NEVER ONE TO MINCE words, former president Richard Nixon lays it on the line in his new book, up front on page four: "We are at war."

Worse, we are so "lost in uncertainty or paralyzed by propriety" that we may well lose. The enemy is Soviet communism (not to be confused with the Russians, as such, who are strong and generous, or the Chinese communists who are anti-Soviet, at least for now). And the Soviet communists, you better believe, are not playing the game the way Americans like to play, "by the Marquess of Queensberry rules."

The Soviet communists are "street fighters . . . lions stalking their kill . . . man-eating tigers . . . piranhas." "When they go to take a bite out of the world, the Soviets are not fussy eaters," Nixon writes, adding: "Lately, the Soviets have been picking their teeth in the Horn of Africa."

So much for the style. By now, you will have also gotten some sense of the general drift of The Real War. If you like Six Crises , Nixon's early memoir, there is much in his latest work that you won't want to miss. The flavor of The Real War is the same: tough-talking, vindictive, sometimes crude, often self-serving, angry, apocalyptic.

But the context, of course, is entirely different. This is not the Nixon of 1962: truculent, self-pitying and apparently over-the-hill politically. Nor is it, God help us, a new Nixon. But it is a Nixon with a new perspective; an elder-statesman/historian, looking back upon six years in the White House, two terms as vice president and a stint in the Senate; reflective, seasoned, concerned. This Nixon does not speak disparingly of the "Truman-Acheson-Hiss foreign policy"; he actually quotes Acheson approvingly.

He quotes no end of people, not all approvingly: Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Joseph Stalin, Lenin, Alexis de Tocqueville, Winston Churchill (and Winston Churchill II), Walter Lippmann, Hugh Sidey, George Marshall, Deng Ziaoping, Douglas MacArthur, Napoleon, Sun Tzu and Sun Yat-sen. But the key witness in his behalf, measured by number of appearances, is British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson, who so "trenchantly defined national power as manpower plus applied resources, times will." This equation is repeated three different times in the book.

National will (perceived, as well as actual), faith, leadership -- those are the missing ingredients in America today, Nixon argues. His book, he says, "is a cri de coeur , addressed not only to our political leaders but to leaders in all walks of life -- to take hold before it is too late, and to marshall America's strengths so as to ensure its survival."

Well, it is certainly a cri . We are having World War III right now, Nixon contends. It started even before World War II ended. The "real war," it turns out, is simply the Cold War, projected indefinitely into the future. "The danger facing the West during the balance of this century is less that of a nuclear holocaust than it is of drifting into a situation in which we find ourselves confronted with a choice between surrender and suicide -- red or dead." Bulwarks against Soviet expansion are crumbling "in one nation after another."

More than once, Nixon gives us roughly the same list of postwar Soviet gains, right up to Afghanistan, elaborating on them at length. In one brief paragraph, he dismisses -- as a consequence of the Soviets behaving so "boorishly" -- a string of their set-backs in Egypt, Chile, Peru, Ghana, Greece, Malaya, the Congo, Oman, the Phillippines. Homegrown nationalist impulses, or successful Western countermeasures do not figure in Nixon's calculations.

Even so, his point of view is widely shared; his cri is worth listening to. How much coeur there is in it, however, is something else again. As an attempt to rally leaders "in all walks of life" it loses at least some of its appeal by the way that it is couched.

After a broad, initial swipe at the "obstructionists" -- which apparently includes anybody of differing view -- Nixon tears into the "trendies," the "celebrities," the "liberals," the intellectual elite in academia and the media, and (perish the thought) most corporate leaders -- "There are few big business leaders I would have put in the ring with a healthy Brezhnev."

When the "chips were down," Nixon says, and he needed support "for the really tough decisions," he got it from labor leaders, small businessmen and "Middle America."

And that, as you might have guessed, explains why we lost the Vietnam War.

"It was not lost on the battlefields . . . It was lost in the halls of Congress, in the boardrooms of corporations, in the executive suites of foundations, and in the editorial rooms of great newspapers and television networks. It was lost in the salons of Georgetown, the drawing rooms of the 'beautiful people' in New York, and the classrooms of great universities."

It was also lost because of "leaks." (The nicest thing about the communist Chinese is that they "never leak.") The need to be able to conduct "private diplomacy" is addressed at length. Woodrow Wilson, Nixon argues, had it only half right; the covenants should be open, he concedes, but they should be secretely arrived at.

And then he turns right around and savages Congress for not supporting his private pledge to South Vietnam to back up the Paris peace accords with U.S. force if necessary -- a pledge he never told Congress about even after it was made.

Is there any hope? Yes, to be fair about it, Nixon does have some positive proposals. He would increase defense spending by 20 percent a year. He would revive the "black arts" of covert warfare. He would build a bigger Navy, reinstitute the draft, launch a crash program to restore real, item-by-item, warhead-by-warhead nuclear parity, intensify American propaganda efforts to "reach through the bars of the prisons, take tyranny by the throat and shake it."

He even hints at the old "rollback" policy. "We should declare that henceforth we will consider ourselves as free to forage on the Soviet side as they have been to forage on ours."

What's missing here is any sense of how, as a practical matter, you do most of these things -- where you get the money, for one thing, not to mention public or Congressional support. Nixon never comes to grips with the question he raises, which is a good one: how does an open society compete in the sort of conflict he describes with a closed, authoritarian society?

Nixon insists he doesn't want to adopt the methods of the enemy. But he suggests, at the same time, that he really does -- "We need not duplicate his methods, but we must counter them, even if that means behaving in ways other than we would choose in an ideal world."

Warming to the very idea, he argues in a confused and platitudinous final chapter that "failure to take whatever means are needed to keep liberty alive would be an act of moral abdication." Whatever means? It was precisely that kind of flawed morality that produced the "plumbers" and the wire-tapping and the other harassments of the war protesters and dissenters. So it should come as no surprise, I suppose, that the argument in The Real War should be similarly flawed.