ONE OF THE WAYS in which America differs most profoundly from the Old World is in its lack of an officer class. The process by which that class came into being in Europe was complex and long drawn out, but its effect was to transform the poorer ranks of feudal warriordom into military servants of the state. The change of status did not bring wealth; but it perpetuated the identification of military leadership with aristocracy, so that even the officer of petit bourgeois background can continue to enjoy today the reflected rays of noble splendor. Thus the officers of the French cavalry --tankers to a man-- could think it quite proper to present Princess Anne with a piece of inscribed silver on her engagement to Captain Mark Phillips, much as if the Revolution had never happened and the Queen's Dragoon Guards was a regiment of brother- cavaliers. In fact the officers of Captain Phillips' regiment are solidly middle-class, like those of most British regiments. But a sense of aristocracy pervades them all, and a just sufficient quota of real aristocrats leavens the lump to lend it reality. Officerdom thus remains a profession for gentlemen--even the new German citizen's army is overpopulated with titles--a state of affairs which defines the profession in class rather than functional terms and ensures an identification of army with social order rarely found elsewhere.

America might have developed such a class. Indeed Washington, whose early career was in the colonial militia, was a prototype of the sort of landowner-officer which might have come to dominate the young republic. Constitutional idealism ensured that it did not; the "southern gentleman" officer of the Civil War was an imitation of a European model rather than a home-grown plant. Instead the United States opted for a different military system altogether: first of all no army at all--as England tried to do after the Restoration--and then one so tiny that its existence was almost irrelevant to the development of the nation. It was needed at all only to provide a minimum of security on the seaward and prairie frontier and a small corps of trained engineers for the service of the federal government. A parsimonious Treasury certainly could not offer money as an inducement to officer candidates; instead, it offered education. The result was West Point and an officer corps of poor boys clawing themselves up the social ladder by brains and hard work.

Eisenhower was poor. Omar Bradley was "desperately poor"--his own words. This autobiography of his is far too long, tediously long, perhaps the effect of its having been written by a collaborator from his papers and dictation, but the opening chapters are of arresting interest. Indeed, to a European his early story is almost incredibly alien. A boy of Bradley's background, born in Europe in 1893 and bent on a military career, could have hoped at best to end life as a respected, retired sergeant-major. Bradley's father was a sodbuster--the general's word again. A few years in a rural school, which he did not enter until he was 19, qualified the father to become a rural schoolteacher himself. Twenty years of grindingly hard work, when he often walked six miles to work every day and never made more than $40 a month, culminated in death from pneumonia at 41. It was the result of long journeys on foot, in winter weather, and an endless search for odd jobs--sometimes "hiring out" to farmers or even sharecroppers in the school vacations-- which left him no rest but Sundays. His widow was the daughter of a 40- acre Missouri farmer, raised in a three-room log cabin, whom he had married straight out of the classroom in which he had taught her. Two cousins completed the family; Bradley's parents had taken them in as orphans and raised them as daughters.

Bradley adored his father. And it is easy to see why: in the man's utter self-reliance, decency, dignity and scarcely articulated love for his family, he personified a type of vintage American, a sort of moneyless, unlettered Mr. Deeds whom Hollywood idealized in the '30s and to whose real existence Bradley's autobiography is testimony. What need had America of an officer class when her rustic poor could spawn a leadership of simple democrats, motivated by self-help, dedicated to the riches of learning, however little they had of it themselves, fervent in their wish to open its coffers to others, and dedicated to the principles of government of, for and by the people?

Mother was no slouch either. The world of food stamps, Social Security and community programs lay light-years ahead of her present and a world apart from her cast of mind. Resourceless and encumbered by a mortgage (of $450) she took in boarders and advertised as a seamstress. Bradley, as soon as he got out of school, went to work for the Wabash Railroad, earning 17 cents an hour to help out. His ambition was to save enough money on the side to pay for tuition at the University of Missouri.

It was his Sunday school teacher who suggested West Point. Bradley had been out of school so long that he doubted his ability to pass his congressman's competitive exam. His principal competitor was a family friend of the congressman's and had been preparing for the exam for a year. Nevertheless, Bradley decided to risk humiliation (personal pride stood high in a Missouri boy's system of values in 1911) and took the test. To his astonishment he arrived ahead of the field and reported to West Point that July 30.

Bradley's year was "The Class the Stars Fell On." It included Eisenhower and Van Fleet, as well as scores of other Second World War generals. But all that figured in their four years at the Academy was more of the same harsh discipline in mathematics that had got them there, alleviated by intense competition on the athletic field. Bradley was a gifted baseball player--the father again, who had carved his own bats and starred on hayseed teams in the sticks--and made himself a useful football center. He played Navy in both positions, made cadet lieutenant and graduated 44th out of 164.

The First World War missed him and he spent the next 10 years in dreary Stateside posts, a life softened by marriage to a Missouri schooldays sweetheart and by the modest prosperity that their strict regime of teetotalism and nickel-and-dime saving brought them. Ironically, they lost almost all they had husbanded in the 1929 crash; but the blow was cushioned by a turn in his professional fortunes. Posted to the Infantry School, he came within the orbit of the maker of all Second World War military careers, George C. Marshall. Patton and Stilwell had been his subordinates; Eisenhower would become so. Bradley now attracted his gruff and hard-won approval. It would be years before the benefit would accrue, years in which Bradley continued as a student or teacher at military training establishments, often working as hard as he had done while a cadet. As a professor of mathematics at West Point, he had actually worked harder, slave to a pedagogic ethos which had no counterpart in European military academies and which did so much to set the American officer corps apart from those of the Old World.

All was repaid at the outbreak of the Second World War when Marshall became the Army's chief of staff. Those he had singled out for their ability--his only standard of judgment--began their meteoric rise. Bradley, whose pucker-mouth puritanism matched his own, advanced faster than most. A corps and then an army commander --replacing his superior, Patton, after the notorious face-slapping incident--he went to Normandy as an army commander again and then rose to command the 12th Army Group. His leading divisions landed on Utah and Omaha beaches on June 6. Eleven months later they joined hands with the Russians on the Elbe. By then Bradley was famous as "the GI General," no one's idea of what a general should look like but every superior's ideal of the perfect military executive.

In subsequent years Bradley would become chief of staff of the Army and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He would acquire a fifth star and retire as general of the army, a rank only Marshall, Eisenhower and MacArthur attained among his contemporaries. He has much to say about all that happened to him in those years of eminence, and of all that he did and caused to be done. Like much else in a modern general's life, most of it is bureaucratic trivia. The fascination in his story is that someone from origins so humble could not merely sail so high but treat the upper altitudes of strategy, government and diplomacy as if they were elements as familiar to him as the seedpatch behind his father's frame house in Higbee, Missouri. West Point, of course, is the key. It is changed now, by its enormous expansion. But, just as it managed to supply almost all the senior generals of the Civil War, from an annual output of only 50, so before either of the world wars, when its classes were still only a hundred or two strong, it was inevitably training the elite which would see the nation through its emergencies. The wonder is that its training so rarely faltered and that its quality could transform Missouri farm boys into leaders of a worldwide alliance.