My old high school friend sat across from me, nursing a Heineken. He didn't want to talk about the Gulf War, but I insisted.

He'd been a U.S. Army captain at the time, commanding U.S. troops that swept across the Iraqi front line trenches, quickly breaking the resistance of thousands of Saddam Hussein's conscript soldiers, who surrendered en masse—or tried to.

“They made it look like a video game on CNN,” I began. “But I'm sure it wasn't.”

He snorted, and took a gulp. “It was just about that easy.

The fighting part, I mean—after we'd bombed the daylights out of them for months, then shelled them for more than 24 hours. We barely had to show up for those guys to throw down their guns and beg us to take them captive.“ My friend shook his head and looked away. “I wish we could have.”

He took a deep breath, and waved for another beer. “After so many thousands of prisoners, the order came down that it was endangering our men to capture any more. There were so many at once—it seemed like a trick. So we called in the bulldozers.” No one knows how many of those soldiers were trying to surrender, since U.S. forces stopped offering them the opportunity, as the Pentagon has admitted.

My friend, the veteran, shoved his empty glass away. “I had to give the order, order men who drove the earthmovers to just cover up the trenches. To bury those poor bastards alive.”

“Try telling that in confession,” he continued. Before he enlisted, he'd himself been a seminarian. “I had to. I said to the priest ‘I buried hundreds of men alive.’ And I told him why—how if I'd disobeyed orders I should have been shot for insubordination on the battlefield. He didn't know what to say.” The priest asked if he was sorry, and my friend said he sure was. He gave the soldier absolution.

I asked him if he would do anything like that again. He said, “Not unless they order me to.” Then he waved for another drink. “That's war.”

My friend was discharged honorably, and now leads a normal life. I won't vouch for his dreams. Thousands of Americans who fought for our country in World War I and World War II, in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War served with distinction, endured the anxiety, tedium and terror of military service and came out all right. They look back warmly on the friendships they forged, with pride in deeds of courage and self-sacrifice.

Good men, thrown into a man-made hell—the battlefield, where human beings are expected to butcher each other—can come out with their characters intact, even refined. Think of those veterans of Gettysburg, who put on their tattered uniforms 50 years later to cross the hallowed battlefield and greet their former enemies, shaking hands. (The moving moment was captured on silent film.) That reunion inspired another, held in 1994 at Normandy.

Not all soldiers do so well. Men with weak moral training, with fragile psyches or lousy luck may not emerge from the killing fields with medals and memories, then return to lives of peaceful retirement. We've all seen the media stereotype of the tragic Vietnam vet, tortured by flashbacks.

Still worse things can happen.

In Germany after World War I, ex-soldiers still in love with war formed the nucleus of the Nazi party.

But it's not a “German thing,” this intoxication with killing that can infect a human soul. We have our homegrown examples in Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh; in Gulf War graduate and urban sniper John Allen Muhammad; in the five veterans of the Afghanistan campaign who killed their wives at Fort Bragg, NC., this summer; in Robert Flores, the Gulf War veteran who on Oct. 28 murdered three faculty members and then himself at the nursing school from which he was flunking out.

There will be more. If the United States sends its troops to conquer Iraq, to bomb its cities, defeat its armies and disarm its dictator, some men will return physically sound but morally broken. Having crossed to the other side—to the place where killing is allowed, encouraged, demanded—they will not be able to return. They'll be a threat to their neighbors, their spouses, their teachers and themselves. Dispatched into hell, they'll bring it back with them.

Of the men who fight our wars, only a very small percentage are killed or wounded. Still fewer are psychologically ruined, like McVeigh. But who knows how many of our men (and nowadays, women) will be faced with the crushing temptation to abuse the awful power that comes to soldiers of a winning army—to obey immoral orders, wreak devastation on cities, to pile up enemy civilian dead if it might save our soldiers' lives?

Our record in Vietnam and Kuwait is not encouraging—not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Of course, it is not the soldiers who start wars. It is civilians, sitting in safety, far away. When men are ordered into battle, they do things that are inhuman. It is the men initiating the action, and the citizens who voted them into office, who are ultimately responsible.

That means us.

So as civilians it's our duty to enter war only regretfully, in obedience to “laws of war” that rigorously seek to spare civilians of enemy countries, treat enemy soldiers humanely and take as few lives as possible.

I'm not saying we shouldn't fight wars. I've read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I hope her ghost arises to haunt the pacifists out there. I've seen the footage of our men liberating the Nazi camps. I wish President Roosevelt had rained some of the bombs that annihilated Dresden on the rail tracks that led to them.

Sometimes the refusal to fight comes from cowardice, from the selfish unwillingness to defend the innocent.

But a war is only just if it is the last resort, the sane alternative to conquest by tyranny, or to the imminent slaughter of civilians.

That Christian notion—often violated in Christendom—has since become the basis of international law.

President Bush deserves our gratitude if he takes steps to make any action against Saddam a last resort. Because with every war, however just or necessary, we deliver our boys into temptation—as my friend learned on the killing fields.

J.P. Zmirak is author of

Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist,

Global Economist (ISI Books,

Wilmington, Del., 2001).