question lingers: This faraway conflict is not our own fight, so why are we there?

Who are we?

We're a people who understands it is indeed our own fight. It is a fight for something few nations in history have ever fought for - not land, or treasure, or power, not the urge to impose a religion or a system on others, but simply a fight for an idea. The idea of freedom. It's the same idea that brought American faces to be the first seen by liberated victims of Auschwitz 45 years ago, by the people of Paris newly freed from Nazi occupation.

Our soil is not threatened by this invasion, but we are there anyway, in a faraway desert, male soldiers having had babies born in their absence, female soldiers having left children behind, some freely saying they are scared, but that only makes them more admirable, because courage, it is said, is not being unafraid, it's being very afraid, but standing up anyway.

We continue to hold out hope it will not come to blood. But whether it does or not, the moment has still been defined: We are there.

Who are we?

We are the nation that took a stand when it did not have to. This season, this month, this week - we were the one people who had the resolve to lead against a tyrant when no one else would.

That is America.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service