"War in Peace," a collection of articles on 27 guerrilla and conventional wars since World War II, depressingly demonstrates that war may be an endemic human disease. A costly war recently ended in the South Atlantic, resolving nothing; and two others--one between Iran and Iraq and the other between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization--are dominating world news. These three wars have crowded from the pages of the Western press ongoing conflicts spreading in Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Southern Africa and Central America.

John Keegan, in an articulate introduction to the volume, explains why our era has been so savage. By comparison to the decades after 1945, the period between the World Wars, while bloody, was relatively peaceful for several reasons. First, after World War I there was some unity between the victorious powers; second, the imperial idea was still strong; and third, the underdeveloped world was quite weak. None of these factors applied after 1945.

The Soviet Union, emerging as a major world power, dominant in Eastern Europe and determined to stay that way, was fundamentally opposed to the ideologies and status of the Western allies. This mutual hostility between the superpowers (with China complicating relationships after 1949) abetted or sponsored the spread of warfare, especially in the underdeveloped world.

Here, rising nationalism and the humiliation of the Western imperial powers by Germany and Japan during World War II made these nations ripe for conflict. And while the underdeveloped world may still be relatively weak, arms merchants from all ideological persuasions have been eager to sell or donate the most sophisticated weapons of their armories. Witness the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, where the native Viet Minh outgunned the French. Note also that the semiliterate Zimbabwean guerrillas shot down two aircraft during the Rhodesian insurgency with surface-to-air missiles.

Beyond the issues raised in Keegan's introduction, two dominant trends emerge in "War in Peace." First, wars too often start because one side misreads or underestimates the other. For example, the United States failed to understand North Korean designs on South Korea and pulled out its troops in 1949--only to rush them in again in June 1950 when Kim Il Sung invaded. One would add, of course, that Josef Stalin failed to appreciate Harry Truman's resolve when he apparently gave Kim the green light to invade. Similarly, the United States missed the gravity of Mao Tse-tung's warnings as United Nations forces approached the Yalu River.

Similarly, the French failed to judge accurately the degree of both Vietnamese nationalism and martial skill in 1945. Both the French and the British misread Egyptian tenacity and world opinion when they attacked Egypt in 1956, and they paid dearly. The U.S. effort in the Vietnam war was flawed because of an inability to comprehend the adversary. The Soviets apparently have not done much better with the Afghans since 1980. The Iraqis have yet to receive the final bill for the blunder into Iran of 23 months ago for what was supposed to be a glorious two-week war. Most recently, the Argentine junta completely misread British will, logistical ability and fighting spirit in their ill-fated occupation of the Falklands.

The second key lesson from "War in Peace" is that wars have become excruciatingly expensive. Beyond the horrible loss of life, equipment attrition rates have become stunning, largely because of precision guided weapons. One foresees astronomical costs in future high-technology wars, and also enormous difficulties in making good the losses of equipment out of current production.

For example, in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war both sides lost a total of 2,800 tanks and 400 modern jet aircraft in three weeks. With tanks approaching $1 million each and airplanes more than $20 million, such losses are devastating. Furthermore, the losses of tanks and aircraft in less than a month are more than a year's production of aircraft for the United States and more than several years' production for tanks. Those facts must give strategists and logisticians pause.

By providing lessons such as these, "War in Peace" makes a valuable contribution to understanding conflict in our time. It has many fine qualities, but also some shortcomings. On the plus side: The introduction and many of the separate articles prove solid and well-written. Especially useful are the chapters on both Indochina wars, the Chinese Communist victory and the Korean War. The book is also copiously and exceptionally well-illustrated with many striking photographs, easy-to-interpret maps and helpful charts. In fact, the illustrations are worth the purchase price.

On the negative side, like all committee publications, this eight-author book is uneven, and some of the chapters fail badly. For example, the Aden and Cyprus insurgencies are combined into one chapter, and neither receives proper treatment. Worse, all three Portuguese guerrilla wars in Africa--Guinea, Mozambique and Angola--are stitched into one chapter that drowns the reader in a sea of acronyms: UNITA, MPLA, FNLA, PAIGC, FRELIMO. The author jumps from one guerrilla organization acronym to another a half-continent away, usually without transitions, and confusion reigns.

The book is further marred because it has no footnotes to support some of its contentious assertions. There are also too many errors in the chapter on the military balance: the C5A does not have two decks; the United States does not possess a Minuteman 4 Missile; the U.S. Marines fly several jets in addition to the Harrier, and aviators do not read infrared signals on radar scopes.

Twice in this century supposedly small wars--the first between Austria and Serbia and the second between Germany and Poland--precipitated global conflict. A reading of "War in Peace" could help in the effort to prevent this from happening again.