STEICHEN AT WAR, by Christopher Phillips (Abrams, $40). Edward Steichen, the legendary photographer for Vanity Fair, Vogue and Life "retired" in 1938. With the American entry into World War II, he tried at age 62 to enlist in the Navy. A perceptive officer looked at his papers and boggled: a World War I commission as lieutenant colonel in the Army Signal Corps, a personal commendation from Gen. Pershing, and the Croix de Guerre. The Navy, ever alive to the value of publicity, promptly commissioned Steichen and set up, under his command, the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, a talented crew of former Life, Look and press photographers personally recruited by Steichen. The result, today, is 15,000 spectacular prints and negatives in the National Archives, from which Christopher Phillips has here selected more than 200 duotones. The photographs and the accompanying narrative form a beautiful and moving tribute to all the gallant men who went off to the Pacific war in the carrier task forces.

THE NATURE OF WAR, by John Keegan and Joseph Darracott (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $37.50). No finer introduction to the subject of the warrior and his world could exist than this book. John Keegan is senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and Joseph Darracott is the keeper of the department of art at the Imperial War Museum in London. Keegan, whose recent The Face of War will very likely become a military history classic, writes more movingly about combat than anyone not a poet. Darracott has combed the museums of three continents for the best of military art to illustrate Keegan's text: Durer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Goya's cartoons of Napoleon's atrocities in Spain, Picasso's Guernica, they are all here. Keegan, by no means a drum-and-trumpet man, describes war in Western history--"the unspeakable litany of carnage"--from the aspects of peace, outbreak, heroes and leaders, campaigns, sieges, battles, Armageddon, surrender. His conclusion: just as the balance of terror is making European war obsolete, the prospect in the Third World is for sharper and more terrible wars. One closes this book-- dedicated to "the vision of peace"--with a sense of foreboding but with admiration for the way the authors have handled their subject.

FAMOUS SEA BATTLES, by David Howarth (Little, Brown, $22.50). War at sea, from the Spanish Armada to Leyte Gulf, is David Howarth's subject in this handsomely illustrated book. The illustrations necessarily overpower the text, and the point of view is perhaps overly British, but after all it was Nelson who said, "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy." Helpful diagrams explain the tactics of the sea fights. Is there an aspiring admiral or an armchair Nimitz in your family? Pipe him aboard with this book.