FROM THE BALCONY, all you see at first is a field of navy blue with white polka dots, but in a moment the scene resolves: a crowd of midshipmen is crammed into Mahan Hall at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, sail-white caps on their laps, eyes front, ears open.

James Webb is on stage, giving a speech about leadership. Webb was a ferocious boxer when he attended this academy 17 years ago, and you can still see it in his moves, cross-stepping away from the podium, pitched slightly forward on the balls of his feet. Weightlifting has given him a V-shaped torso and his gray suit is tailored to it -- like a mid's uniform, Webb's clothes seem to be adjusted to quarter-inch tolerances.

Usually, these little optional evening speeches attract perhaps 100 midshipmen, but Webb is a cult hero here, and more than a thousand mids -- a fourth of the school's population -- are jammed inside. That Webb is able to give this speech at all is amazing because he was kept from speech- making on the campus for four years: "The commandant of midshipmen told me I wasn't really banned, he had simply turned down 17 requests for my appearance on an individual basis," says Webb, which gets a big laugh from the crowd. Webb had angered the brass by writing that "The (Naval Academy) system has been objectified and neutered to the point it can no longer develop or measure leadership."

Now, however, Webb is an assistant secretary of defense, four stars' worth, so he outranks everyone at the academy. Now he's formally invited on campus to say whatever he pleases.

From the start, Webb has the mids captivated. He speaks of duty, loyalty, courage, character, words that sweep around a decor heavy on eagles and flags and wash over the mids in waves of camaraderie.

"You are wondering what the Marines are saying about academy graduates," he says, in a voice that still carries the soft drawl of southern Virginia. "To be honest, the reaction is mixed. They will tell you that you are the only academy officers not indoctrinated in an all-male environment."

A mid in the audience murmurs, "He knows what it's about." "The original purpose of a tough plebe indoctrination was to filter out people who can't handle stress," Webb says, as he spins out his thesis that the admission of women in 1976 forced a new emphasis on academics over a punishing physical and psychological regime. This, he says, is no way to build leaders.

"Einstein was brilliant, but he couldn't work a yo-yo. Would you want to follow him into combat?"

The place goes wild.

Webb says, "Now, I don't want to make you resent our fellow midshipmen."

"Already do," mutters a mid in the audience.

A hand shoots up. "Sir, have you ever considered running for president?"

Now the mids really go nuts.

At the end of the speech they give him a prolonged standing ovation. Clutching copies of his books they brought for him to sign, they file out.

"I agree with what he says. As far as I am concerned, this place isn't physical enough," says a mid who requests anonymity. "And maybe I'm a chauvinist, but I think they should get the women out."

"He's great," says another midshipman. "His books really tell it like it is."

Among those leaving the auditorium walks a shorter mid, alone, looking straight ahead.

"All I can say," she says evenly, "is he's entitled to his opinion."

INDEED, we are all entitled to our opinions, but few of us have expressed them as insistently as James Hodges Webb.

Seven years ago, he did it with a ballpoint pen in Fields of Fire, a book widely acclaimed as the ultimate Vietnam novel, a violent tale that made no apologies for the war, a book Webb calls "my personal catharsis . . . I wrote that book seven times, cover to cover, 14 hours a day, six days a week, in longhand and broke. The first three drafts were just to get it all out."

Sixteen years ago he expressed himself with an M16 as he commanded a Marine rifle company in Vietnam's bloody Anhoa basin, where he got blown up with appalling regularity (doctors managed to extract 11 of the 13 chunks of metal he accumulated, leaving a bit under his scalp and a piece in his kidney), once shot a grinning Vietcong soldier who popped out of a hole two feet in front of him and earned a chestful of medals for pulling several of his wounded men from zones where AK47 rounds buzzed like angry bees.

Now, just shy of 40, one might think he would ease up. He has two more successful novels on the racks, A Sense of Honor and A Country Such As This, and Dino De Laurentiis wants to know about movie rights. As assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, he has a Pentagon office bigger than some of the hilltops he used to defend. He has a good wife and a bad knee (a VC grenade shredded the ligaments, it is arthritic and stiffening more each year).

But Webb has led too many sweep- and-block attacks to start dogging it because life is getting comfortable. He is American samurai -- honor is serious business, our military leaders are going soft, the domino theory is no joke and what this country needs is fewer gutless wonders. He puts it all in his books and articles and practices it daily at the Pentagon.

WITH a first printing of 600,000 for A Country Such As This, he is on the road to becoming the most popular literary-military synthesist since Churchill. Recently, Tom Wolfe called him "one of the four or five most important young writers in this country."

He enjoys cutting a dual swath, being the artist and the soldier. Of his novels, which feature shrill liberals, wise conservatives and America's moral obligation to beat back communism, he says, ''Every one of those books was like the ice-cruncher ship, breaking through the channel. Other people follow you, and they wonder what the hell the problem was."

At the Pentagon, "They wanted to do the old mushroom routine that they do with all the new civilians: keep you in the dark, feed you s---and harvest a new crop every year. We took care of that right away."

"Jim always had to be the dominant wolf in the pack," says Lt. Col. Victor Reston, who serves as counsel in the reserve affairs office. "When I was in Vietnam, somebody would come up and say, 'Did you hear about Webb?' And I would think, man, this is it, he's dead. He was always so driven . . . I really didn't think he was going to make it."

"Driven," "uncompromising," "combative" and "intimidating" are the words those close to him use. Webb calls himself a "conscience" at the Pentagon.

"I can speak right from the heart on everything that I see, because I am not trying to roll this job into anything . . . I don't have to bow to Rome," he says. "I can always go write a book."

AT HOME as well as at work, Webb seems to define himself largely in terms of war. Now, sprawled on the couch of his comfortable, somewhat baby-chewed Arlington town house, with two toddlers wobbling around and infant Julia gurgling on her mother's lap, he tells the tale of his fighting legacy. "My people were in the Regulator War (an armed taxpayer revolt in the Carolinas). That was 10 years before the Revolution. We were in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, a whole gang of us in the Civil War, one great- grandfather fought for the Union and everybody else for the South."

The Webb clan always had two things in common: they were fighters and they were poor. His grandfather, Robert E. Lee Webb, was a sharecropper. His father, James Sr., an Air Force pilot, was the first Webb in 250 years to get much of an education, and he did it by going to night school for 26 years.

"I remember the most powerful moment of my life," Webb says. "Dad finally graduated when I was a senior in high school. At the ceremony at the University of Omaha, after he got his diploma, he jumped down, made a beeline for me, stuffed it in my face, and with tears streaming down his face, he said, 'You can get anything you want in this country and don't you ever forget it.'

Webb says he needed to hear it. "I was a wild man. I went to eight schools between grades 6 and 10. It made me so crazy you couldn't touch me. I took algebra twice. I was in dummy English . . . (But) give me a standardized test and I would max out."

It was those standardized tests that propelled him into the Naval Academy, where he was graduated with honors for outstanding leadership. Later he finished first in a class of 256 at basic training school at Quantico, Va.

After graduation in 1968, Webb married (and divorced 10 years later, a subject he will not discuss), joined the Marines and went to Vietnam, where he became one of the war's most decorated veterans, winner of the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. He earned a reputation for loyalty to his men. "I'm proudest of the fact that my men put me up for every one of those awards," he says.

"He was a hoss, that's all," says Webb's former radioman Mike McGarvey, summoning an ultimate compliment for stalwart courage. McGarvey's arm was blown off by a land mine. With Marine savoir- faire that Webb admires, McGarvey had the stump tattooed with a dotted line and the words "Cut Along Dotted Line." McGarvey now works as a prosthetics representative fothe Veterans Administration in Memphis. "Jim was a hell of a leader. He was full-charge; he didn't ask you to do anything he wouldn't do himself . . . When I got blown up, he sat there with me crying. I mean, it meant a hell of a lot to me when I was sitting there bleeding like a stuck hog, and he was with me with compassion like that."

Webb himself was blown up twice, first by a rocket- launched grenade, later by two grenades thrown simultaneously from two directions. The second explosion blew him 10 feet up in the air. His left knee was shattered, then severely infected. He still walks with a limp. In 1972 he was given a medical discharge.

He began writing to blow off steam. "I had always been athletic, and I needed an outlet. I found I enjoyed it. It was like discovering a new part of your brain when you are 25 years old."

He enrolled in Georgetown Law School and wrote his first book, Micronesia and U.S. Pacific Strategy, published in 1974. He graduated in 1975, plunged into writing full-time and just over a year later finished Fields of Fire, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

To this point Webb had been a Democrat, but says, "Jimmy Carter made me a Republican." Convinced that Carter's campaign rhetoric "skipped along the edges of the truth," Webb became national cochairman of Vietnam Veterans for Ford. There his persuasive power as a speaker and writer attracted the notice of Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.), ranking minority member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Hammerschmidt hired Webb as assistant minority counsel, then chief minority counsel.

"Jim was kind of a breath of fresh air, very outspoken and active, very effective," says Hammerschmidt, adding that Webb was already chafing at bureaucracy. "On a lot of the letters he'd write for me, I'd send them back with 'too strident' in the margin. It got to be a kind of joke with us."

Always, Webb was writing. A Sense of Honor came out in 1981. In 1983 A Country Such As This was published. His energy was noticed by the White House; in May last year, Webb took his office in the Pentagon.

Webb says he has at least three ideas for new books floating around in his head, but no time to pursue them. "When I get to the office, there are five people lined up at the door. When I leave, there is still a line." And yet another line, with different demands, awaits him at home: Amy, 15; Jimmy, 3; Sarah, 2; Julia, 2 months. "Kids hanging off the rafters," he says proudly.

Whatever peace Webb finds these days he credits to his wife JoAnn, a former Army nurse whom he married in 1981. "She is probably the only person in the world who can take it from me and dish it right back," says Webb. Once, for example, she concluded a breakfast argument by pitching fried eggs onto the windshield of his pickup truck.

They are obviously devoted to each other, bonded both by their military experience and their humble origins: JoAnn from a mill town of Polish immigrants in Pennsylvania, he from Appalachian mountain stock. "I'm a Polack, he's a redneck, there you go," JoAnn says. "Sure, I'm a redneck," says Webb, not missing a beat.

But it's not at all that simple. Several days later, back in his office, Webb takes a long drag on a cigarette and speaks slowly, carefully: "To understand me, you've got to look at things like my mother. My mother grew up in East Arkansas. When her father died, they were the only white family living in a black section of town. They had to follow the crops, picked cotton, strawberries . . . there is not a black family in this country that had it rougher than they did. I am still finding out how rough things were.

"So I feel like I am a product of a culture that really took a couple of hundred years to get its feet on the ground, and we did it by the rules, no special privileges. My mother used to say something to us all the time, something her father told her:

He cannot gain his chosen fame who only dreams about it;

The purchase price is sacrifice, Let no one ever doubt it.

"Everything I have gained, I have fought for and I have paid. I boxed for eight years, with the toughest black and Hispanic kids those cultures could produce, beating each other's brains out and then putting our arms around each other when it was over. Overlap that with the time I was in the military, in the most rigorous elements, and a high achiever in the most rigorous elements. "Put that all together, and what you get is: duty, integrity, principles, loyalty. Those are the words that form the framework in which I operate."

And now the key to Webb: "In my mind, I am a writer. In my heart, I am a soldier, and I always will be."

WEBB HAS FOUGHT, often behind the scenes, in some of the fiercest political debates of our day, emerging with a remarkable record for getting his way. His success may be due to strict adherence to his favorite old naval saying: "Where principle is involved, be death to expediency." It may also have something to do with a lesson he learned during his years as a boxer: "Just keep punching."

His first political battle royal was over the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "That was the nastiest thing I ever got involved with," he says. When veterans Jan Scruggs and Jack Wheeler approached Webb with the idea in 1979, he quickly became an ardent booster. Hammerschmidt was persuaded to introduce legislation granting land on the Mall, and Webb cranked out the letters to congressmen.

But a rift opened between Webb and the others when the winning design was unveiled. Webb thought the unadorned black granite walls looked like "a mass grave." Feeling betrayed, he broke ranks and led a behind-the-scenes fight to modify the structure.

"They fought us at every turn," he says bitterly. "It was not just the sculpture, it was the walkways for wheelchair guys, the inscription, the lighting, the flag. And for the sculpture, they wanted one guy. I said, 'Hey, you've gotta have a black guy, too.' Meanwhile, Scruggs complained that modification backers "go for the throat," while memorial designer Maya Ying Lin decried desecration of her work by the "ultra ultra right wing."

Webb says he was silent until publicly attacked. In 1982 he countered that Scruggs and Wheeler were "pathetic creatures."

Though veteran Thomas Carhart was the most visible advocate for modification, insiders say Webb was the man who got it done. "If it were not for him, none of those changes would have taken place," says sculptor Frederick Hart, whose three bronze soldiers now stand just southwest of the black granite walls. "Carhart was more of an activist, but he simply didn't have the power that Webb had, both as a personality and a political force."

"Art is metaphor, and public art is political metaphor," Webb says. "With the thing the way it was originally designed -- black, unlit, underground, no flag, no sculpture -- the message it was sending was very clear. Now, with the modifications, it is not so clear."

So now how does he feel when he goes there?

"I don't go. I'm still too mad."

The conflict over the Vietnam Memorial was mostly private -- tense phone calls and hours of back-room confrontations. More public was Webb's attack on women in battle. "Jimmy Carter wanted to be remembered as the guy who gave equal access to women in all areas," Webb says, "and the Carter administration had intimidated people inside this building (the Pentagon), military leaders, the joint chiefs of staff, to supporting the idea. But it was a bad idea."

So Webb wrote a magazine article: "Women Can't Fight." It was a heated argument against plans to use the military as "a test tube for social experimentation." He asserted that women were innately less violent: "Women don't rape men, and it has nothing to do, obviously, with socially induced differences . . . Furthermore, men fight better without women around."

Webb concedes it was ''an emotional piece. I felt it had to be written that way. I was afraid to open my mailbox for three months. I got some of the most unbelievable hate mail; people accusing me of sexual crimes, you would not believe it. I felt like Anita Bryant on that one. But overall, the letters were four-to- one on my side."

The article was entered into the record at House subcommittee hearings in November 1979, and Webb spent three months lecturing and airing his views on TV and radio. The women-in-combat bill died in subcommittee. Lt. Col. Ruth Woidyla (retired), former Marine Corps special assistant for women, says, "There was a group of people who, in the early '80s, turned back a lot of the progress that women had made in the military in the '70s. Jim Webb wasn't the only one doing it, but he was certainly an important player."

WEBB has an apartment in Arlington that he uses only for writing. It is a Spartan little place, no TV, no books, no distractions, on a drab street with a deli where he can get hot soup. He sits at his word processor and writes 1,000 words a day, minimum. "Won't let myself get up until I do it," he says.

In the swirl of emotion that surrounds Webb the soldier, it is easy to overlook Webb the artist and the narrative power he marshals; his ability to extract raw beauty from even the most horrific scenes. He works hard at it. "Some scenes in Fields of Fire I massaged 25 or 30 times," he says. "There is not a word in that book that is out of place . . . There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than writing something that is good.

"Several years ago, a very good friend of mine told me to read Hemingway. So I did, and in Moveable Feast, Hem- ingway says he learned to write by studying C,ezanne. I thought, you know, that's typical Hemingway bull----, but it was the first time I had an inkling there was such a thing as art, that the chemistry of words can be equated to a painting. I mean, I'm the guy who always said painting was invented because they didn't have cameras; now that there are cameras, why paint anything?

"So, when I was going to law school, I had Thursday afternoons free, and I would go down to the National Gallery. While I was reading A Farewell to Arms, I walked into a room and there was a landscape on the wall, and I said, 'If Hemingway had painted, he would have painted that.' Then I walked up closer and saw that it was a C,ezanne. And I said: Why? Why is that, how do I know it? I had made a quantum leap in my mind, but I could not articulate it.

"So I read and I studied paintings and I read and I studied, until the light dawned. Then I realized that I could produce art, and that's when my writing really started to take off.

"To me, that was the golden age of American writers -- that produced Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck -- not just because they wrote so well, but because they got out and did things. Like Herman Wouk says, the typical American novel these days is about a writer who is thinking about writing a novel. The publishing community distrusts writers who do other things, but it is so important. Like the stuff I see (at the Pentagon), people pushing against each other, an abrasive environment. It makes me grow as an observer of the human condition."

But James Webb the artist will never be satisfied with mere observing and recording. He does not want his art to mirror reality so much as to shape it, and like any skilled warrior, he uses whatever is most effective: a grenade, a speech, an uppercut, a novel.

"It's just too easy to be a sheep," he says softly.