No less an authority than Gen. William C. Westmoreland is among those officers now warning against committing any American troops to Africa.
While no Carter administration leader has expressed any intention of sending U.S. ground troops to fight in Africa, Vietnam War memories have made that a question behind the breaking news.
Westmoreland, himself something of a casualty of the Vietnam War, was among those officers who warned, when queried by The Washington Post, that sending troops to Africa could bog this country down in another Vietnam.
Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., another Vietnam veteran and former chief of naval operations, said in a separate interview that the easy part would be sending American troops into Africa. The hard part, he said, would be to answer the question: "What do you do next?"
Westmoreland and Zumwalt are among those officers who said when queried that they prefer leaving the ground troop role to Africans, a goal that was discussed yesterday in Paris by representatives of the United States, Belgium, Britain, France and West Germany.
Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, former Army chief of staff and former supreme allied commander in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also recoiled from the idea of American military force in Africa.
"Until they make up their mind on what the national policy is for Africa," Lemnitzer said of the Carter administration, "you can't use the military.
"What is the objective? You can't do it in generalities when you're talking about military planning." Besides, said the general, "It's time other people picked up the ball."
As for involving NATO in Africa, Lemnitzer argued that it is a defensive alliance, not structured for offensive operations far from Europe.
Active duty officers interviewed, including personnel and planning specialitsts, also see staggering problems in using American military power directly as distinguished from providing such backup as airlift, ammunition and fuel to another nation's forces.
"The morale problem among the troops would be massive predicted one high-ranking officer, because they would have a hard time understanding why they should risk their lives in a fight between tribes they never heard of or care about. The high percentage of blacks in today's U.S. Army could complicate the situation.
"In Korea it was easier," said one officer," because you could tell the troops they were fighting against the communists. If you asked a soldier, 'What's a communist?' he'd probably say: 'Damned if I know, sir, but they're bad.'"
Talking about Zaire specifically, another officer experienced in supporting combat operations said, troops would have to be supplied entirely by air at first - a painful operation, as demonstrated in Vietnam during the seige of Khesanh.
If a supply port were established eventually, it would be Vietnam all over again as guerrillas ambushed mosea, several Army officers warned.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, several officers said, the whole thrust of American military planning has been to beef up forces for a conventional land war in Europe - not tailor units for counterinsurgency.
One result of this, they said, is an Army getting heavier and heavier. Fast, hard-hitting light infantry units - the kind that would be most suitable for Africa - have been going out of style.
Asked what Russia would be likely to do militarily if the Carter administration or a future one should push aside military qualms and deploy U.S. troops to Africa, the officers interviewed offered a variety of Moscow scenarios.
One, they said, would be to feint with Soviet or client-state forces in places as far apart as Berlin and Korea as well as within Africa itself. "They could roar some of their thousands of tanks up to the NATO line or send us a message by airlifting troops from the Warsaw Pact to Ethiopia," one battle-experienced officer said.
Even though the United States now has 2.1 million service people on active duty and intends to spend some $115 billion on national defense in fscal 1979, the Army and navy reserves are pretty much a shambles, primarily because there no longer is a draft to impel people to join.
This lack of a strong backup force for handling threats and contingencies after deploying active duty forces abroad gives military leaders pause in assessing the risks of deploying forces to Africa.
Westmoreland, who was commander of American forces during most of the Vietnam War and Army chief of staff after that, said the United States should organize a force of three or four divisions designed for fast maneuver and independent striking power.
Although granting that the Carter administration has talked about plans to develop such a force, Westmoreland said that as far back as 1967 he recommended a highly mobile corps "to give us a Sunday punch" but that it never got beyond paper planning.
If such a highly mobile and impressive corps existed today, he said, it could conduct maneuvers in the Caribbean to deter Cuba from sending such a large percentage of its troops overeas.
Before any U.S. troops are committed to Africa, Westmoreland stressed, "We have to think in terms of the ultimate costs and then determine if the stakes are worth that expenditure." The stakes are not worth it today, he said.
According to Zumwalt, "The problem the president faces is that both the Cubans and Soviets have a healthy contempt for his will. Carter's use of tough words followed by doing nothing at all is worse than saying nothing."
No U.S. military commitment in Africa is either practical or advisable today, Zumwalt said. Rather, he argued, the United States has to take a leaf out of the Soviet book and recruit "our own Hessian troops" to influence events there.
Let the experienced Belgians and French take the leading roles, Zumwalt recommended, and limit the U.S. to supporting their efforts and exhorting NATO partners to broaden the coverage of the alliance to include Africa.
"No military man worth his salt could argue that what happens in Africa is not vital to NATO," Zumwalt said in urging a Churchillian effort to make that case within the alliance.
Carter, while taking the lead in that persuasion and supporting friends in Africa, should build up the surface Navy so the Soviets could not cut the sealanes to Europe if the United States or its friends do make a stand in Africa, he said.
Militarily, said Zumwalt, the United States cannot make such a stand now.