It was a peculiar little war. It wasn't by the book.

The dream of the military intelligentsia is that wars can be fought sensibly, that they will reflect some theory, some doctrine, some of the timeless verities taught in the academies and war colleges. But wars don't always cooperate. They go their own crazy ways.

The people who ran the war in Yugoslavia wouldn't even call it a "war." They went into it awkwardly, burdened by political concerns, hoping to bomb moderately, selectively, not so much fighting the war as finessing it.

Professional strategists were appalled. They voiced their protest in print interviews and all over cable TV. What happened, they wondered, to the official Pentagon doctrine of joint-force warfare, the absolute necessity of combining forces to smash the enemy by air, land and sea?

Whatever happened to the Powell Doctrine, which said that if you're going to war you ought to use overwhelming, decisive force, not some incremental, gradual, throat-clearing approach?

Wasn't this, argued the warriors, a half-baked attempt at "immaculate coercion"?

Rarely has there been a war so widely despised so early and so openly by the military intelligentsia. Some exact quotes:

* "They're doing about everything stupid they can do."--Retired Adm. Leighton "Snuffy" Smith.

* "I'm totally dismayed at the ineptness that has surrounded this entire affair."--Retired Gen. Bernard Trainor.

* "It's absolutely amateurish practicing of the strategic art."--Retired Col. Don Snider, professor of political science, West Point.

For weeks it was hard to find a soul, other than the people holding the official briefings, to say a kind word about NATO's strategy.

And yet the war is now over. On Thursday President Clinton announced the end of the bombing campaign, thanking his staff, the military leaders and the troops in an Oscar-style victory speech.

These are delicate moments for the naysayers.

"This morning I made a full and frank confession that I was wrong," said military historian John Keegan after publishing a mea culpa in London's Daily Telegraph. Keegan explained where he had gone wrong: "We had not made allowance for the extraordinary developments in precision weapons. It was just as simple as that. I think we are in the presence of a military revolution. Bombing didn't work before because the weapons weren't precise enough. Now they are."

Keegan is an anomaly: Most of the critics refuse to back down from their essential claim that this was not an intelligently handled conflict.

"I'm willing to eat crow if necessary, but I don't find that platter in front of me," said Trainor, who saw combat in Korea and Vietnam and retired as a three-star general. Trainor said all wars are unique, and there's a danger that political leaders will draw the wrong lesson from this one.

"I think it is not good for the United States or the international community to come away from this horrible experience with the assumption that you can have bloodless wars, on our side, and do it from the air," he said. "I think when you draw the sword, unleash the dogs of war, you have to ask yourself a question: 'Are you willing to spill your own blood, American blood, in this endeavor?' "

With the war over, the strategists will scrutinize it, poke it, turn it over, and try to tweeze out some lessons. Which is not always easy in the euphoria of victory.

"As soon as one wins a war," said Eliot Cohen, a prominent critic of the air campaign, "people throw their brains out the window."

Harry Summers, a retired Army colonel, has been one of the critics, firing off shots from his home in Bowie. He's a columnist, editor of Vietnam magazine, and author of an influential post-mortem on Vietnam, "On Strategy." He said last month of the Kosovo war: "It's just been one disaster after another."

Summers fought in Korea and in Vietnam, and strategy isn't merely a theoretical matter to him. He was among the last soldiers off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. He was helping to evacuate South Vietnamese nationals, but the airlift was abruptly canceled before the job was complete. About 200 people were left behind, doomed. It was the only day when Summers was ever ashamed to be an American.

So when Kosovo came along, it horrified him. The "slow squeeze" on Milosevic was too much like the strategy in Vietnam. "What's been happening has violated the very logic of war."

Wars have logic. Wars follow laws and principles. This is the belief of a strategist, even if, in practice, wars degenerate into accidents, blunders and chaos.

A buzz phrase among theorists in recent years has been "rapid dominance." Like many doctrines, it has some fuzzy definitions--one book says it is designed to "achieve the necessary level of Shock and Awe at the appropriate strategic and military leverage points"--but the gist of the idea is that you win a war quickly and decisively. You don't ease into it.

That was one of the recurring messages of Leighton Smith.

"What would have been a perfect world is if Milosevic wakes up, Day 1 of the air war, and the first words out of his mouth are 'Holy Christ, don't let the sun go down, I don't ever want to go through a night like that ever again,' " he said last month during a break in a Rapid Dominance conference at Fort McNair.

When a reporter pointed out how unusual it is for retired brass to be so openly hostile to an ongoing campaign, Smith said, "I'm not so sure we've ever done anything as stupid as this in my life."

Smith has personal experience with incremental, excruciatingly slow, ultimately disastrous warfare. He flew 280 attack missions off aircraft carriers during Vietnam. He and his fellow pilots operated under severe restrictions. They couldn't bomb ships taking munitions into Haiphong harbor--it might anger the Russians or the Chinese. They couldn't even bomb surface-to-air missile sites until they were first fired upon, he said.

"There was nothing good about that war. It was fought just as stupidly as the one we just finished."

He said this Thursday, about an hour after Clinton's victory speech. Smith has agreed to no cease-fire in his verbal attack on the NATO strategy.

"This is going to be an example in all the war colleges throughout the world in how not to employ the military in pursuit of strategic objectives," he predicted.

There has always been a tension between the theory of war and the practice of war. The theory is supposed to inform the conduct of a war, but often it is the other way around. The war changes the theory.

One of the rules in the 20th century has been that the military needs to use a combination of forces--air, land, sea--to win. Strategists often note that, during the Blitz, the Nazi bombing of London in 1940, British resistance only hardened. No amount of bombing in Vietnam seemed to destroy the will of the Communists. The theoretical consensus: To win a war, you need boots in the mud.

But complicating the situation is the rapid disappearance of the classical war. The Persian Gulf War may have been an anomaly. The American military realizes that it will be involved, more and more, in difficult conflicts in small countries with vague and uncertain goals, like "nation-building." Theorists these days talk of "military operations other than war" (MOOTW)--actions such as those in Somalia and Haiti.

Kosovo wasn't exactly a classic war, but it also wasn't one of those bush-league MOOTWs.

It was, perhaps, a military operation other than a "military operation other than war."

For weeks this spring, the afternoon briefing at the Pentagon followed a pattern. Spokesman Kenneth Bacon would field questions about policy. Then Gen. Chuck Wald, an Air Force commander who has flown over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq and Bosnia, would narrate the gun camera footage from Yugoslavia.

The footage would be black-and-white, taken at high altitude over Yugoslavia. At the center of the screen, in the cross hairs, would be the target, invariably a static object, a building or a bridge, perhaps a parked truck or plane. Then a little black dot would appear, streaking in from an angle, turning into a bloom of white light.

Wald gave a running, deadpan commentary. "If there was an artillery piece in there, there isn't one anymore," he said after one strike.

Until the end of May, the daily images had one thing missing: armies.

There were no signs of Yugoslav soldiers, hardly ever a tank. In the absence of a threat from ground forces, and with surveillance planes ready to bomb anything that moved, the Yugoslav military was able, for weeks, to remain dispersed and camouflaged. And thus for two months this was a war without armies--no set-piece battles, no flanking maneuvers, no columns of armor, no one charging over a hill.

In those tough weeks, with criticism flying, the NATO and Pentagon leaders argued that the air campaign was truly working. They tried to make the point that, other than in some notable and highly publicized mistakes, the bombs were hitting their targets with greater precision than in any previous war. The air campaign was demonstrating, they said, what the theorists call the "revolution in military affairs."

This revolution, much discussed among theorists, is driven by new technologies, such as laser-guided munitions, satellites, unmanned surveillance drones and computer networks. These can give a superpower an overwhelming advantage in what theorists call "battlespace awareness."

"That's the reason we're making the progress we're making without forces on the ground," Bacon said last month. "That's the revolution in military affairs."

But such claims were drowned out by the bad news of the war. It was only when the Kosovo rebels launched an attack into their native land that the Yugoslav army started bunching up, giving NATO bombers some fatter targets.

For theorists on all sides, there is much to chew on. Air power worked--but only after some battles by the rebels on the ground.

Critics of the war still don't like what they saw:

* "So many of Milosevic's ambitions have been realized, I don't see how we come out a winner."--Col. Summers.

* "We don't know how many people have lost their lives. It's way premature to start filling in your scorecard."--Richard Haass, foreign policy analyst, the Brookings Institution.

* "We've corroded the military ethic by basically directing the military to fight a campaign that is outside the current laws of conventional warfare. . . . We are to fight combatants and we are to protect innocents."--Col. Snider, West Point.

The war is over. The doctrinal debate will continue.

There is one other theory worth noting. In recent years, military thinkers have said that Americans are increasingly reluctant to accept casualties in distant military conflicts. It is alleged that the public will bail on a war as soon as the first body bags start coming home.

In Kosovo, no Americans died in combat. The theory went untested.

CAPTION: In World War II, before selective targeting, Cologne, Germany, was demolished.

CAPTION: With no ground troops in Yugoslavia, NATO relied on Stealth fighter planes like this.