NO POST-VIETNAM CANARD more easily floats out of conversations than this: if we'd allowed the military to do what it wanted, we would have won the war, and won it fast. This opinion makes two assumptions: that the military establishment knew what it was doing, and that the policy of "gradualism" was foredoomed. The canard is simple and satisfying, like a soft drink. But it not only does not nourish useful reflection, it is positively toxic for a great power which will almost inevitably fight another war before long.

Wars lost, or drawn, invariably give rise to stab-in-the-back theorizing. Self-Destruction is a passionate, almost wholly convincing refutation of such careless apologias in the case of America's war in Vietnam. The subtitle gives it away: "The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era." The author -- "Cincinnatus" -- is a serving officer of the Army. As a polemicist he prefers the bludgeon to the rapier: "basically [America] suffered a military defeat brought about by the ineptness of its soldier leaders."

This ineptness was demonstrated in a thousand ways, and Cincinnatus fastens on most of them. They are familiar to anyone who reads the depressing postwar literature, but nowhere are they as ably marshaled: set down with that taut inflection of merciless rigor and passion that, depending on the rigor, characterizes the most compelling polemics.

The Army's strategy, according to Cincinnatus, was a strategy made by men manifesly ignorant of history or utterly incapable of learning from it. It ignored specifically American insurgent or partisan or "Ranger" campaigns. The Army fought its war as though it imagined itself on the plains of Western Europe, campaigning against massed conventional forces. Configured to fight against large units, it made only clumsy efforts to adapt to the tactical imperatives of a war in which the enemy fought in patient little clusters that the local hamlets and villages frequently sustained. Its attempts at pacification were fitful and half-hearted. Its efforts at attaining a sympathetic understanding of the society and culture it was ordered -- somehow -- to defend, were but rarely prolonged. Its tactics (the author's half-dozen pages of analysis of battalion-size search-and-destroy operations constitute a devastating indictment) were hidebound and predictable. oIt punished its own critics by ignoring their criticism or by failing to promote them.

Cincinnatus' authorial sins are not those of most polemicists. There is no hysteria; there are no unsubstantiated assertions, no malicious glee. But two considerations, both vital to his subject, are skimped. The first is the question of "grand" strategy -- whether we should have fought the proverbial land war in Asia at all. The second -- one is impelled to speak up in the Army leadership's behalf -- has to do with the whole sociology of the American military professional: who he is, what is the nature of his talent, how he is educated.

If indeed we should have fought in Vietnam, could American society, could the American political system, possibly have accommodated itself to the long, long haul to which the author's strategy of "pacification," and nation-building, most surely would have committed us? It is not likely. Such is the consequent liability of any Western industrial democracy. The Army went after the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese; the latter aimed at the American media.

As to the second consideration: It is apparent that the minds and characters which are attracted to military careers and are likely to move smartly to positions of leadership within the institution are rarely those capable of bringing fresh and imaginative solutions to the great questions of strategy which such wars as Vietnam invariably pose. It is idle for Cincinnatus to imagine that such unbordered spaciousness of intellect should have been found in large supply among the generals who commanded in Vietnam from 1960 to 1973. After all, they had entered the service between 1930 and 1945, and were trained and educated, assigned and promoted according to the habits and institutional values of a military era which could not (or, in any case, did not) foresee what might be required in such a war.

Self-Destruction notes that lost wars are redeemed in the lessons the defeated armies learn from them. The author's faith in military education (there is much talk of seminars and courses in ethics and moral behavior and the like) is naive and touching; but armies cease to be authoritarian in their organizations, and until their officer corps are filled up with men who habitually put the dictates of lively intellectual consciences ahead of the allurements of success, no reform of the sort Cincinnatus wants will really occur in our or any other army. In his great essay on Coleridge, J. S. Mill wrote that "There is no philosophy possible where fear of consequences is a stronger principle than love of truth." The consequences of speaking up and out, for an officer of the Army of the Vietnam period, remained sufficiently daunting to keep most careerists in line. In addition to which, there was the invariable litany heard almost enough to be believed: "Stay, and work within the system."