GREAT WARS produce great novels. At least they do in America. The Revolution and the War of 1812, I will quickly admit, failed to; but that wasn't the fault of the wars. There wasn't anyone to write about them. At the time we had not a single competent novelist--and very few incompetent ones, either. Perhaps eight or 10 people in the whole early history of our country published anything that could be called fiction, and only one of that tiny group ever became even semi-professional.

But as soon as a true novelist did appear, and that was Fenimore Cooper in 1820, war novels commenced. Cooper's second novel, The Spy, was a war novel, and a moderately good one, too.

Every major war since then has produced at least one masterpiece. For the Civil War, it's The Red Badge of Courage. For World War I, A Farewell to Arms. As for World War II, there are numerous candidates. There are The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, The Caine Mutiny, maybe a James Jones--and then there is a book that I think will one day be recognized as better than any of these: James Gould Cozzens' Guard of Honor.

No one can call it a forgotten book. It has been in print continuously since its publication in 1948 (currently as a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperback, $5.95). People who read lists in almanacs will find it securely in the list of Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. In its first year it was a modest best seller, and last year it still sold 632 copies. Not bad.

But it is an underrated book by an almost sinfully underrated author. (Cozzens did more than Guard of Honor. Of his 13 novels, three and perhaps four belong in the small but high hushed world that Melville spoke of: the world of greatness.)

I think I know why the book is so comparatively ig- nored. I think there are two main reasons. One involves Cozzens' personal character, and the other involves the type of novel he liked to write.

The standing of an American book tends to derive in the short run from the judgments rendered by the New York Literary Establishment--which these days is only about four-fifths in New York. It now has branches in Washington and California. This loose congeries of critics, editors, writers, and probably even a few agents tends to be liberal in its political and social views (which I like it for), insular and cliquey (which I feel ambivalent about). Publicity conferred by itself it tends to regard as the ultimate accolade.

As for Cozzens, he tended to scorn it on all three counts. He was too dignified a man literally to stand and thumb his nose at the Establishment--but he might as well have. He did everything to outrage it. A conservative in the classic 18th-century sense, he was also intensely private. He did not give interviews, talk on talk shows, scratch critical backs, or join movements. He acquired a reputation--undeserved, I think--as the kind of WASP who is anti-Semitic, anti-black, and anti- urban. Except for an occasional vindictive kick, he has been largely ignored by the Establishment, and that is one reason why Guard of Honor does not occupy its rightful place.

In the long run, a book's standing is largely determined by professors. Professors not only write the learned books and encyclopedia entries that keep authors alive or kill them off, they pick the stuff that gets taught in college. Any generation is apt to know two classes of books: the current ones favored by the Establishment and the classics selected by professors.

Guard of Honor is a classic (I think), but it is a hard one to put into an American literature course. Why? Because Cozzens was not a romantic. Most American writers, from Cooper, Poe and Hawthorne onward, have been; and nearly all the novels in our canon are romances. This has advantages for teachers and students both. It's handy for teachers, because there is usually more to say in class about something rich in symbols and hung with cloudy portent. It is wonderful for students, because practically everyone is--and should be -- a romantic at 18 or 19 or 20. Clear-eyed realism comes later. (Except, of course, for the considerable number of people who go directly from romanticism to disillusionment, and who thus become cynics. To them it never comes at all.)

Either way, it is hard to assign books to 20-year-olds that there is little chance they can really appreciate until they are about 35, and that is another reason Guard of Honor does not occupy its rightful place. Hardly anyone read it in college.

Its rightful place is as one of the greatest social novels ever written in America. It's not just a slice of life, but a whole rounded pie. The action takes place at Ocanara Army Air Force Base in Florida over a three-day period in 1943. There are about 20,000 men and women stationed at Ocanara and its satellite bases, and Cozzens seems to understand every single one of them. He has the kind of authority as author that supposedly went out with Balzac and George Eliot. (Sociology supposedly drove it out.)

The main plot concerns the apparent failure of the top officers at Ocanara--General Beal, Colonel Mowbray, Colonel Jobson--to manage so large and heterogeneous a group of people, and hence to produce an effective fighting air force. But there are dozens and even scores of sub-plots, not brought in one at a time, but all interwoven.

For example, there is a detachment of WACs at Ocanara, and there are something like five sub-plots concerned with them alone. Here is part of the story of Lieutenant Mary Lippa, a trim athletic young woman who is both a natural commander and deeply in love with a male officer who is a natural anarchist. Part of the story of Lieutenant Amanda Turck, an intellectuallalmost crippled by too acute a self-consciousness and too low a self-esteem: a memorable, unhappy, and good person. Part of the history of Private Sybil Buck, rebellious and promiscuous.

For another, the Air Force is in the process of forming the first-ever Negro bomber group, and its planes and pilots (at this point all second lieutenants) arrive at Ocanara for training during the course of the book. Here is part of the story of Lieutenant Stanley Willis, the black flier who will eventually command that group. The whole story of a raid on the segregated officers' club at Ocanara by a group of the young black pilots. The effects of that on the colonel responsible for the segregation, on Lieutenant Day the M.P., on Captain Wiley from Alabama. And on and on. There is material for two or three hundred movies in Guard of Honor, with plenty left to spare. Rarely in American fiction or in any fiction is there so fine an intermeshing of so many totally real characters. And I haven't even mentioned Captain Duchemin, the witty bon vivant who regularly gets off lines as good as any of Noel Coward's, or Lieutenant Werthauer the medical officer who prefigures M*A*S*H, or Sally Beal, the general's impetuous young wife, let alone any of the central characters.

But Guard of Honor is more than an account of the complex workings of a large air base--and, by extension, of a country at war. It is two other things as well. For the reader, it is a living one's way into the military mind. The two characters through whose eyes we most often look have both fairly recently been civilians, and with them we encounter the blundering idiocy of career officers, the well-known absurdity of army regulations. But from here (which is the point at which Catch-22 stops) we go on to understand and even to accept. Not that the military mind is right, but that there are right things about it--and, more important, that there are comprehensible reasons why it is as it is.

The second thing is closely related to the first. Guard of Honor makes a continuing judgment of all its characters in terms of their maturity, or capacity for achieving it. That is, the characters are divided into children and adults--a division in which Cozzens can take advantage of the military slang of that period: a commanding officer being the Old Man, a pilot a fly-boy, and so on. Some of the children are gray-haired, notably Colonel Mowbray, second in command at Ocanara. Some of the adults, such as Stanley Willis, are barely out of their teens. At first the two main observers think that all the career military people are children; and one of the book's movements is toward their discovery that there are adults who went to West Point, or have been 20 years a non-com.

It is impossible in a paragraph or two to convey the subtlety with which Cozzens does all this, still less to linger on the cleverness of his minor touches, such as the way the behavior of the one actual child in the book (General Beal's 3-year-old son) comments on the whole matter of maturity. Instead I'll just say that grown-ups who have not encountered Guard of Honor have a major treat in store. Children, including gray-haired ones, will not like it. They will find it too complex both in plot and style. Not to mention too clear-eyed in its understanding of human nature. But it is fitting that along with the Harlequins and gothics and sequels to Peter Pan, there be a certain number of books for grown-ups.