If you are looking for bleak testimony to escalation in the war of words, search no further. In barely one month America has gone from debating whether we should fight the I-raqis at all to talking about whether we should nuke them.

Nuke 'em - the call of the wild hawk - has long been standard fare for the armchair warriors who phone in to radio talk shows. But it's been heard now from some right-wing commentators who moved from believing in apocalypse to advocating it. It's been heard as well from the chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom. And this week, it was a wake-up call from a congressman.On Monday's "Good Morning America," Dan Burton, a Republican representative from Indiana, said that if conventional bombing didn't do the job of knocking out Iraqi troops, we should go nuke. "If we use tactical nuclear weapons, I think it can be effective in getting this war over in a hurry," he said.

So it goes on the Western word front. A war, justified in part by the fear that Saddam Hussein might get the bomb, now becomes a justification for talking about using the bomb.

To a certain degree, nuketalk is another dialect of toughtalk. It's rather like the appalling sight of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney autographing a bomb to the enemy. But the chilling fact is the nuke-appeal to the public.

In a Gallup poll taken Jan. 23-26, a full 45 percent of Americans favored using nuclear weapons "if it might save the lives of U.S. troops." Another 45 percent were opposed. At the height of the Vietnam War, only a quarter of Americans joined the nuke 'em brigade. One week into this war, and we were up to dead even.

In cold military terms, we don't "need" nuclear weapons. We have the same firepower without them. The "Big Blue 82s" we dropped last week each have 12,600 pounds of explosives, as much as a small nuclear weapon without the radiation.

In tactical terms, they have no special value against enemy troops either. We couldn't wipe out Iraqi soldiers with a single nuke unless Saddam convened his army in one place so we could drop a bomb on them. It might take hundreds to decimate the 400 battalions stretched along the front, which would become a nuclear wasteland.

As for political goals, we can't liberate Kuwait by nuking it. Drop the Big One on Baghdad? There are 4.1 million civilians living there. So much for the moral victory. So much for a stable New World Order.

I don't think the nuke 'em sentiment comes out of some bloodthirsty American war rage. Indeed, it may come from the opposite: the public fear and abhorrence of a ground war in which vast numbers of American soldiers could die.

It may also be a byproduct of the real dread about the possible Iraqi use of the "poor man's nuclear bomb," chemical weapons. One horrifying thought seems to provoke and justify the next. One moral wrong gives permission to another.

Americans were taught to believe that nuclear weapons had value, that there was a reason for the cost of building them and the expense of cleaning up after them. To this day, our government on principle won't rule out the nuclear "option."

But we also know that nuclear weapons, like radiation in a fickle wind, carry lethal dangers across borders and generations. An America that broke the taboo in one war could be the victim in the next. The last.

So it is a sad tribute to the brutalizing effect of war. How quickly talk in America has gone ballistic.