I discovered American football late in life. Initially, I thought the game was a bore. When I saw my first football match after coming to America as a child reared on soccer, I was even appalled. Why are all these men, helmeted and wearing protective gear, bending over and then piling on top of one another? I was mystified by their conspiratorial huddling. And when I first heard the referee announce "penalty declined," I remember turning to my American guide and naively noting that it was chivalrous of the rewarded team to have done so.

After my appointment to the White House in the mid-'70s, I was favored by invitations to sit in the Redskins' owner's box--and the Washington thing to do, of course, was to go. Before long it dawned on me: The game is unique in the manner it translates into sport all the main ingredients of real warfare. Henceforth I was hooked.

Consider the following parallels:

* The owners of the teams are like heads of state. Some are nasty dictators, some merely preside like monarchs. Some posture and are loudmouths, but all are treated with a deference worthy of kings. The senior Cooke--my occasional and very regal host--both reigned and ruled; his son merely reigned. The new, post-Cooke owner conveys an intelligent passion for football, reminiscent of President Nixon, that will probably benefit the team.

* The coaches are the CinCs, to use Washington jargon. They set the overall strategy and supervise its tactical implementation in the course of combat. In constant wireless contact with their forces as well as with their scouting experts (a k a intelligence), examining instant play photos (a k a overhead imagery) and consulting their deputies for offensive and defensive operations, they are clearly the commanders in chief. Some are like Gen. Eisenhower; others remind you of Gen. MacArthur. The truly victorious ones (e.g., Gibbs or Parcells) reflect the needed ability to simultaneously inspire, intimidate and innovate.

* The quarterbacks, as is often noted, are the field commanders. They make last-minute tactical decisions on the basis of direct observation of hostile deployments, and they're expected, when necessary, to improvise tactically, though in the context of their CinCs' overall strategy. Some hustle and take risks; some stay put and just grind away. Again, shades of Gen. Patton or of Gen. Westmoreland.

* The teams engage in offensive and defensive maneuvers, as in real war. They rely either on a concentration of power (especially in ground attacks), on flanking attacks or on sudden deployment behind enemy lines (passing). Deception, speed and force are the required ingredients for success. Skill, precision and iron discipline are instilled by intense training.

* Good intelligence is also essential. Hence much effort is spent on the constant monitoring of the enemy's tactics, with specialists (high in the stands, equipped with long-distance observation equipment) seeking to spot potential weaknesses while identifying also the special strengths of the opponent. Timely strategic as well as tactical adjustments (especially during halftime) are often a key to the successful completion of the campaign (a k a game).

* As in real combat, teams suffer casualties, and these can cripple even a strong team. It is especially important to protect the field commander-quarterbacks; they are a key target of enemy action since their loss can be especially disruptive.

* Last but not least, the home front also plays a role. Systematic motivation of the morale of civilians (the spectators) can play an important role in stirring the combatants into greater passion while demoralizing the enemy. The home-field advantage is thus the equivalent to fighting in the defense of your own homeland.

Once I understood the above, the mindless piles of bodies, the strange posturing of grown men and the armored uniforms all came to make sense to me. A great game. Like a war.

The writer was national security adviser to President Carter.