Never in American experience has the nation stepped up to war with such a measured tread. War is, inherently and usually, a passionate undertaking. But not this time. This is a war of policy and reluctance. It is an almost clinical exercise in economizing violence, a meticulously prepared war to obviate the probability of a larger and less predictable war later.

In the 10th decade of a century saturated with war, we know the subject too well to romanticize it or regard it as an anachronism or an aberration in the relations of nations. The fact that this is the first war of the wired world, with every stage televised everywhere, adds to its eerie aura of a violent minuet. Both sides know from the start which side will win militarily.But precisely because the basic military result is predictable, it is crucial to concentrate on this century's central lesson: To know the military winner of a war is not to know the war's outcome. War is a political event, an eruption of violence in a continuum of politics, which will resume, radically altered by war.

The winning and losing nations of the First World War were clear on Nov. 11, 1918. Nothing else was. Later we learned the war's outcome, meaning consequences: pacifism, fascism, the death of empires. Wars have long echoes. Desert Storm is dealing with problems descending from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

During the debates about this well-deliberated war, Iraq's real potential for future power encouraged exaggerations of its current power. Iraq is, beneath a thin layer of imported technology, a brittle, overreaching tin-pot country. This means that this war is, in part, being waged not just to neutralize a threat, but also, perhaps primarily, to make a point.

Two points, actually - one about America, the other about Arabia.

Desert Storm occurs in the 50th year since Japanese torpedo planes at Pearl Harbor punctuated with an exclamation point a long American argument about whether this nation should be an active ingredient in international affairs.

Desert Storm demonstrates that the future will be like the past, only more so. The hope is that a half-century of wars, hot and cold, has yielded to an epoch of rule-writing and that the mighty U.S. sword guarantees the preeminence of the American pen.

There are 21 nations in what is called "the Arab world," but no real democracy. The Middle East has remained a region riven by political primitivism that is fueled by religious fanaticism and tribalism masquerading as nationalism.

A sense of falling further and further behind other modernizing nations exacerbates Arab feelings of cultural inferiority. Perhaps Saddam Hussein thinks he has learned from the past and for that reason is determined to repeat it. In the past, particularly in 1956 and 1967, Arab defeats have purchased prestige in the Arab world, a coin of real if precarious value.

But the way this war began - and, we may hope, will end - may demonstrate, at last decisively, that the locution "Arab world" is merely a geographic, not a political or even cultural, expression.

The claims of similarity and unity are spurious. Remember, regimes governing the majority of Arabs are supporting the U.S.-U.N. position.

Indeed, the war's longest reverberation may be from the fact of Arab participation in the studied punishment of an Arab nation whose crime is transgressing values enunciated most clearly by the United States, the symbol of Western political values and of cultural modernity.

Iraq's fate in the fighting will demonstrate redundantly, that militarism is not an alternative to political modernization.

In the modern age, military proficiency is increasingly a function of scientific, cultural and commercial modernity. The Soviet Union cracked beneath the weight of that great fact, which is one reason Iraq is isolated.

The hope is that this war will be the thin end of a large wedge, sufficient to pry parts of the Arabian peninsula into participation in the modernity that is capable of such technological prowess and moral purpose. Both derive from freedom.