As nearly as I can tell, Washington understands the military to consist 80 percent of generals and 20 percent of colonels, all of whom were unloved as children and who therefore would like a nuclear war at the earliest convenient moment. The view is politically unexceptionable and suffers only the minor drawback of being ridiculous. The appeal of stereotypes is irresistible, there being no other way to order one's thought in a complicated world. When the stereotype has nuclear weapons and costs a hundred billion a year, it is worth looking at carefully.

Stereotypes obscure differences. Many people seem to believe that servicemen are as indistinguishable as battery hens. Actually, even excluding the enlisted ranks, the military is wildly diverse. A Special Forces commander and a colonel at Air Force accounting are roughly as similar as Roger Staubach and Rudolf Nureyev. Figher pilots tend to be rangy, aggressive men, outgoing and likable. Professional Pentagon colonels, the ones who avoid field commands, are slick and political. Some Marine colonels respond to a problem by hitting it with a large hammer. Other Marine colonels take almost a chaplain's interest in their men. Some do both at once. There is no typical officer.

The business of the senior officer is not fighting. It is management. The military is a vast organization of two million men who use bewildering equipment. Its accounting problems are staggering, its supply problems frightening. Especially since the All Volunteer Army came about, it has had to deal with a high proportion of unreliable people, many of whom aren't faintly interested in the military. The military suffers from serious racial tension, illiteracy, poor morale and Congress. In addition to just holding together in peacetime, the military must try to be ready for war, an even worse managerial problem.

The man who reaches the top, consequently, is the man who can manage all this -- the man who gets the fuel to the planes, persuades his men to stay in the service, calms racial outbursts, teaches a semiliterate to run a radio, keeps morale up. He tends to be a kindly man who radiates concern yet maintains discipline -- quite a trick. Morale is everything. Successful officers are usually the ones who make sure the ship's mess has enough ice cream, that remote outposts get new movies. When a crewman's mother dies, for example, a good naval officer tries to wangle a helicopter to start the man on his way home.

They do not do it cynically. A man cannot spend 30 years pretending to like people merely to make admiral.

Especially in the Air Force and Navy, officers tend to be engineers. Ships and aircraft, after all, are big machines. In the officer's mess one finds them to be good-natured, straightforwardly obscene, extroverted, politically naive by Washington's standards, and intelligent. The notion that military men are stupid suggests extreme unfamiliarity. (In researching a magazine story, I once found that the Naval Academy averaged 624 board scores, compared with 535 at George Washington University, 465 at Maryland.) The services very carefully choose them to work well with people.

Occasionally, I see books by psychiatrists that purport to analyze the soldier's psyche, usually referred to as "the military mind." It exists: closed, narrow, explosive, combative, redolent of a hostility not associated with any discernible cause. Maybe these men really were dropped on their heads. The salient point about the military mind is that few officers have it. Those who do usually retire as majors, a good case of the military mind being a disadvantage in the military. A few get to the top, often left over from a war. The Pattons and LeMays are occasionally useful, always dangerous and constitute a good case for civilian control of the military. They are not representative.

In pondering psychoanalyses of the military, or of anyone else, it is well to keep in mind the source. Psychiatrists can most charitably be described as, well, strange, their craft highly subjective, their politics rather removed from those of a colonel. As minds in general are very curious places, it is misleading to analyze one group but not others. I suspect that an analysis of big-league reporters would be a thing to frighten children with.

Finally, the imagined trigger-happiness of the military is interesting considering that their conspicuous quality is caution. Officers of my acquaintance know what war is. They do not take it casually. A lieutenant's desire to make his wife a widow is circumscribed at best. One may even wonder whether they are not too cautious. Qualities useful in avoiding a war are not always useful in fighting one.