The recent conflicts in Lebanon and the Falklands have reaffirmed a verity as old as war itself. Despite the proliferation of high technology on the modern battlefield, war remains first and foremost a human encounter.

British and Israeli forces, like Rome's legions and Alexander's phalanxes before them, triumphed not because they had better weapons or outnumbered their opponents, but by virtue of superior leadership, training and strategy. Weapons and numbers are important. But as we should have learned in Vietnam (or by bothering to read military history), neither counts for much in the hands of poor generalship or a soldiery inadequately trained or, worse, unable to maintain cohesion in the stress and chaos of combat. Would the Israelis have been beaten by the Syrians and the PLO had both sides been using each other's tanks and airplanes?

Our own military pays much lip service to the decisive influence in war of such intangibles as command, training, tactics, esprit de corps and unit cohesion. Yet the Pentagon continues to embrace a style of warfare that betrays a contrary assumption about the nature of armed conflict. It is an assumption manifest in the present mad scramble for more hardware and a virtually exclusive focus on the technological lessons of Lebanon and the Falklands. The prevailing view in the Pentagon, encouraged in no small measure by hordes of defense contractors staking claims on the largest peacetime defense budget in history, is that both wars proved that "technology is the name of the game" on the modern battlefield, a judgment that by default dismisses the decisive differences between Israeli and Syrian fighter pilots, Scots Guards and raw Latin conscripts, rigid and innovative tactics, incompetent and inspired generalship.

Confidence in technology as the arbiter of combat is natural on the part of a historically illiterate managerial technocracy that for years has confused leadership with management, effectiveness with efficiency, and tactics with technology. For decades what has passed for the professional warrior in the United States has all too often been a bureaucrat in uniform, persuaded that virtually all problems on the battlefield are susceptible to managerial or technological resolution, and whose professional standing hinges on acquired technical expertise rather than a demonstrated capacity to lead men in combat. Thirty years of American military defeats and miscarriages have but slightly shaken the conviction that war is little more than a gigantic engineering project, and the enemy simply an array of targets to be "serviced" by the technologies of destruction. Witness the ongoing domination of service academy curricula by mathematics and electrical engineering courses at the expense of tactics and history; witness the Pentagon's current infatuation with high-tech responses to burgeoning Soviet military power in Europe.

There are, to be sure, encouraging signs of change. The Marine Corps and the Army are moving to replace discredited operational doctrines with new ones that explicitly recognize the decisiveness of intangible factors in combat and treat the enemy as more than a physical presence on the battlefield. The Army's new field manual treats the opposing force as a highly advanced human organization whose ability to offer resistance turns on maintenance of a delicate moral, social and psychological cohesion, a cohesion that can be shattered by a series of unexpected and dangerous actions imposed at a pace faster than he can respond to them.

Under the forceful leadership of Gen. Edward C. Meyer, the Army also has at last recognized that the Pentagon's highly centralized personnel management system, which in the name of efficiency continually rotates officers and men from unit to unit and job to job, produces groups of strangers on the battlefield possessing little cohesion against the terrors of combat. In contrast are the "inefficient" decentralized personnel policies of the British and Israeli armies, which are designed to keep the same people together for years on end, the declared aim of Meyer's new manpower reforms.

The fate of these promising initiatives, however, remains uncertain. They are being undertaken against the backdrop of a defense program predicated on the notion that America's military ills are attributable not to institutional or doctrinal deficiencies but rather to lack of enough military power. That in Vietnam we had a crushing superiority over the enemy in virtually all the measurable indices of military power seems to have made little impression in many quarters of the Pentagon. Moreover, serious reform is certain to be opposed by vested bureaucratic interests within the military whose influence derives from conducting business as usual.

Yet manpower and doctrinal reforms are essential if we are to avoid another 30 years of dismal performance on the battlefield, and in this regard, failure to grasp the fundamental lesson of Lebanon and the Falklands -- that men and ideas, not things, are still decisive -- could prove fatal.