IN PEACETIME, which one would like to feel is what we have these days, most of us are probably glad to leave problems about the military to professional experts. After all, there are kids to be raised and ambitions to be realized and everything else that makes being at peace better than being at war. The military has always been sort of a bummer, actually, except perhaps for the good memories of camaraderie that soldiers bring home. Other than that, it's nothing that anybody feels like dwelling on much.

Today, unfortunately, this puts us in a real bind. The reason is not just that the military has become our government's biggest business outside of writing checks to individuals, but that the military's premier weapon has a personality otherwise encountered only in nightmares. These two conditions add up to the fact that even though nobody wants to think about the military, nobody can get away from it. This is essentially the message of the recent spate of books about "defense," especially those regarding nuclear warfare.

Nuclear War: What's in It for You? is a valiant attempt to get people to turn off the television and read a book about something extremely unpleasant. It has been put together by an educational group called Ground Zero, under the direction of former National Security Council staff member Roger Molander. Molander evidently decided that the NSC was not the right model for reaching out, because this book has a pop voice that sounds more like the National Football League. His basic instinct is correct, of course--public ignorance about nuclear warfare is due largely to the unwillingness or inability of professional experts to speak plain English. Still, there is a facile jocularity here (in chapter titles, for example: "Four Simple, Easy-to-Use Scenarios for Killing 500 Million People" and "From Toyland to Never-Never Land: The Story of the First Atomic Bomb") that will appeal mainly to school kids. A more serious matter is the tendency of Molander and friends to rely on historical clich,es--a typical fault of the television shows that Ground Zero tries so hard to compete with for attention. The brief discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis places far too much emphasis on the event as a nuclear showdown, and the treatment of ICBM vulnerability vis Ma vis the Soviets buys a lot of the "window of vulnerability" thesis that careful scholarship shows to be political rhetoric. There are also a few technical errors, such as where our missile attack warning system of satellites is said to be "currently invulnerable." But all in all, this book is not a bad place for beginners. It touches the important bases of weapons hardware and strategy, and imparts a healthy dose of cynicism. Lots of people are going into deeper water.

Arthur M. Katz is another member of the federal bureaucracy who is trying to cultivate a wider audience. As a consultant to the Joint Committee on Defense Production, he wrote a 1979 report titled "Economic and Social Effects of Nuclear War on the United States." Life After Nuclear War is based on that work, with considerable input from other government studies. If Katz could have been brought together with the editors of Ground Zero's volume, we might have had a real gem. Katz possesses all of the technical concentration lacking there, but suffers from hamstrung diction (e.g., "Despite the discussion of options created by sophisticated technology, the plausibility of any strategic policy depends oon the projection of the implications--political, military, economic, and social--of the effects of nuclear war"). Nonetheless, the book is a wellspring of information about civil defense and analysis of a society's ability--or inability, as it turns out--to bounce back after even a limited nuclear attack. He shows convincingly that "the effect of nuclear weapons on society and international standing is far more damaging than we have been ready to admit. Therefore, the weapons requirements necessary to create unacceptable damage are significantly smaller than we have been willing to acknowledge." While Life After Nuclear War will probably find more use as a textbook than as airport reading, it has the teeth to pull aside the latest $4.2 billion curtain surrounding the Federal Emergency Management Agency's civil defense wizards.

Controlling the Bomb, by former Hudson Institute member Lewis Dunn, is in a category of work that requires some preparation for nonspecialists. Not that it is esoteric--it simply moves in and out of a plane of abstraction that casual readers may find disconcerting. Ideally, one should digest a range of post-World War II history and background on nuclear politics before entering this realm. Advanced students will undoubtedly recognize in Dunn the think-tank tendency to hypothesize reality out of existence, though he manages to keep his feet on the ground more successfully than his celebrated Hudson colleague, Herman Kahn. As in many discussions about nuclear proliferation, there are traces here of the White Man's Burden mentality--Dunn seems to fear Arabs, Pakistanis, Koreans, and even Japanese much more than his own colleagues today at the State Department. He wonders, for example, what would happen if "in the midst of an Arab-Israeli conflict in the late 1980s, Egypt, Iraq, or Libya could anonymously threaten to detonate a nuclear weapon previously smuggled into Portugal unless that country rescinded landing rights at air bases in the Azores for U.S. planes on their way to Israel." Even the Basques of Spain are thought not incapable of nuking their adversaries. While such conjectures may enliven seminars at the Hudson Institute, they trivialize a debate which should focus on international nuclear energy economics. Weapons proliferation grew directly from a calculated decision by the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s to soften the gruesome image of nuclear arms and to disseminate nuclear technology. Dunn's proposed sanctions against countries that set out to acquire nuclear capabilities ignore the political isolation that fosters such moves in the first place and the energy market that continues to camouflage clandestine development.

These three books represent the range of approach that writers can now take in addressing nuclear issues. None of them makes any serious mistakes. They each assume correctly that nuclear weapons cannot be used or brandished like conventional weapons, that arguments about force parity or superiority are fatuous when each side owns thousands of bombs, and that security does not increase as the weapons increase in number or quality. It has taken 30 years for these lessons to filter into the lingua franca of level-headed debate. The reader's task is to select a comfortable text, and then plow forward.