WAR ART is nearly as central to the art of war as bombs and bullets. Images of home heroes and foreign devils help motivate troops, mobilize public support and mold world opinion.

The British were first to fully exploit the power of such propaganda, which helped tip American sentiment toward intervention in World War I. Our doughboys went over there partly in response to British posters showing the slavering Hun hovering above the ravished -- and ravishing -- body of the belle of Belgium.

No such crudities are included in a new exhibit at the Navy Museum, which emphasizes the often considerable artistic merit in British war art. From the deft WWI lithographs of Sir Muirhead Bone (1876-1953), Britain's first Official War Artist, to the amusing anonymous anathemas against WWII "Squander Bugs," the show is an engaging and instructive study of the arts martial.

While most of the works are clearly designed to maintain troop morale and help stiffen spines on the home front, some are pure reportage. Another, a tapestry called "Somewhere in France," is the sort of thing that assures us there will always be an England.

A few of the works, particularly the etchings of Kerr Eby (1890-1946) are ironic-sardonic commentaries on the horrors of war. But Eby didn't produce his horrific Western Front scenes, "Mama's Boy" and "They Hunt No More," until 1937; the War Artist's Advisory Committee would hardly have sanctioned them while the Great War still raged.

Among the most effective efforts of the committee was its courting of famous Philadelphian Joseph Pennell (1857-1926), who produced war works in England and then went home to supervise the design and production of propaganda posters for the U.S. Division for Pictorial Publicity.

In this show, however, Pennell is represented by "In the Zeppelin Shed, Leipzig" (1918), which is no statement on war but a masterful study of shadow and perspective. Like a wild rose in a graveyard, art will raise its lovely head.

THE BRITISH WAR ARTISTS -- Through March at the Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Ninth and M streets NW. 202/433-4882. Open 10 to 5 Saturday and Sunday, 9 to 4 Monday through Friday. Excellent wheelchair access.