MAKERS OF MODERN STRATEGY From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Edited by Peter Paret with the collaboration of Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert. Princeton University Press. 942 pp. $45. Paperback, $12.95.

WAR STORIES WITH plenty of action and a strong human-interest content have sold well on the literary market ever since The Iliad, but the recent upsurge of interest in serious military history is a novel phenomenon. Long neglected in academia, and firmly kept below stairs in such history departments as would admit its study at all, military history has now become respectable, even important, attracting some of the best students and gaining eminence for its leading scholars. In the Army and the Air Force, whose leaders once believed that there was absolutely nothing to be learned from the wars of Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great or even Hitler in the nuclear age, and where military history used to be the province of obscure offices that did little more than record-keeping, expanding centers of military history are attracting talented officers with good career prospects. Historical studies are now considered to be of genuine value for the development of operational methods. And it is part of the same trend that one encounters seriously documented books even among the popular, mass-market publications sold in airport outlets.

All this interest may not wholly be a Good Thing. It may reflect at least an unconscious anticipation of a war in our future -- a real war that is -- fought on a large scale, inevitably with the Soviet Union. In the past, when nuclear weapons were still young and much was expected of them ("The Absolute Weapon"), when the United States, its allies and the Soviet Union all had strategies that required the early use of nuclear weapons, war was imagined as totally catastrophic but also most improbable. Now that all sides have done so much to prepare for "conventional" fighting, even a large war could happen without any nuclear use, and is therefore less improbable. The study of military history is its own reward quite regardless of whatever use may be made of it, but clearly the serious attention the subject now receives is not entirely disinterested.

The large book that Peter Paret of Stanford University has edited with the collaboration of Gordon Craig and Felix Gilbert is a new version of the 1943 book of the same title, Edward Mead Earle's classic collection of essays on the war-thinkers and war-doers of the past from well before Napoleon to then-contemporary Germans and Japanese -- both incidentally treated quite dispassionately even in the midst of war.

The original Makers served to educate an entire generation of Americans: Robert W. Tucker, the quintessential exponent of the "realist" school of American foreign policy, still remembers his first reading of the book as a revelation, because in its pages war and the uses of power were explained, rather than merely deplored.

The new Makers retains a few essays unchanged, including Henry Guerlac on Vauban -- a much more interesting and certainly more important figure than his common reputation as a mere fortification-builder would allow; R.R. Palmer on Frederick the Great and his first interpreters, which could perhaps have been improved upon; and Earle himself on the trio of Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List, in a survey of the economic aspect of war which is till very much worth reading (I confess that until this reading I had quite missed Hamilton's significance). Felix Gilbert and Gordon Craig, both contributors to the original book and still in full intellectual vigor, here present rewritten or at least revised versions of their essays on Machiavelli and Delbruck respeively.

Insofar as popularization was the aim, the earlier essays were either unsuccessful or too successful: Machiavelli's Art of War remains without a modern English translation, and Delbruck's great work on the history of war is only now being fully published in English. Certainly the 1986 Gilbert and Craig essays should stimulate interest in Delbruck's grat work, and in Machiavelli's "non-Prince" writings. The two collaborate in an interesting chapter of reflections that should perhaps be reprinted separately for quick Washington distribution, and Craig appears alone in another reflective and weighty essay on "The Political Leader as Strategist" -- which among other things restores in some small degree the reputation of Germany's much- reviled 1914 Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg.

Twenty-two of the essays are new, and yes, they are of uneven quality. Gunther Rothenberg on the "military revolution" of the 16th century performs important work in reminding us of Maurice of Nassau (a true percursor of "scientific" war), the much more familiar Gustavus Adolphus (Sweden's Rommel) and above all Raimondo Montecuccoli, the great general of the Hapsburgs, whose own writings are only now being edited for publication after three centuries, by the distinguished Italian historian Luraghi. Rothenberg succeeds again on Moltke and Schlieffen, providing no new interpretations (there have been so many) but certainly the best summary introduction I have ever read.

Nor will complaints be heard about Peter Paret's Napoleon -- inevitably an exercise in extreme concision -- and his further essay on Clausewitz, which one hopes will stimulate the reading of his masterly Clausewitz and the State. John Shy likewise is very good on Napoleon's first interpreter Jomini, once the very teacher of war to entire generations of soldiers and definitely worth reading about if not himself worth reading -- unlike his critic Clausewitz, deservedly more read now than perhaps ever before.

Among other essays that range from the interesting to the profoundly illuminating, one may perhaps single out Douglas Porch on the French colonial men-at-arms including Gallieni (of Marne fame) and Lyautey, the first neo-colonialist (French-dominated, nominally Sherifian Morocco was his doing); Michael Howard on the doctrine of the offensive in 1914; Brain Bond and Martin Alexander on Liddell Hart and De Gaulle (both regarding armored war etc.), which takes further the demolition of their inflated reputations as war-thinkers; David MacIsaac on the airpower theorists, whose inflated expectations of "strategic bombardment" were most unexpectedly validated by the nuclear weapon; and D. Clayton James on naval strategy in the Pacific -- a much needed corrective to the popular literature on the subject, including recent best-sellers. Finally there is Philip Crowl's essay on Mahan -- which is a new interpretation, and a very sound one, and of unexpected current importance.

A very important book therefore, and a very good read also for the most part, and if this reviewer found some of the remaining essays unimpressive (and one, by Michael Geyer on German strategy 1914-1945 positively bad in its ideological rigidity), other readers may have their own choice in an intellectual feast of the highest quality.