Trim in body and precise in speech, the brigadier generals -- one star only -- interviewed here look as if their hair were newly cut and their uniforms straight out of a box. Among the youngest of generals in the Army and the Air Force, they are meticulously courteous, relentlessly upbeat. Whatever their current assignment, it is always their favorite. Brig. Gen. GORDON FORNELL

Gordon Fornell siits in the Pentagon's current hot seat, coordinating the Air Force's topmost priority: the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile replacement system, better known as MX. Officers and civilians bustle in and out of Fornell's office with slips of paper, the phones never stop ringing, and the words exchanged sound as if they were code.

At 46, Fornell looks half hiis age -- a clean-cut, clear-eyed image from a recruiting poster. His 24 years of service include a two-year stint as a test pilot and one ear as a flier bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail. After the mass suicide of Rev. Jim Jones' followers in Guyana, Fornell volunteered to fly home the bodies, a grisly job that included loading and unloading them. "It was a lesson what the military can do when called upon," he says, "but my worst experience as a soldier."

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Fornell was flying B52s on airborne alert. "That was the closest we came to nuclear war," he says."I thought it could happen. We were ready, our families were ready. We flew as close to the Soviet Union as possible. When we turned the corner way up north, it felt like flying off the edge of the earth. It was pitch dark, and we were so far north that wherever you turned, you went south. That was spooky. I never felt so relieved in my life when that airborne alert was phased ouout."

But, he says, clenching his fists, his present assignment is "by far the most stressful" he has had, because he has to "interface" with arms control specialists and logisticians, Congress and the press, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House. "In my heart I fell the MX missile is absolutely essential to national security," he says, and his words ring with passion. "Working on the MX program is the most intense experience in my life." Brig. Gen. GERALD JENNINGS

Easygoing, genial Gerald Jennings, 46, is an Army Comptroller with an unpopular assignment. His office has to develop the budget and then make sure that the budget approved by Congress provides adequate resources for different sections of the Army. "Getting agreement between all the factions is not totally achievable," he says with a chuckle.

"I sleep weel," he says, "even though some of my friends say I shouldn't."

This fiscal year Jennings has up to $16 billion to allocate. But, he says, "the mission usually outstrips the available resources" and it is his job "to worry about not adequately defending the position of an Army commander who is trying to perform his mission. Sometimes we are in the business of allocating a lack of resources." Brig. Gen. ELMER BROOKS

Having failed the eye test, Elmer Brooks could not become a pilot; he zeroed in on technology instead. In his 27 years in the Air Force, he commanded a radar station and missile combat units, and worked as a flight control technologist for the Gemini and Apollo space missions. He seved as assistant to Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Harold Brown -- a key liaison between the military and its civilian boss, and a job that often opens doors to the top. Now 50, he is attached to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dealing with international negotiations.

"My career pattern is not consistent," he says with a self-deprecatory smile. "I've had a zigzag path."

Born and raised in the District, Brooks comes from a family prominent in the capital for more than a century. His paternal grandfather was the pastor for 63 years of the 19th Street Baptist Church.

He is a churchgoer and a basketball player. He paints and sculpts -- art was his major at Howard. He reads books on arms control and technology, and finds that the weapons in films such as "Star Wars" are "not really farfetched." But, he says, computers will never be in charge, because they offer "just one type of input, facilitating analysis" in the decision-making, which is always subjective. "We can't rely on quantitative output as our final answer," he says. "We shouldn't depend on machines." Brig. Gen. JAMES DAVIS

James Davis joined the Air Force because he wanted to fly. "I made the right decision for the wrong reasons," he now says. "Flying is a great relaxer. Your frustrations go away. It's good practice for hand-to-eye coordination, for decision-making." But two years ago he had to stop: piloting airplanes is now reserved for officers who need the practice.

"If I was a young kid and saw some old bastard like me doing all the flying, I'd complain too," he says. "I don't like the new rule, but that's the way it ought to be."

Davis, 47, is now a manpower specialist, a talent scout. He is delighted that after years of "the military made to feel like second-class citizens, you no longer have to be a closet patriot. The individual we are looking for in the Air Force should be willing to learn and be a bit of a patriot. We ask our people what General Motors would never ask: move every three or four years, go overseas to countries they might have never heard of."

Asked to define a good commander, Davis says that "concern for people has got to be the base line. A good commander must take care of his troops -- and then they take care of him."

With a twinkle in his blue eyes, he calls his own style of command "participative autocracy." That means "getting experts in, making a proposal discussing the impact and then making a decision. 'Yes, sir,' should be the last two words of all arguments." Brig. Gen. JAMES CERCY

The soldier on the front line has only seconds to bring down aircraft approaching him. If he is lucky, he spots the enemy as a speck on the horizon, and if he is quick, he might be able to hit him with his should-fire missile that homes in on the heat of the aircraft's engine.

Automating the process of scanning and targeting is one of 36 research-and-development projects currently supervised by the Army's James Cercy, 46.

He says that the Army has been looking for such a system for years -- it is called short-range air defense command and control system -- but it was only two years ago that the decision was reached on automation. "Some improvements in the existing manual system will be introduced as soon as possible," Cercy says. "We like an evolutionary approach." But, he says, it may take from five to 10 years for the automated system to become completely operational.

Wiry, intense, poker-faced, he is a scientist-soldier, with degrees in engineering and experience in artillery and missiles. His career has alternated between research and development jobs and field assignments.

As tight-lipped as a chessplayer asked to discuss his strategy in an ongoing game, Cercy will not go beyound acknowledging that "wars help us understand capabilities." He notes that a foot soldier's ability to down aircraft was "important" in the Falklands war and in Israeli-Syrian fighting, and that any shoulder-fire missile would be "helpful" to Afghan rebels. "We don't have to have wars," he says, "but they help research and development. No matter how much we simulate, the real thing is war."