THE KOREAN WAR By Max Hastings Simon and Schuster. 389 pp. $22.95

WHY DO Englishmen and cats seem so superior? Long awed by things British, Americans reading about warfare especially have been impressed by English versions of military campaigns. This phenomenon is not unlike the affinity many humans feel for domestic cats, the former displaying a deference no matter how condescending the conduct of the latter. The results have been analogous, too: sales in "the former colonies" have richly rewarded British writers on war; and cats, according to current market trends, are enjoying unprecedented pampering by their subservient owners.

Max Hastings, the prolific popular historian and editor of The Daily Telegraph, has cultivated a large following in America, and his new book undoubtedly will enhance his reputation. In style and readability his work on Korea, 1950-53, merits accolades, but some American historians who have researched that subject may question how original, worthwhile and careful Hastings' scholarship is in this case.

Although the overwhelming majority of forces engaged in Korea on the anticommunist side were South Korean and American, British writers have shown surprising interest in the conflict. Perhaps still the finest short account is David Rees' Korea: The Limited War (1964), by a British free-lance writer. Recent noteworthy British contributions have included Rosemary Foot's The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean Conflict, 1950-1953 (1985), by an astute University of Sussex scholar; Callum A. MacDonald's Korea: the War Before Vietnam (1986), a sharp analysis by a University of Warwick professor; and now surely the most lively of the English works, by Hastings. The main unofficial American studies of the war itself are T. R. Fehrenbach's This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness (1963), a powerful critique by a war correspondent; and Joseph C. Goulden's Korea: The Untold Story of the War (1982), an absorbing account, mainly of the first year, by a best-selling author.

Hastings demonstrates (and acknowledges) heavy indebtedness to the writings of Rees, Goulden and particularly Foot, but, oddly, he does not cite Fehrenbach's able work. In the genre of unofficial studies of the war, Hastings' book is certainly the most vivid in style, and he is the first to interview communist Chinese participants at length. Unhappily, however, his book should be used with caution.

In the first place, the reader needs to be wary of Hastings' biases, though some are too strong and oft-repeated to ignore. The most obvious one, evident also in his earlier writings on the European war of 1939-45, is an exaggerated notion of the British role in combat operations. The British infantry brigades are portrayed as superior in e'lan, leadership and tactics to the American outfits on their flanks, though the U.S. 1st Marine Division is given fulsome praise. Granted the American Army units in the Korean fighting warrant blame as well as praise, but, for the most part, their enlisted ranks were made up of far less select troops than were those sent to Korea by the U.S. Marine Corps or by the British, Australian, Canadian, Turkish and other major United Nations participants.

If combat casualties are any indication of the degree of battle involvement, the U.S. Army was most heavily engaged, suffering 110,000 casualties of the 142,100 total for all American services. In contrast, the other United Nations contingent's casualties totaled 17,300, of which 7,300 were British or Commonwealth. South Korean military casualties were estimated at 300,000. Of course, citing casualty figures has been used futilely many times to argue points. Here the simple contention is that emphasizing superior battle performance by the Commonwealth Division, for instance, is valid only if one bears in mind the relatively limited role such an allied unit played in comparison with the American and South Korean forces.

A SECOND warning to the reader concerns the shocking number of typographical errors and, worse, historical mistakes that occur throughout this book. Scores of annoying, distracting errors could be cited, but only four will be mentioned as exemplary:

(1) Brig. Gen. "Ed Simmonds" is mentioned in the foreword as one of the key five Anglo-American officers Hastings consulted, and he is quoted in the text on numerous occasions. Actually his name is Edwin H. Simmons, though not a single time is the name of this distinguished Marine and historian spelled correctly.

(2) Hastings states, "From Washington the Secretary of State for War and the Navy Coordinating Committee dispatched a hasty directive to Okinawa" in August 1945. Hastings undoubtedly was referring to the State, War and Navy Coordinating Committee -- not exactly an insignificant Washington body by then.

(3) At a State-Pentagon meeting in November 1950, according to the author, the Air Force and Navy service chiefs were "Vandenburg and Forrest." They were really Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg and Adm. Forrest P. Sherman.

(4) In naming the commanders of the U.S. Marine regiments in the Inchon-Seoul operations of September 1950, Hastings states (within seven pages) that Col. Homer L. Litzenberg ("Litzenburg" in the text) headed the 7th Marines and then the 5th Marines, while Col. Lewis B. Puller led the 1st Marines and later the 5th Marines. In truth, during the Inchon-Seoul operations Puller commanded the 1st Marines, Litzenberg the 7th Marines, and Lt. Col. Raymond L. Murray the 5th Marines.

In conclusion, this is, indeed, a fascinating account of the Korean War, as long as the reader is not bothered by the plethora of mistakes. They should be embarrassing to the author and to the publisher.

D. Clayton James is the author of "The Years of MacArthur" and, with Anne Sharp Wells, of "A Time for Giants: Politics of the American High Command in World War II."