It's hard to believe now that only last year the country was in an uproar over flag desecration - with the U.S. Supreme Court finally putting a wet blanket over the fanatics by ruling that "punishing desecration of the flag di-lutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered."

When the Persian Gulf war began, a new approach to the flag was adopted. It was called flag-waving and was often accompanied by yellow ribbons. Flag factories found their business to be rejuvenated beyond their wildest dreams.People bought thousands of tiny flags they could wave in marches to support U.S. troops. People sewed flags on their clothing for every imaginable situation, the most common being sports. Since many people feel as macho about sports as they do about war, it was oddly predictable.

Strangest of all was the common practice of incorporating the flag into the design of every possible article of clothing. By their design, shirts, sweaters and hats reduced the stars and stripes to a current fashion trend.

Once the war was over the emphasis on flag-waving escalated even more. And it seems not to have occurred to most people that relegating the flag to an everyday article of clothing makes it too common. It not only removes it from its pedestal but gives it common, commercial treatment that becomes a form of desecration in itself.

It goes hand in hand with the postwar euphoria that has swept the country. Seeing ourselves as "No. 1," as if the United States had just won a giant Super Bowl, is a little unsettling.

Some scholars have suggested that the relative ease with which we won the war could produce a combat culture, dedicated to increased production of high-tech weapons instead of concentrating on domestic problems.

In other words, the postwar euphoria could produce an addiction to victory. It could produce a United States that sees itself in the old Teddy Roosevelt international policeman role - more inclined to be belligerent toward other countries and less likely to be tolerant of world problems.

Among President Bush's first words about the war were, "By God, we've finally defeated the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."

In welcoming some American troops back home, Bush complimented them for not only liberating Kuwait, but helping this country to "liberate itself from old ghosts and doubts. And when you left, it was still fashionable to question America's decency, America's courage, America's resolve. And no one, no one in the whole world, doubts us anymore."

Then Bush suggested that the troops had also handled the victory with grace. "I'm proud to say that we did it without arrogance around the world. We led without gloating or arrogance. And I think that's an American tradition as well."

I would like to believe that, but bragging that we have rid ourselves of the Vietnam ghost, and that no one will ever doubt our courage again, is, it seems, gloating. It is just too easy to take a certain malicious pleasure in a victorious war.

Instead of crowing incessantly about our easy victory and our low casualty rate, we should be showing a sense of sorrow and compassion for those thousands who died on the Iraqi side. American lives, after all, are no more sacred than Iraqi, Kuwaiti or Israeli lives.

The destruction in the Middle East is devastating, and the rebuilding will take years and years. In the meantime, thousands of people are living in squalor.

And even if it seems far from home for most of us, we should be careful about losing our sense of balance.

Rather than beating our chests about our newly recovered power in the world, we should concentrate on the quiet work of teaching peace. We should put the principle of non-violence back into the center of our lives.

And one more thing. When we wave the flag, we could retain its patriotic flavor by doing it discreetly. Anything sacred that is overused becomes mundane or even abused - the most obvious example being the use of the name of deity.