BOOKS about wars and commanders leave many readers with ambivalent feelings ranging from fascination to revulsion. War is, after all, man's most absurd and many-sided creation, and it displays his admirable and hellish qualities in extreme forms. The five books briefly reviewed below reflect the multi-faceted nature of war -- and thus of its creator. VICTORY IN EUROPE; D-Day to VE Day. By Max Hastings. Photographs by George Stevens. Introduction by George Stevens Jr. Little, Brown. 192 pp. $25.

WHEN HE HEADED a unit of American army cameramen making black-and-white films of Eisenhower's forces in Northwest Europe, 1944-45, Lt. Col. George Stevens shot five hours of color film on his own. While Stevens later achieved distinction as a motion-picture director, his unique film of 1944-45 lay in his North Hollywood storeroom until rediscovered by his son after his death in 1975. This book contains 187 strikingly bright pictures made from the film, the only color coverage of the Allied advance from Normandy to the Elbe; an introduction by George Stevens Jr.; a lively summary of operations in West Europe during the final year of the war written by Max Hastings, the British war correspondent; nine helpful maps, and a too-brief bibliography.

Few scenes are of actual combat; many depict the life of the troops between battles and daily interactions between soldiers and civilians. It would be interesting to know the criteria for selecting the pictures, for they are concentrated around less than a dozen episodes of the multitude of wide-ranging Allied operations from France to Germany. First published in Great Britain, the work has a distinctly British slant but not annoyingly so. It does make one curious, however, about the bulk of the Stevens film that was not used. THE ONSLAUGHT; The German Drive to Stalingrad. Color photographs from the German Archive for Art and History. Essay by Heinrich, Graf von Einsiedel. Foreword by Max Hastings. Norton. 192 pp. $24.95.

THIS ILLUSTRATED history covers the operations of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus' German Sixth Army from the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 until the last German troops at Stalingrad surrendered in February 1943. It includes 150 previously unpublished color photographs made by three German soldiers for their personal use; 11 black-and-white pictures by Soviet photographers of the end of the battle at Stalingrad; an impassioned essay surveying Soviet-German relations, 1917-45, by Heinrich von Einsiedel, a German count who fought in the Stalingrad campaign; a miscellany of related materials in the appendix, mostly prepared by editor Justus Goepel and his colleagues of the German Archive for Art and History in Berlin; and a foreword by the prolific Max Hastings.

The Eastern Front was characterized by death and destruction on unprecedented scales, so the reader will be surprised to find that a majority of the pictures are not of combat activities but rather of German soldiers relaxing between operations, chatting with Soviet peasants, struggling with vehicles mired in mud or snow, and performing various menial chores while Paulus' army was en route to its ruination at Stalingrad. Many of the scenes are hauntingly beautiful, others sadly moving. The book was first published in West Germany last year. IWO JIMA; Legacy of Valor. By Bill D. Ross. Vanguard. 376 pp. $22.50.

AN AMERICAN marine sergeant and combat correspondent on Iwo Jima during the ferocious battle there in early 1945, Bill Ross contributes an account of that operation that, alas, might have appealed more to America's youths and young adults in 1955 than in 1985. His narrative is loaded with vivid descriptions of individual heroism by U.S. Marines during the 36-day fight that cost over 25,000 American and 21,000 Japanese casualties. Ross attributes the uncommon valor of the marines to the Marine Corps' training program, discipline, and rare esprit that make its warriors so committed to each other, their unit and mission, and the corps' traditions. This concept of valor, of course, does not explain the unheroic conduct of some American marines nor the bravery of many of the Japanese troops on the island.

Nevertheless, Ross has added a soundly researched, absorbing work that helpfully supplements the several good official and unofficial historians of the battle. And he is surely right in expressing alarm that "Iwo Jima has become a diminishing footnote to history, largely remembered by military history buffs and a vanishing legion of aging Marines and other men who did battle there." If the current crop of textbooks in American history at the high school and college levels is any indication, American young people are learning virtually nothing about the great battles and deeds of valor in World War II that a grateful nation once pledged never to forget. WITNESS TO POWER; The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy. By Henry H. Adams. Naval Institute Press. 391 pp. $22.95.

IT IS ASTONISHING that not until Witness to Power was there a biography of the admiral who served during the critical years 1942-49 as chief of staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and as ex officio chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Henry Adams, a long-time professor of English and history at the Naval Academy, explains that a major reason was the admiral's reticence, even in his private journal, to reveal much about himself.

Devoting half the book to his role in World War II as one of FDR's key advisers on the direction of the U.S. war effort, Adams allows less than 10 percent of his pagination for the period 1945-49 when his influence was significant on new defense policies. Since Leahy favored a tough stance toward Stalin, it would be interesting to know more about his input on Truman's decision-making relative to postwar relations with the Soviet Union. But Adams has produced from the relatively unrevealing sources on the admiral as interesting and insightful a story as could be told about Leahy. Many readers, however, will wonder if the admiral was more than just a "witness to power." THE EASTER OFFENSIVE; The Last American Advisers, Vietnam, 1972. By Gerald H. Turley. Presidio. 387 pp. $17.95.

THE EASTER OFFENSIVE has two outstanding assets: it is as exciting as a good adventure novel, and it is one of the relatively few primary works on the Vietnam war during the last year before the extrication of the last American ground forces. Marine Lt. Col. Gerald Turley, almost by happenstance found himself the senior U.S. adviser to the ill-prepared and poorly led South Vietnamese army division that futilely tried to stop the powerful North Vietnamese invasion of Quang Tri province, just below the DMZ, in the spring of 1972.

Turley's is an extremely well-told story, full of incidents of strong human-interest appeal as well as perceptive observations on tactical crises. As the reader follows the increasingly chaotic situation along the northern border of South Vietnam, he can understand the anguish and frustration Turley and his fellow American advisers there must have felt as they endeavored to work through panicky ARVN officers and troops to stop the enemy drive and as they tried to convince U.S. headquarters in Saigon that a major offensive was underway. Turley and his colleagues were caught in a demonic whirl of confusion that added a new dimension to the term "fog of war."