On one side of the golfing green is a yacht marina, on the other side is a view of Virginia, across the Potomac. At the edge of the green sits not the clubhouse, but an imposing 67,000- square-foot domed building with stone columns topped by truculent- looking carved eagles -- the National War College. Inside, at a cost of about $47,000 a student per year, America's warrior elite are learning the art of not making war.

On a recent autumn day, Alan Gropman, an Air Force colonel who speaks in rapid-fire bursts, is lecturing on the great military strategists Sun Tzu (4th century B.C.) and Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). A visitor, closing her eyes so that she can't see the rows of uniformed, trim middled- aged men (and a few women) listening to Gropman, can almost imagine that this scene is taking place on a collge campus in the 1960s.

Pacing back and forth on the auditorium stage, Gropman says: "The price we paid in 1914 was tens of millions dead. The soil of Europe was made fertile for Nazism . . . War is more costly than any other endeavor . . . When America poured its soul into Saigon, what was the political objective that was worth the cost? When we look we find nothing deeper than slogans . . . France lost 1.9 million in World War I. Emily Yoffe is a staff writer of The Washington Post Magazine. "Think about that. For what? For what? For what?

"And I haven't said a word about the shell-shocked and the wounded. Nobody came out well or whole who participated in that war . . . How can one get out of war when you don't know why you're in it in the first place?"

Not only that, but as Clausewitz noted more than 150 years ago, wars never turn out the way strategists plan them. Gropman says understanding the Prussian's concept of "friction" helps explain why combat is hell. "Friction," Gropman says, " is what separates war games from war."

A slide projected in the classroom shows a quote from Clausewitz -- "Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war . . . Countless minor incidents -- the kind you can never really foresee -- combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one falls far short of the intended goal."

Gropman points to the screen and then to the audience: " . . . You want to think about a rescue mission in Iran that needed to have better weather than good luck would provide, that didn't have a prudent number of helicopters. They didn't think about friction."

Keeping his dramatic, almost evangelical tone, Gropman says he has a short film about friction, a film about how all the best preparations for battle can be sabotaged. There is anticipation. Waterloo? Bull Run? Dunkirk?

The lights dim and for a few minutes the visitor again feels transported back in time -- to kindergarten -- as across the screen trots the animated image of the crafty Wile E. Coyote. It's a classic Road Runner cartoon. The hapless Coyote gets flattened, tarred and feathered, and blown up by his own dynamite, as each of his meticulously planned and complicated missions designed to annihilate the seemingly oblivious Road Runner backfires. Clausewitz would have loved it.

THE NATIONAL War College was established in 1946 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Located at Fort Lesley J. McNair, off Maine Avenue in Southwest Washington, it was preceded at the site by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The war college is supposed to teach strategy to "the thinkers," as a university administrator put it, and the industrial college is supposed to teach logistics to 'the nuts-and-bolts types."

In 1976 the two colleges were brought together administratively as the National Defense University. The cost to run the university this year is $20.6 million.

The class of 1985 at the two colleges is 391 students, a fourth of them civilian federal employes, mostly from the departments of State and Defense. For the military officers, whose average age is 42 and who have been in the service about 18 years, being selected to attend is a crucial career move. (A similar pathway to promotion is provided by admission to one of the war colleges run by the individual services, which this year have 902 students enrolled.)

"We are told repeatedly that we are the chosen few," says Army Col. Robert Brady. The unchosen are not told much of anything, but the message is clear: their careers aren't going any further.

"This is a milestone, a gate through which one must pass to reach high rank," says the university's president, Army Lt. Gen. Richard Lawrence.

Among those who have passed through the gate are National Security Agency director Gen. Lincoln Faurer; Alexander Haig, a former secretary of state; Adm. Thomas Hayward, chief of naval operations; Brent Scowcroft, an adviser on national security and retired Air Force general; Gen. John Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Elmo Zumwalt, a retired admiral and former chief of naval operations.

Very few of the chosen few will reach such exalted levels. But Air Force Col. Samuel Gardiner, course director at the War College, says the exposure all students get to vital questions of war and peace will help them be better advisers to the exalted ones.

Besides lectures on military strategists of the past, students at the war college are lectured to by noncommissioned officers who have served in recent war zones such as Grenada.

"The purpose is to expose the students to enlisted people who have been in combat. Combat for the guy who has to participate in it is different from combat one reads about in a book," Gardiner says. More and more students who will attend the university in years to come will never have served in a major war.

The thinking at the university about war is often not what one might expect from the military mind. For example, that a new generation of military leaders will never have seen combat is thought to be somewhat positive. Lawrence says: "It will be a marvelous thing for a man to go through a whole career with no experience in conflict. It means we have been successful. Our mission is peace . . . we ought to designate as heroes the men who have kept us out of war."

The university also is not closed to military critics. Antinuclear activist Carl Sagan has lectured there. "Sagan talked about the nuclear winter," says Navy Capt. George Thibault, chairman of military strategy. "It was good for people to hear who would have to drop the bombs."

Ambassador Bruce Laingen is vice president of the university. He understands firsthand the consequences of Clausewitz's concept of friction, having been one of the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran. He has been at the university since his release from capture nearly four years ago.

Laingen says his presence alone reminds students of alternatives to armed conflict. "Here I symbolically reflect diplomacy and its role," he says. " . . . The military needs to think more about how you don't fight wars."

Typical students at the university have come off a tour of duty as a front-line officer: a tank battalion commander in Germany, a Strategic Air Command wing leader in the Philippines or a destroyer captain in the Mediterranean.

They come to the war college from a crisp world of finite thinking: they talk, people listen -- and obey. Objectives are clear. At the school they learn about ambiguities, and then leave for a world in which a good question is: What's the question?

It will be a world where the battle is fought in memos, cost-benefit studies and seemingly arcane reports. The days of warrioring for many will be over. And when something goes wrong, Gar be a manual to tell you how to fix it. "What is our objective in the Middle East? There's no easy answer. How should we spend the defense budget? There's no easy answer."

THE TRANSITION for a student from front-line commander to Pentagon existentialist is helped along by participatory drama.

Behind a coded security door, down a long basement corridor, is the War Gaming and Simulation Center. Inside it looks less sophisticated than some corporate accounting offices: just a room full of personal computers. There is an auditorium where a postgame wrap-up can be done, and there is an aluminum folding table upon which is a map of the world divided into a series of small numbered hexagons. On it are orange and blue magnets representing fighting groups.

Raymond Bell, deputy director of the center, picks up one of the magnets and moves it over a few hexagons. "I don't know what a ship is doing on land," he says. "We had an open house and some kids must have moved it."

Bell is a colonel in the Army Reserves. His PhD thesis was titled "The Effectiveness of the Austrian Army and the Organization of Military Unions 1920-1934." He has also been editor of the National Guard magazine. "I've got an eclectic background," he says. "Most war-gamers do."

The center runs eight or nine games a year with names like Night Orbit, Polar Eagle and Deploy. But the biggest game, in which all the students participate and which serves as a sort of final exam, is Prudent Stride.

Prudent Stride has a feature that would make everyone happy if it could be used in real life: the students can't make war even if they want to.

To play Prudent Stride, the 391 students are divided into teams of about 12 each and scattered in classrooms across the university. They are given a scenario of about 30 pages on the world situation: it is never good.

If one's only exposure to war games is from the movies, Prudent Stride looks about as exciting as a CPA exam. After reading the scenario, students sit around a table with paper and pencil and decide what to do. Their responses go to a control team, usually a few faculty members and sometimes a local expert on the region involved.

Bell gives a hypothetical scenario: Libya and Morocco form a political military pact, making Algeria anxious. In response the Algerians begin mobilizing their forces and get into some verbal skirmishes with the Libyans. The students, who take on the role of the Algerian national defense authority, must decide what action to take. The players tell the control team what their next move will be. The control team thinks about it, then throws a whammy at them by updating the crisis. This can go on for a week.

According to Bell, to call this process a war game is a misnomer. "An exercise in group dynamics is how I like to think about war games," he says. "The point is not who wins or loses, but how you go about doing this sort of thing . . . The game can end any way. I don't kow, and I don't care how it ends."

The game is definitely not designed, however, to get the students humming "When the caissons go rolling along."

"The object might be to familiarize students with the steps government takes to respond to international crises, or to test a new defense theory, or a theory on arms control, or how you deal with terrorism," Bell says. "(The students) are really not interested in moving small units around the board. They're interested in grand strategy."

There is another factor inhibiting warmongering: peer pressure.

"They feel their reputations are on the line," Bell says. "They don't want to be put in a situation where if they make a controversial move they will be looked upon as being judged less competent than they feel."

But what if a renegade team locked in a classroom decides to drop the Big One?

"You're dealing with people who don't go off the deep end," Bell says.

Okay, but what if?

"Let's say they say we're going to bomb," Bell allows for a moment. "Control then goes back and says the detonation devices for the bomb have been destroyed."

Such gaming, of course, rarely ends conclusively. "It might end like it did in Chad," Bell says, citing real life. "The Libyans make an attack. There is a call for negotiations. Both sides agree to negotiate and the Libyans pull back to the southern border. The game reflects the real world as it exists today. You've got a situation that never quite resolves itself."

Although there are more than 30 groups of 12 playing the game at once, Bell says the teams usually give similar responses to the scenario. "One of the learning experiences is that options aren't as great as you think they are. It helps them understand limits of power. That's very important."

Living with that kind of frustration is a lesson Capt. Douglas Stetson, a member of the class of '84, learned well. Stetson, 40, is a boyish-looking Navy physician who once intended to practice pediatrics in Kalamazoo, Mich. Instead he is a 16-year veteran and has been posted from San Diego to Sardinia, testing human limits and mechanical technology with Navy diving teams. He has liked the travel and the work.

Since graduation this year from the university, he has been working at Marine headquarters as director of that service's medical programs. His job includes writing Program Objective Memoranda, which means figuring out five-year budgets, and going to meetings of the joint medical steering committee, part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Stetson says it's harder now "to get a sense of accomplishment on a day- to-day basis. That doesn't surprise me. That's something they told us was coming."

To prepare for life in the military fast lane, Stetson participated in a negotiation game at the college in which he practiced the art of stalemate. Players were divided into opposing teams of four members each. One team represented mythical Country A and one team mythical Country B. The object was for the two teams to work out a solution to disputed territory.

Each player was then given a Le Carr,e-style cover biography. Stetson played the finance minister of Country A. "Since I was the finance minister," Stetson recalls, "I had some specific things I wanted to see happen. My job was to convince the head of the delegation to feel my way. But the thing most important to him was to become prime minister. The point was to learn the concept of hidden agendas."

The point was not to go out and knock heads. "The negotiations were . . . extremely frustrating, extremely indirect," Stetson says." We failed to come to an agreement. No one won anything. We were told that it happens very frequently that teams fail to come to an agreement."

YEARS AGO, when winning and losing was the point, it was clear what type of personality was needed in a warrior: a man who was aggressive, impatient, ready for action. Today, when military men go to school to learn about stalemates and are told they can't even pretend to launch missiles, another personality is called for -- ISTJ (introverted, sensing, thinking, judging). Who's got ISTJ and who doesn't is discovered in a course called "Executive Skills Development," the first part of which is typing the body, not the personality. Students are given a physical exam that breaks down their internal chemistries into more component parts than there are in a B1 bomber. They are encouraged to start a fitness program that should enable them to go gluteus to gluteus with Jane Fonda by year's end, and are given diet recommendations more reminiscent of Pritikin than real men.

Air Force Col. Edward Parks is director of the Executive Skills Development program, which runs the tests. Parks is a small, enthusiastic fast-talking man with three master's degrees and a PhD in management and counseling. He says the health emphasis is designed to keep gradudates from contracting "Pentagon Disease."

"This is a special population which needs to be looked after," he says. "About a third of the blood chemistries are in an area of concern."

Also of concern to the administration is the inner life of the "chosen few." To explore these metaphysics, the university uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, developed by two American women who based it on the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung. The test consists of 126 multiple-choice questions asking, for example: "In a large group, do you more often (A) introduce others, or (B) get introduced?" and "After being with superstitious people, have you (A) found yourself slightly affected by their superstitions, or (B) remained entirely unaffected?"

The test measures whether one is extroverted (E) or introverted (I); intuitive (N) or sensing (S); thinking (T) or feeling (F); and judging (J) or perceptive (P).

The students and their families -- who are also encouraged to take the test -- have results explained to them at a three-hour seminar by Arlington psychologist Otto Kroeger. At the break, as everyone compares types, the conversation sounds like an astrology convention.

Most students are ISTJs (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking and Judging) and ESTJs (Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking and Judging) with ISTJs predominating. In the booklet that explains the types, ISTJs are described as "the guardians of time- honored institutions, and, if only one adjective could be selected, dependable would best describe this type." ESTJs are characterized as "outstanding at organizing orderly procedures and in detailing rules and regulations . . . the best adjective to describe ESTJs would be responsible." According to the literature, these two types together make up only 19 percent of the U.S. population.

Parks, an ENTJ ("If one word were used to capture ENTJ's style, it would be commandant") emphasizes in a speech to the students that there is no right or wrong personality type. The students, in typical ISTJ style, find this a little hard to buy.

"ISTJs like to look for canned answers, they want to know what's the right answer," says Parks.

Psychologist Kroeger has been holding seminars on Myers-Briggs at the university since 1979. If his students switched their uniforms for business suits, Kroeger says, it would be next to impossible to distinguish them from the corporate executives he also tests. Both groups are introverted and sensing. "They are objective decision-makers," Kroeger says.

This corporate personality is something fairly new in the military, Kroeger says, and it helps explain why during the war games, the students prefer deterrence to destruction.

"The peacetime Army does not have the George Patton type. They've been weeded out. I know a number who have early-outed in the last 10 years. The action types . . . the hard- nosed risk-taking daredevils . . . said, 'I didn't come to push papers. I joined the action Army and there's no action,' NOT everyone thinks the business school approach to officer training is good strategy. Richard Gabriel, coauthor of Crisis in Command, lectures at the university. His worry, and that of many other military critics, is that the Defense Department is too concerned with creating civilian-type managers at the expense of military-type leaders.

"I think the military school system is a more accurate reflection of the managerial ethos," Gabriel says. "The curriculum on balance stresses the acquisition of management skills versus leadership skills."

But Gabriel doesn't blame the administration of the National Defense University. "It's a rational response to an irrational system," he says. If the brass rewards those skillful at bureaucratic battles, then skillful bureaucrats are what the system will turn out.

"They're going to spend the rest of their careers as bureaucrats, no question about that," Gabriel says of the students. "The system rewards idiotic beha ior. It has noth with training soldiers."

But for Air Force Col. Thad Wolfe, a member of the class of '85, such criticism doesn't wound. Before he got to the university, Wolfe, a pilot with an affable manner, was Senior Controller at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha. In event of war, he would have been one of those making sure our bombers got where they had to go as a rain of missiles fell on his base.

He has had no trouble decompressing from that high-stakes environment to university life. Since coming to the war college, he says, "I've had trouble wiping the smile off my face."