Back when Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president in 1952, you could still hear plenty of people expressing reservations about whether a military man should hold the highest civilian office. It was an issue in the campaign. These people feared an authoritarian, politics- strangling, hup-two-three-four presidency; some even foresaw the demise of democracy as we had known it.

That all seems pretty dumb now. Periodically we will still have a public skirmish over our deeply embedded ancestral anxiety that the military are forgetting their subordinate place in the constitutional scheme of things. But by and large the role of officers in government seems to trouble few. This could be because these days it is the military's aggressive civilian leaders whom the antimilitary among us most fear. But it could also be because there has sprung up in government another kind of soldier (or sailor) who seems to give the lie to old anxieties. This is the military civilian -- dutiful, disciplined, acutely mindful of civilian concerns. Marine Lt. Col. Robert C. McFarlane, the president's national security adviser who resigned from the White House in a modest-size turmoil last week, is an example. His time in office tells you something about the bureaucratic strengths and weaknesses of this new breed of governmental animal.

I should be a little careful about the word "new." There have most assuredly been military officers doing very sensitive, complicated civilian jobs in government over the years. George Marshall is the prototype of the honorable soldier in high civilian office in our time. But you do not need to see the evolution of the military civilian as a great and sudden Niagara-like trend to acknowledge that something is happening. I note that McFarlane is the third of Ronald Reagan's national security advisers. All were embroiled in controversy. But interestingly, McFarlane, the military officer, was the only one who did not get into his quarrels in large part on account of trying to impose his own assertive foreign and military policy views on the rest of the White House and administration. Under the old structure of fears about what happens when military people get into politics, that was what one might have expected from him. But it was not McFarlane the Marine, but rather Richard Allen the writer-consultant and William Clark the judge who sought a more ambitious authority and sweep for the job.

In the controversy that has accompanied his departure, McFarlane has in fact been faulted on precisely this score. There are those who feel that the president's national security adviser should be a strong promulgator of policy and strategy and, far from being deferential to the prerogatives of those who preside at Defense and State, a counter to both. There has been nostalgia expressed for Henry Kissinger and for Zbigniew Brzezinski who, while serving in this post, undertook famous and bloody quarrels with the secretaries of state and defense. McFarlane was -- and his successor, Vice Adm. John Poindexter, can be expected to be -- much more in the tradition of another holder of the job, Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served under Gerald Ford and has since undertaken large tasks for the Reagan administration.

McFarlane resents the implication that this particular way of doing the job is empty of original thought or initiative, a mere mindless shuffling of papers and refereeing of other people's arguments. He was much more involved in substantive policy formulation than that. Still, he clearly did see the job in much less independent, freewheeling terms than many of his predecessors had. More than they, but rather like Scowcroft, he filled it as an utterly loyal, discreet and disciplined staff officer would. He accepted the chain of command and superior authority from above (and resisted what he considered encroachments on and usurpations of such authority by peers). That, not the much-worried-about instinct to buck or subvert prescribed process, turns out to be a distinguishing feature of the military civilian in this job.

The problems tend to come either in expecting others to adhere to this view of authority or in mixing it up in the disorderly world that insists on existing outside the chain of command and in defiance of it. I think of Alexander Haig, another military civilian, though a much more fractious one. I believe two of Haig's most ridiculed and unfortunate moments proceeded precisely from his inability to understand a world in which these particular values were not supreme. One was his clumsy effort to assert command and thereby restore what he ragarded as a collapsed order during the tense hours that followed the 1981 shooting of Reagan. The other was an effort, when he was an aide to Nixon, to resolve a political conflict with these words to a recalcitrant Justice Department official: "Your commander in chief has given you an order." To the civilian, both episodes smacked of military overreaching. The irony is that both reflect something different: an ingrained acceptance of and belief in the ordained and impersonal flow of authority through designated channels.

For McFarlane, with his different temperament, the powerful grip of this idea had a different effect. He could take instruction and he could give it; he could fight a departmental or bureaucratic opponent hard; he was not without his strategies and his wiles in these battles. But he could not engage in the kind of disorderly personal and political combat that came his way in the past year, up and down the ladder, sideways and in every which direction, without scruples or rules or settled results or authority to appeal to. Military politics are fierce, but different. This was outside his training. From the days of George Marshall it has been thus. I don't mean to compare McFarlane to the late great general and secretary of state, only to say that the military civilian still has a lot to learn about warfare in Washington.