If World War III were to start tomorrow on the plains of Europe, where the most widely held scenario puts it, Lt. Col. Wesley K. Clark's tank battalion could (and probably would) be in the front lines within 24 hours. All the rolling stock it needs -- tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, jeeps -- is already stockpiled at strategic points in Germany. Flown across the ocean from Fort Carson, Colo., in huge C-141s, the 537 men would link up with their equipment, which would then either roll under its own power or be shipped by rail to meet a NATO brigade somewhere along the front.

In a conventional land war over open country, battalion commanders like Clark would be more important in the acutal fighting than any other officers or men. A battalion is the largest fighting unit in which a commander can keep direct contact with his troops. It is the smallest in which he has control of his resources and is relatively self-contained. Strategy and general tactics may be formulated in the rear, but front-line decisions at the battalion level will dictate how the battle goes.

The European scenario is laid out in convincing detail in the book The Third World War, written three years ago by Sir John Hackett, a British general and military scholar, and a panel of other experts. The book supposes a total nuclear standoff -- in fear of escalation and ultimate holocaust, neither side resorts to even the most limited nuclear weapons. But the nonnuclear weapons are so destructive and the various war machines move so fast that World War III is over in about three weeks. The basic pattern, though, is not much different from World War II: an all-out armored attack across the plains from East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and an eventual armored counterattack. The pattern is actually as old as Napoleon: Defensively, you mass your fire, turn the enemy's flank, destroy his command and control. The new systems just make it faster and easier. We win, since Hackett's scenario takes place in 1985 and by that time "the United States has come out of its post-Vietnam trance." But Hackett cautions in a 1978 author's note, "There is the very high probability that unless the West does a good deal within the next few years to improve its defenses, a war with the Warsaw Pact could end in early disaster."

By all conventional military indicators, Wess Clark, 36, is among the best the Army has to offer. He approaches the ideal, the perfect modern officer. There are those in the military who maintain the perfect officer should be someone who has put the failure of Vietnam behind him as if it were a bad dream. There are also those, mostly out of the military now, who say that it's exactly such inability or unwillingness to learn form history that lost us the Vietnam war in the first place. "

I'm the same man I was 15 years ago," a balding, rotund, 36-year-old Washington attorney was saying recently. "But Wess Clark is. He is a man who has not changed at all since West Point. He even looks the same."

As a West Point cadet in the class of 1966, Wess Clark ranked first three of his four years. Both he and his attorney, who was always in the top 10, applied for Rhodes scholarships but Clark was the only cadet granted one that year. Both served in Vietnam. The attorney left the Army after that, feeling that the war was "not well guided," that it fractured his generation into those who fought and those who did not, and that those who did fight have felt "betrayed" ever since. Wess Clark went on to early promotions and choice duty, and is the first from his class to recommend a battalion.

"I'd like to know if Wess can bear failure," the attorney said.

Interesting question. Clark and his peers are the next military leaders in this country. They are the first to have come of age in Vietnam, but ironically enough are attaining power just as that war's legacy of reduced expectations seems to be ending. The Reagan administration would like to pump more than $220 billion into the volunteer Army. It wants an agressive, anti-terrorist foreign policy, formulated by a former general. In this climate, the capacity to bear, remember and learn from failure may no longer be a virtue.

The attorney was right. Wess Clark himself does not think he's changed much since West Point -- only developed. "If you say that someone hasn't changed, then there's a good chance that person hasn't grown," he said, in the Blackhawk Battalion's scenic headquarters at Fort Carson. "But I believe that within a certain continuity of outlook and perspective I have grown." He's short and slight, with a swimmer's body. Violet eyes, thick, fine lashes. When he grins, which is most of the time, he could easily pass for a senior cadet. Except his voice is softer.

A few years ago, in an Esquire article, Josiah Bunting, former West Point instructor, Rhodes scholar, college president and novelist, called Wess Clark "probably the most brillant junior officer now on active duty in the Army." Indeed, listening to Clark talk in his soft but insistent, driving voice, you get the feeling he believes there is no probelem he can't solve if he gives it his total attention. This attitude used to be called "Can-Do" until the Vietnam War. Now it tends to be deprecatingly referred to as "can-doism." It has come to suggest a misguided belief in the morality of American brainpower and industry: We could do anything, so anythig we did had to be right. The popular perception these days is that can-doism led the brilliant men in the country to stoutly embrace the tarbaby that was Vietnam.

That has never been how Wess Clark sees it.

In 1968 he was the last Rhodes scholar to go on U.S. embassy-arranged speaking tours around England defending American intervention in Vietnam. He shed the rotten eggs and old tomatoes they threw at him like a duck sheds water: "A lot of people went through a lot of tension in the '60s. A lot of guilt. A lot of bitterness. I really didn't. I have my wife to thank for that. When you're settled personally, when the man-woman issue is set aside, I think it solves a lot." He cut short his three years as a Rhodes scholar to fight in Vietnam, where he got a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

Now, at Fort Carson, he argues that the U.S. Army won the war:

"It was more than a can-do attitude we had. We did do. We set out to destroy the enemy's main forces, their political infrastructure, to build up the South Vietnamese economy and government, and we did. I would say that the United States just lost heart too soon. Had we held our heart after the peace talks, intervened if the accords were violated as we promised, there would still be a South Vietnam."

He shakes his head. "It sounds hackneyed to say that Vietnam was a noble experiment, but I'm not so sure it wasn't.Everything we predicted would happen, did happen." He ticks them off his fingers. "The Soviets are using the ports. Conflict and tension has spread through Indochina. Genocide. Boat people."

Many soldiers in Vietnam were forced to loosen the structure of their lives to deal with the experience. Wess Clark reacted by tightening his. After four months in a staff job at First Infantry Division Headquarters in Di An and two months before he took command of a company in the field, he was converted from the Baptist to the Roman Catholic church. "I liked the notion of the Catholic clergy being totally committed, the fact that the church was their whole life. I liked the long tradition of learning and study; I felt it served as more of an anchor, and I thought at this point that it was very important to be grounded in history. The prosaic thing to say is that of course religion is very important to a fighting man because there is no atheism in the foxhole. But there is actually a lot of truth to that. I don't think you can operate in this world unless you believe there is something more than just hedonism."

Structure in belief, structure on the job, structure at home. Three months after assuming command of the company, he was shot four times (hand, shoulder, leg and hip) in a firefight north of Saigon and medevacked back to the structured society of peacetime military life. The Silver Star he was awarded for continuing to direct the fighting in spite of his wounds fit in as flawlessly as everything else in his career.

He had performed as well as possible under fire, which in the military is one of the most important prerequisites for success. There seems to be no place inside this structure for the concept of a Vietnam-era officer with, as his friend the attorney put it, "a kind of gut-level knowledge of sacrifice and how you weave it inot the fabric of policy." Or, as author Philip Caputo (A Romor of War) put it: a reluctance to say, "Oh well, let's send a battalion into lower Volta. . . ."

You might think it would be pointless to ask Wess Clark what lessons he'd learned in Vietnam. According to one way of looking at it, the learning of lessons implies coming to terms with failure.

"No," he says. "I think there were a lot of lessons learned in terms of tactics and strategy. For example, the decision to mine Haiphong Harbor in 1972 was one of the times that showed how effective force can be, as was the Christmas bombing of Hanoi. These contradict the general perception coming out of Vietnam, that military power frustrates itself."

Failure, now. Has Wess Clark ever failed at anything? "Maybe I'm poorer for never having had that experience," he answers, but it takes no genius to see he does not believe it.

He never knew his father, a Chicago lawyer who died when he was 4. His mother had been born in Little Rock, Ark., and that's where they returned . . . she to marry a bank officer (but have no other children), he to go to public schools, win a National Merit Scholarship and an appointment to West Point. Why choose the Military Academy instead of Harvard or Yale? Both the universities offered scholarships. "A very sort of impersonal thing. A southern thing, to be drawn to the concept of service to country . . . something they don't understand much in the Northeast. It was just a belief that this was the right thing to do, to be an Army officer. It was not romantic. . . . West Point was simply a means to an end."

He started out in math, at which he was so brilliant he could afford to spend most of his time with the swimming team and still be first in his class -- his old high school pattern, which he saw no reason to change. "After two years, though, I realized it wasn't fitting together the way I'd hoped, pure science and the military." The real challenge, he came to think, was to fit the military experience into the rest of society, not to bury oneself in abstractions. "I'd had no experience in international affairs before, but I took a social science course in my sophomore year which absolutely grabbed me. So that all fit."

Switching majors and substituting debating for swimming caused him to drop to a mere third in his class the next year, but by senior year he was back on top. He'd also won (from another classmate) the heart of his wife-to-be, the daughter of an officer in the Catholic Relief Service whom he'd met at a dance for Annapolis midshipmen in New York. And who is now, incidentally, the perfect military wife: her house neat as a pin, her son quiet and well-behaved, her hair blond and short, and her conversation enthusiastic yet discreet.

So Clark's style was now set for good, a man brilliant in academics, respectable but not outstanding in sports and leadership . . . a man, the attorney remembers, "who took everything very seriously, who did not have a lighter side, who would be able to inspire troops and earn their respect but probably not to earn their love." A Robert E. Lee or a MacArthur, rather than a Grant or an Eisenhower. Nobody would argue, either, that by virtue of his class standing, his Rhodes scholarship, his contacts in the influential social science department, that the mark was on him. Along with 1 or 2 percent of his classmates, he would be running on a very fast track. Or, as it is said in the Army, he would be "walking on water."

His assignments and achievements since then bear this out: combat command and decoration in Vietnam; instructorship in the West Point social sciences department; think-tank duty in the Pentagon; first in his class at Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: White House Fellow; early promotion to major; operations officer of a brigade in Germany, as a major in which is usually a lieutenant colonel's slot; a year and a half as assistant executive officer to Gen. Alexander Haig, then Supreme Allied Commander of the NATO forces in Europe; early promotion to lieutenant colonel; and finally the first in his class to command a battalion.

Maureen Mylander, in The Generals, a classic 1974 study of the military promotional system and its products, observes that to move this fast and well in the Army requires punching of almost precisely thest tickets: West Point, a juidicious combination of distinguished command and staff posts, the right war colleges and postgraduate work, plus a generous dollop of luck and a powerful friend at high levels. (It is thought that Haig continues in this role for Clark.) The pattern cannot be broken. There can be no false steps, no irritated superiors, nothing oddball, no undue attention.

The classic example of the danger of being a water-walker in an army of swimmers is that of Peter Dawkins (West Point, 1959), like Wess Clark a Rhodes scholar and White House Fellow, with choice assignments, early promotions. He was also a football hero, which made it worse. Many articles appeared: Dawkins wins the Heisman Trophy, Dawkins on the rugby field, Dawkins in the Vietnamese jungles. Finally came the one that blighted his career, a headline in the Army Times after his early promotion to lieutenant colonel at 36: "Star for Dawkins Before 40?" A few months ago, at 42 and well out of first place, Dawkins was finally listed for promotion.

So Wess Clark was not eager for publicity at all.At the time he agreed to sit still for this article because it was conceived as a gallery of several young, successful military leaders, including Brig. Gen. Colin L. Powell, Brig. Gen. William S. DeCamp, Brig. Gen. Thomas E. Carpenter III and Maj. Gen. Charles W. Dyke. The gallery approach would lessen the danger of exposure to each, and emphasize that the point was not to suggest any one of them was "the best," a future chief of staff, or slated for a star before 40. But the gallery proved impossible to put together.

Clark's command style with his troops at Fort Carson owes almost nothing to Vietnam, at least not to our side. It's not informal; it's not tolerant. Neither does it have much of the high-spirited toughness of World War II. It's methodical: Set the proper attainable goals, then do anything to acheive them. "We're going to do it the way the Viet Cong did it," he likes to tell his officers. "Do it, critique it, do it again. Until we get it right." There's the ever-present grin, the voice is soft, but as he talks, his head jerks forward slightly to punctuate the words. If he's sitting down, the chair vibrates. He's not just a technician -- there is a charisma, a fairly powerful image projected. People around him say it's because he has a "sense of mission." In the clergy, it would be a "calling." Which is to say he gives off the impersonal sense of being invested by higher authority.

The tradition of harking back to the styles and accomplishments of great generals of the past has always been important in the Army, probably because the basic formula for becoming one hasn't changed since the early 1800s. "Before we had the advent of the managerial age in the Army," said a friend of Clark's from West Point who is now executive officer of the Second Brigade at Carson, "there were two distinct styles of command. The Second Brigade at Carson, "there were two distinct styles of command. The Omar Bradley type, who accomplished the mission through his troops. And the George Patton Type, the egotist who drove his people into the ground. Wess is more to Patton, the pusher and driver, although he does exhibit a Westmoreland flair for management. In fact, sometimes Wess frustrates me quite a bit, he's so concerned with appearances." The officer grinned. "Of course, I am too. Appearances, statistics. We both grew up in Vietnam and that unfortunately is one the legacies." He was talking about the ways the war used to be measured: body counts, kill ratios, pacification indexes, which always showed the United States was winning.

There are those among his officers who think that Clark is too hard-driving, that he arrogates too much responsibility unto himself, that he doesn't understand his troops are human beings. "This battalion did need him, I'll admit that," said one. "We all know that before he got here this battalion was the pits. He solved every one of the problems, got it back on its feet. But the man is definitely three-star material. He overshadows the battalion. I don't know anybody who feels at ease with him. Nobody wants to give him bad news so he has a very overrated opinion of morale and is very defensive about anything that might be wrong. Which could be dangerous. He might attempt something that relies on a high state of morale, which just wouldn't be there."

But such officers appear to be in a minority.

Not long ago, Wess Clark's battalion completed a three-week winter training excercise he'd named Operation Black-hawk Blizzard, at the end of which it was evaluated and rated on its maneuvering ability. He had reason to be confident. He'd had the battalion for a little less than a year, taking over early when his predecessor failed an equipment inspection and was relieved. After six weeks on the job, Wess Clark passes a reinspection with respectable ratings. Five months later he passed a second inspection with top ratings. The battalion placed second out of 28 in the annual divisional games and has been selected to participate in NATO exercises this fall in Germany. (First was the first battalion of the 10th Infantry Regiment, the "Golden Rifles.")

The other battalion commanders at Fort Carson believe that Clark has developed a system for methodically upgrading his unit, although he denies having anything more than "an eye for detail."

Take the details involved in maintaining the 20-year-old M-60 tank. Each link in the treads is held in position by two bolts. If these bolts loosen and fall out, the tread separates, unrolls off the road wheels and tears itself to pieces. The treads running over the rubberized drive wheels wear them out even in routine operation. The prism sights on the 105 mm cannon are likely to fog and can be cleared only by nitrogen. Tank radios are notoriously troublesome. Since an M-60 gets only about half a mile to a gallon of diesel, there are always fuel problems -- availability and logistics. The 50- and 30-caliber machine guns jam. The various brackets and mountings in the turret tend to work themselves loose. If all the battalion's 140 vehicles -- 54 tanks, 30 jeeps, 30 trucks, 12 armored personnel carriers, four mortar trucks, three command tracks, seven tank recovery vehicles (tow trucks for tanks) -- were to run at the same time, Wess Clark estimated, something would be breaking down every minute.One of the signs of a good commander in the modern mechanized Army is that he can return from the field with approximately as many vehicles as he left with. It's like Alice in Through the Looking Glass: It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.

An officer's reenlistment rate is another crucial sign. Clark will drop almost anything to obtain a reenlistment. If a trooper appears to be wavering as the end of his enlistment approaches, Clark will involve himself in lengthy strategy sessions with NCOs and officers. Each successful reenlistment is a little celebration, complete with a swearing-in (frequently conducted by Clark), a lot of backslapping and handshaking and a photographer for the record. In particularly tough cases, Clark will talk to the soldier with his low, driving voice and his grin at its most open and charming.

On the average the troops are only 19 years old, but in Operation Blackhawk Blizzard and any other field exercise, many are leaving wives and children behind. The unmarried ones are leaving comfortable two- and three-barrack rooms that look more like college dormitories. The Fort Carson military clubs serve great food and 35-cent beer and feature go-go girls.

When Wess Clark arrived at the downrange tactical operations center (TOC) for the second week of Blackhawk Blizzard, his executive officer told him that some of the men had refused to walk from the landing area to the camps where their vehicles had been left the week before. "These guys' attitude is, 'If I wanted to walk I would have joined the the infantry.'" the executive officer told Clark. "The problem is motivating people when they don't have their vehicles under them. In those tanks they have everything they need to keep them comfortable: heaters, blow-up dolls . . . " The XO smiled to indicate facetiousness but later complained that the average troop tended to be a man who before joining the Army had failed at everything he tried.

It also turned out that two of the guards left downrange over the weekend had gone AWOL and that someone had broken into a mess truck.

The battalion's crime, AWOL and reelistment figures are better than average, though, and suggest Clark had established relatively effective discipline and morale. He's aware of the falling statistics on troop intelligence, education level and motivation, but stoutly maintained that new regulations lengthening an officer's tour of duty with his troops from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years "are going to pay great dividend in training. It's probably the most significant modification in years. Of course I'd like to see higher standards for enlisted men. We need to provide educational, not financial incentives. But if you ask me if I can take these troops I have now, yes; I can take them and produce a battalion that can fight." The permanent grin becomes harder. "The picture I want to paint is this: There are some very dedicated people in all levels of command. These are some very dedicated noncoms, there are some willing privates. We will fight and fight well with what we have, but by itself it is not the force the country needs."

In a war, he explained, the big problem would not be the fighting troops anyway. If would be the lack of reserves, both men and equipment. In the European theater the Warsaw Pact armies have a 5-to-1 ratio of superiority in tanks over the NATO nations, and the same in manpower. American M-60 tanks are 20 years old and the new XM-1s are still in the pipeline. The Soviets have as many new T-72 tanks (comparable to the XM-1s) operating as the United States has M-60s. "Our chief of staff has talked about a hollow army," Clark said. "That's what happened to MacArthur in the Phillipines. They had no reserves to sustain themselves, fought themselves down, ended up in Corregidor and surrendered. The lesson I take from that is that one has to be very careful about bottom-line military assessments. MacArthur originally didn't think he could hold out. Then he decided he could. I have never seen it described how he changed his mind."

The motto of the Blackhawk Battalion is Insiste Firmitter, and this is what Wess Clark says every time he salutes a troop:

"Stand firm." Over and over again.

They usually answer "Blackhawk, sir," unless they are in a really bad mood. Making an inspection halfway through Blackhawk Blizzard, Clark stumbled into a pocket of disgruntled troops who didn't bother to get to their feet when he saluted. There was urine in the roadwheels of the nearby tanks.

"You having fun out here?" Clark asked, unfazed.

One of the privates shook his head.

"Are we going to whip ass on Monday?"

The troop waved his hand in a vague negative.

"Okay, we'll put you in the rear then."

The man just shrugged. Another private muttered: "Why don't you put me back in the rear too.?"

Seeming not to hear, Clark moved on to inspect a tank. The troops complained loudly: "You going to put this in the paper? This f---ing battalion, they just work you to death . . . a lot of diddlys---." A sergeant came up and complained that NCOs had a bad attitude because nobody trusted them and they were getting treated like privates.

"You know what Pat Buchanan wrote about the volunteer army being a group of whiners?" Clark told his sergeant major. "Sometimes on days like this I think he's right."

A week later the battalion maneuvers were evaluated by Col. Robert H. Alsheimer, commanding officer of the Second Brigade, who approached effusiveness: "It was one of the most difficult we have ever put on," he said, "because it involved just about every element of the division for the first time. But it went tremendously well. They were given 'go's' in all the areas we evaluated and I think you can say they successfully accomplished all the missions."

Wess Clark, always the perfect commander, arranged for music from the movie "Patton" to be played over PA systems as the Blackhawk Battalion rolled back to the base. Patton. He's still the one to shoot for, even after all these years.As any military man will tell you, it takes a great war to produce a great general.