During the past several months the public has been treated to comments and reviews about what some describe as "a major new book" dealing with Army leadership in the Vietnam War: "Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era." The author called himself Cincinnatus, after the Roman farmer of the fifth century B.C. who left his farm to become dictator of Rome.

The author explains in his preface why he chose to publish anonymously: "Eventually it was decided to extend the cloak of anonymity beyond those who were interviewed and to cover the author's own identity. In certain churches, ministers wear dark clerical garb to obscure as much as possible of themselves in order to allow their listeners to concentrate exclusively upon what is being said rather than upon who is saying it. That is my hope as well."

The allusion to religion was appropriate. The author turned out to be Cecil B. Currey, 48, a clergyman, history professor and chaplain in the Army Reserves. He never served a single day with the Army in Vietnam.

Since being exposed, Currey has repeatedly denied he even claimed he was an active-duty, career colonel who fought in Korea and Vietnam. Yet the dust jacket of his book says that "Cincinnatus is the pen name of a military man who entered service as a private in Korea and rose through the ranks to become a senior field-grade officer. . . . He is currently asigned to the Pentagon."

Apparently Currey did enlist in the Army during the last days of the Korean War, but he never got near the peninsula; he is not "a military man," but an ordained minister and professor; he is not "a senior field-grade officer," but a lieutenant colonel; and he is not "currently assigned to the Pentagon," but is teaching history at the University of South Tampa, even though for two weeks each year he is on training duty in the Office of the Chief of Chaplains in the Pentagon.

The Military Book Club made the book its April 1981 selection, characterizing it as "a scathing critique of the U.S. military by an officer who was there," based on his own 30 years of military experience."

Josiah Bunting, president of Hampden-Sydney College, Vietnam veteran and history, reviewed the book for The Post in mid-February. Describing the author as "a serving officer of the Army," Bunting found the book "a passionate, almost wholly convincing refutation" of the assumption that "if we'd allowed the military to do what it wanted, we would have won the war, and won it fast."

Jessica Savitch, an NBC correspondent, interviewed Cincinnatus on the "Today" show. He appeared in silhouette with an electronically-altered voice. She described the silhouette as "a career military man . . . a Vietnam veteran . . . . He is right now assigned to the Pentagon." She added in ominous tone. "That explains why he would like to remain anonymous." She then greeted Cincinnatus with a pleasant "Good morning," to which he responded not with a correction or clarification but with a simple "Good morning."

It is a shame that someone could pose as a senior career office, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, ensconced in the Pentagon, and in that pose attack the Army's Vietnam leadership, get a hearing in the national media -- and sell books!

But beyond the imposture, a second, more serious issue emerges: shorn of its mysterious authorship, is the book really an important contribution to military-political and historical scholarship? Does it contribute to public understanding of either the Army or the Defense Department during a recent critical era?

I think it does not. While it displays the accounterments of modern scholarship (bibliography, appendixes, footnotes), it lacks balance and objectivity. It is, in essence, a brief and superficial polemic, reviving and rehashing canards, attacking the Army's planning and leadership during the Vietnam period.

Did the Army, as alleged by Currey, really fight as if engaged in a classic European conflict, "as if it were pursuing enemy units of the Warsaw Pact nations across the plains of central Europe?" eWas the Army "plain dumb, without a sense of history or proper strategy?" Did it fail to adapt to southeast Asian jungle conditions? Did it forget its long history of guerrilla operations, which it first employed in the American Revolution? I think the answer to these questions is no.

The Army did adapt remarkable well to jungle warfare and did adjust to guerrilla tactics. Perhaps the most innovative Army response in Vietnam was its rapid development of tactics based on the use of the helicopter. The "air assault concept" was early devised by creating a fully mobile division, using helicopters for aerial supply and fire support. The helicopter was employed to move conventional artillery and troops rapidly, to transport air mobile engineers and their equipment and to evacuate casualties within minutes of their being wounded.

Intelligence operations were significantly improved by the new night-observation devices; automated data processing was used to collate intelligence data on a large scale; there was a great improvement in integration of close air-support with conventional fire; important developments in communications were achieved; and riverine operations in the delta were innovative and largely successful.

The Army in Vietnam fought well and bravely. It made mistakes in the field, just as the Departments of the Army and Defense did at home. Congress and the president, moreover, seemed unclear as to goals, uncertain as to strategy. Regrettably, there were no Abraham Lincolns or Franklin D. Roosevelts to articulate effectively the reasons for intervention, for pain and sacrific. This was unfortunate, for the purpose of three presidents was really very simple: to prevent the imposition of a communist regime upon the people of South Vietnam.

But the American people of the wartime period were ill-informed, and many, especialy the very young, completely misunderstood the nature of the struggle. The trumpet, when it was heard of all; gave an uncertain sound.

It is strange and sad that an ancient Roman farmer -- Cincinnatus -- should undergo reincarnation in our time, returning to Earth in the form of a chaplain of the U.S. Army Reserve, to misrepresent and confuse the American people.