THERE IS copious literature about why nations go to war, all of it confident in diagnosis, most of it diffident in prescription. Preparations continue, and remorselessly mature, for the extermination of the human race. Men thinly wonder whether war is the ultimate blight man was born for. Most certainly it is; and the opportunities for its conduct, and the unimaginable destructiveness of its latest instruments, seem to feed upon, and nourish, each other. Can anything be "done" to stop it all? History is less than forthcoming on this point; but the answer would seem to be "no." In a world of sovereign states whose ambitions, however nobly consecrated, abrade against each other's; whose leaders (as Garrett Mattingly wrote of a Renaissance queen) are people "by no means gifted with genius, but strategically placed"-- in such a world the likelihood of war persists. In 1982, according to the author of How to Make War, a total of $700 billion will be spent by all the nations of the world --half of it by ourselves and the Russians. The purpose is to "buy" security; but in fact the more that is spent, the less the security for either of us.

Sue Mansfield's The Gestalts of War: An Inquiry into its Origins and Meanings as a Social Institution attempts to explain why societies fight--"Why they developed this particular institution?" Very roughly, the gestaltist's approach to the problem is as follows: the things individuals want dominate their perceptual and emotional experience. When they have been achieved, or gained, and the "gestalt" satisfied, some other desire or need replaces it. Aggression is sometimes a means of satisfying the need; But should that need be thwarted, and the individual's frustrations repressed, certain consequences follow. Feelings of rage or frustration may be "retroflected" against the individual himself; or they may be projected against another target--another society or nation. "Culturally required self-conquest is never limited or self-contained . . . (such) retroflection is accompanied by repetitive aggressiveness directed against both nature and other humans in an attempt to complete unconscious and unfilfilled gestalts." Put most crudely, for a world of nation-states, giddy minds tend to be busied in foreign quarrels.

Though the book examines the origins and causes of war-making in primitive and medieval societies, its most compelling explanations are those of the behavior of 20th-century leaders who, variously cocksure or uncertain as to lines of action in international crisis, have invariably been moved by dread, by fear of the enemy's taking early military advantage, by fear of how--the ultimate fatuity--history will "judge" them. Such men-- those who are advanced through political or bureaucratic processes--too often are most apt to prove the justice of Mansfield's argument. Their lives often have been lives of emotional repression and self-denial. Their behavior is least likely to calmly resolve crisis. And they are often stupid, and invariably tired, and usually old. The well-known events leading to World War I were made by "statesmen" like Berchtold, Conrad, and Tisza --"pressure removers . . . who saw themselves smothered, walled-in, or subject to overwhelming odds"; Czar Nicholas and Sazonov, "extremely sensitive to the implications of other people's actions to their integrity, manliness, or worth"; the Kaiser and Von Moltke, acting like the ''self-image promoter who is worried that . . . he will be taken for a weakling or coward."

The cri de coeur of the millions who, like their predecessors in the mid-1920s, call for disarmament, for sanity in the relations among states that deploy massive armaments is that, surely, the risks are now too great, and the lessons of history too stark, to allow "the arms race to continue."

But there is a lesson of history starker than the one they decry: it is that men do not learn from history-- learn, that is, in such a way that their future conduct is likely to be altered in future crisis. In fact, as James Dunnigan's book demonstrates, the training of armies and the piling up of armaments has never flourished as in the early years of this decade. How to Make War is basically a program for the coming events: an assessment of the military and naval capabilities of America and her allies and their likely enemy, the Soviet Union. The book is composed in a kind of crisp eupeptic style: "Defense: The other fellow attacks. You might get a warning from your patrols. When it starts, you get hit with a lot of artillery fire, and perhaps poison gas and nuclear weapons . . . the real killing is done with the heavy weapons."

The author is most persuasive in his analysis of the course of likely future conflict between the Russians and ourselves: neither side could long sustain fighting of the sort that would dominate the Western European theater, nor could such fighting remain "conventional" for long. "Should a major war break out in Europe, U.S. forces could probably not continue heavy combat beyond 30 days." If anticipated rates of ammunition use and combat losses occurred, within 30 days the United States would have no ammunition left. The Russian situation would likely be worse.

Each "arm" is described in a kind of debunking manner distantly echoing Clausewitz's dictum: "In war everything is very simple; but the simplest things are most difficult of execution." For example (from a chapter called "Tanks: The Arm of Decision"): "the effective commander sticks his head and shoulders outside the turret until he is wounded. When that happens, everyone gets upset until the wounded man quiets down or the corpse is allowed to fall to the floor of the tank or is tossed overboard. At that point the gunner nominally takes over. The results can be imagined."

Just so. The results can be imagined; better, they have been documented in detail as copious as the American public's fascination with war is fervent. Whatever commonality of motive has impelled states to make war on each other--and Mansfield's Gestalts of War constitutes a wholly original, compelling and sometimes even brilliant, approach to the question--Dunnigan's primer and survey of the world's armed forces, their costs and tactics and leadership, is probably still a more useful work of reference to have around. J. Glenn Gray, author of The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, is quoted at the end of Mansfield's book: "Rendering oneself unarmed when one has been the best armed, out of a height of feeling--that is the means to real peace of mind." No well-armed state is going to unarm itself, however. The consequences of such an act will always seem at least horrific, to those who govern, as war itself --which, in any case, they will in their heart of hearts believe they can "win." Politicians are made this way.