On television, James Blackwell stands above his map with the stolidity of the chronically unexcitable, but get him on the phone and he sounds like a kid who has been dropped into his favorite adventure movie.

"This is incredible!" the retired major and Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow exhales in a gust of euphoria. For the past week Blackwell has been CNN's on-air military consultant -- just one of the retired majors and former National Security Agency directors and think-tank denizens whom the networks and CNN are paying to be ready to expound any time, day or night.

"I feel like I'm right at the center of the war," he says. "I have a better picture of the battlefield than many of the commanders in the field do."

He is not alone. As Dennis Miller said on "Saturday Night Live," "You know who I feel sorry for? The one retired military general who didn't get a job as a consultant for the networks this week."

They are The Experts. They pose in front of bookcases and tower over three-dimensional maps. They seem to be standing at attention even when they are sitting. They are the men (and they are almost all men) who have become as familiar as Peter and Tom and Dan.

Surely you have a favorite by now -- there are so many to choose from. There's retired Gen. George Crist, he of the frenetically expressive face, who has set up what CBS is calling "a war room" filled with maps and charts and -- reportedly -- cigarette smoke. There's ABC's Anthony Cordesman (a Georgetown University scholar and Capitol Hill aide admired by many for managing to be both substantive and understandable, he looms over his map with utterly impassive majesty) and retired Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor (a former New York Times military writer whose early-war glasses disappeared late last week -- too much glare). There's Lt. Gen. William Odom of NBC and Adm. William Crowe of ABC and Gen. Michael Dugan of CBS.

No Expert worth his or her expertise likes to talk about the compensation that goes with the job, but Gail Evans, CNN vice president for booking, has some idea. Although CNN is paying Blackwell and at least one other consultant for their services during the war, Evans has found that many of her regular guests are not available. Much as they used to enjoy talking to CNN for free, they tell her, right now they are working for networks at the rate of $1,500 a day.

"I don't know if those people are telling me the truth -- I don't know if they're negotiating with me -- but my response is, 'Fine. I love you, you're wonderful, you should go work for them.' "

Just how much the Experts are able to offer -- ensconced as they are in studios and offices and presumably constrained from discussing whatever classified information they might have -- is a matter of some debate. "The more depth I have in a particular subject, the less I can talk about it" on the air, says Dugan. The former Air Force chief of staff was involved in planning much of what is now happening in the Persian Gulf, but was fired in September by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney for speaking too freely to two reporters about U.S. contingency plans for war.

On Friday night, soon after Iraqi missiles hit Tel Aviv, Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the limitations when ABC's Ted Koppel asked him for his opinion on a plume of smoke rising above the city. "Yes," Crowe said. "It looks like smoke." Then he smiled that wry, barely discernible Expert smile.

In many ways the meeting of reporters and generals is a clash of cultures. "I think there is a kind of image on the part of people in the media that the war can be reported with the kind of coverage you have in a football game," says Odom, a former National Security Agency director. "The nature of war is not like the NFL. You get instant replay and you can find out if the call is right with football.

"The press has built up this head of steam demanding to know what the bombing damage is," he says. "No one can answer. We won't really know what the bomb damage is until after the war. We did not have a clear view of the impact of bombing in either Japan or Germany until a year after the war."

Odom has also been bewildered by the gratitude with which some of his comments are met -- what seems utterly elementary to him is revelatory to the public and his TV bosses -- but he will say of himself and his fellow military consultants, "I guess on the whole we probably are raising the public military literacy fairly remarkably." And despite frustration with reporters who want more concrete information than he believes can be had, Odom says, "I guess I do think that we keep grossly erroneous impressions about the operations from taking hold. We're able to correct those."

Crist, who started working for CBS in early August, says, "CBS, like most of the news organizations, was frightfully ignorant of the military. None of the reporters covering the story have fought in any wars. They really had no base from which to come."

For some of the Experts, the public attention is presumably nothing new. Many of the Experts have been favorites of quote-hungry journalists for years. Odom and Crowe testified before Congress last month about what was then still being called the Persian Gulf crisis, and both urged caution and patience before rushing into war.

The national appetite for expertise grew into a voracious need when Iraq invaded Kuwait last summer. During a phone-in interview on WAMU's "Diane Rehm Show" last week, one expert/diplomat was heard to ask just which show he was doing -- after so many, he'd lost track. He ventured a guess -- " 'The Donna Reed Show'?" -- and was corrected.

The Brookings Institution public relations office has been receiving as many as 200 phone calls a week from the media, and William Quandt, a Brookings senior fellow and a National Security Council staff member during the Carter administration, says that since August he has sometimes gotten as many as 30 to 40 requests a day.

"I must say in this business one gets a little tired of doing things for the networks and never getting any compensation for it," Quandt says. "For four months I haven't done a heck of a lot of my own work."

So last Wednesday he signed up as a paid consultant for ABC until Feb. 5 and proceeded to spend several hours a day at the network's Washington studio for the rest of the week. On each shift, he says, he was on the air for five or 10 minutes. Otherwise, "I read the newspapers and watched the television, which fortunately is probably what I would have done on those days anyway. There's nothing great or novel or fascinating about it. It's just mostly sitting there waiting and getting to know the technicians."

But for others, more used to the relative obscurity of foreign policy journals and lunchtime panel discussions, the last week has been an excursion into temporary fame and extreme sleep-deprivation.

The night the war began was "the second most exciting night of my life," Blackwell says. (Don't fret, Mrs. Blackwell -- he rushes to declare that his wedding night remains the most exciting.) "It's going to be hard for the adrenaline to slow down, I tell you what!" he says. "My phone at home is ringing off the hook -- my wife hasn't gotten any sleep for the last three days because of the calls."

But Blackwell manages to restrain himself on-air, adopting the Talking Head seriousness that is the demeanor of choice these days and that has perhaps been perfected by Anthony Cordesman, the ABC consultant who also advises Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Middle East and has written a book called "The Iran-Iraq War and Western Security."

Reached at his home over the weekend, Cordesman was not interested in discussing his new-found celebrity. "I am trying to get some sleep," he said on Saturday afternoon in a voice that somehow managed to balance impassivity and a touch of irritation.

Meanwhile, retired lieutenant general and former journalist Bernard Trainor was trying to get some laundry done. Trainor was hired by ABC on the day before the war started. He seemed to be on the air constantly the first night and has made frequent appearances from his office at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"It's very time-consuming because the events are totally unpredictable, so you have to be ready at a moment's notice to respond," he said of his television work. "In that sense it's not very different from the military."

The experience, he said, is also familiar from three years spent as a reporter for the Times in the mid-'80s, during which he covered many conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq war. In deciding how to discuss the complexities of armaments to a general audience, he said, "I use the adage that I was taught when I went with the New York Times after I retired from the Marine Corps. I was advised by Abe Rosenthal, who was then executive editor of the Times, that in writing a story I should write it in such a way that it's understandable to the maid and doesn't embarrass those at your dinner table with its simplicity."

But however many social strata Trainor feels he is able to bridge, like Quandt he remains essentially skeptical about how much of what he says makes any difference to his viewers.

"I don't think they absorb very much of it at all," Trainor said. "I think television is a medium of impressions, unlike the printed word."

Says Quandt, "Whenever I'm on television people come to me and say, 'I saw you on television,' and they either say, 'You looked good,' or 'You should have smiled,' or 'Your tie wasn't good.' When I say, 'Oh, what was I talking about?' they say, 'I can't remember -- you seemed pessimistic.' "

Both see their television roles less as educators than as guides, and suggest that part of what they offer is an image of competence and understanding. The Expert, they seem to be saying, is as much to be valued for his air of expertise as for the substance of what he says.

"If the viewer gets an innate sense of confidence in what the television personality is saying," said Trainor, "even though they may not remember exactly what he or she said, I think they come away with a sense of understanding, if not detailed knowledge."

So early in the war, some vague sense of understanding may be all that is possible.