James H. Webb Jr. says he is a man who can't be bridled, a Marine who isn't good at playing the bureaucrat, a political appointee who couldn't march up to Capitol Hill and sell a pack of ideas he detested.

Some of his former Pentagon colleagues see it another way. They say he was reckless, bullheaded and unrealistic in his expectations of a massive bureaucracy like the Defense Department.

Jim Webb -- novelist, lawyer, decorated Vietnam veteran -- quit his job as Navy secretary two weeks ago in a fiery barrage of moral outrage and personal frustration.

It was an explosive ending to a short, stormy tenure as the civilian chief of the Navy and Marine Corps. Although his resignation came abruptly, it did not surprise some colleagues who had watched the growing tensions between Webb and his boss, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci.

Relations between Webb and Carlucci had become so strained that the Navy secretary didn't deliver the news in person: On Feb. 22, he left a resignation letter on the desk of one of Carlucci's aides after he had dispatched a similar letter to President Reagan.

"It was not a class act," remarked one Pentagon official.

"Secretary Carlucci and I were not talking at that point at great length anyway," Webb retorted when asked about the incident on PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" the next night.

Carlucci two days later told the House Armed Services Committee that he had sensed Webb's unhappiness after reading some of Webb's speeches that "reflected a certain divergence from the president's national security strategy." Carlucci said he sent Webb "a note or two saying I'd like to hear from him on this, but he never elected to come and talk to me about it."Parting Shots

While former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had selected Webb for the Navy job partially because he respected Webb's intellectual independence, it was that streak of uncompromising independence that finally led to his resignation.

"He was not a team player," said one Pentagon official familiar with the internal conflicts.

Webb's assessment: "It's no secret that I'm not a person who wears a bridle well."

On the morning he resigned, Webb called seven reporters into his fourth-floor office at the Pentagon and cast the political bridle aside.

"First of all, I'm not a bomb thrower," Webb began. He went on to say, "This is not an attack per se on Carlucci."

He then proceeded to lob bombs at Carlucci's management style, his handling of budget issues and the military establishment's failure to mold a proper defense strategy for the coming years.

Eleven months of personal frustrations and administrative setbacks spilled out: budget battles, snide memos, reprimands, personal snubs. Webb opened a rare window on the internal feuds and petty bickering of Washington's biggest bureaucracy.

On the budget: "We gave the secretary of defense our best advice on three separate occasions, with three different versions of the budget, and our advice was rejected. And I'm in a position where I cannot support the reductions, so it's just best for me to leave."

On Carlucci: "This building needs to be led, it needs leadership, it needs some vision . . . . I'm saying if I had a piece of advice to give Secretary Carlucci, I'd spend a lot more time with the top leaders of this building . . . ."

On Carlucci's reaction to a newspaper article noting the Navy's opposition to cutting 16 frigates from its budget: "I got a handwritten note back saying 'I assume this is inaccurate and will be denied.' Now, I'm not going to deny the truth."

On resigning: "I've thought about it for a number of weeks . . . . I'm not mad. Don't make it sound like I am . . . . Nobody should have these jobs if they can't walk away from them."

Carlucci told the House panel that on the budget, "I think the Navy was dealt with quite fairly. I might say that we went through the same process with the other services."

In his departing shot, Webb accused Carlucci of abandoning the administration's goal of a 600-ship Navy when the defense chief demanded that 16 older frigates be retired. Carlucci responded: "Let me point out that we have in this budget some 17 ships for construction. So we are going ahead with the modernization effort. It's really a question of what ships you have in the fleet."

In the end, Webb got little support from Capitol Hill on his complaints that the Navy suffered seriously when Carlucci ordered almost $12 billion in cuts late last year. In fact, many congressional leaders had praised Carlucci for his efforts to trim the defense budget before it reached Congress.

"If anybody's living in Fat City, it's been the Navy for the past few years," said Rep. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.). "And we worked toward a 600-ship Navy. That's fine -- but {there's} nothing magic about that."Taking Charge

The battle over the budget was only one of the frustrations that prompted Webb to resign, however. Webb and his associates both say the author of the best-selling Vietnam war novel "Fields of Fire" attempted to fit into a job that didn't suit his temperament.

"I'm not a good bureaucrat in {that} the tedium of the bureaucracy does get to me," Webb said.

"He was far more comfortable sitting in a tent conversing with the troops than conversing with the bureaucrats in this building," said one Webb associate.

Webb, 42, was recommended for the Navy post shortly after he quit the Pentagon job he'd held for three years as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

Last April, when Webb moved into the spacious office that had been vacated by the controversial John F. Lehman Jr., he immediately set about reversing many decisions of Lehman's final months.

Lehman had enraged some of the Navy's top admirals by rejecting the selections of an officer selection board. Webb reinstated the board's original decisions and declared an end to the "politicization" of the board.

Webb then tossed out Lehman's agreement to give two athletes from the Naval Academy special arrangements so they could participate in professional sports. There would be no special deals for Ensign Napoleon McCallum or Midshipman David Robinson to play pro football or basketball.

When Webb played an instrumental role in the early retirement of an admiral who had been one of Lehman's close associates, Lehman dubbed it "the revenge of the nerds."

Webb also attempted to dispel concerns over a magazine article he'd written years earlier entitled "Women Can't Fight" by opening more noncombat jobs to women.

Webb, because of his background, showed a special interest in the Marine Corps and ordered a major study to determine whether the flexible mission of the Marines had become encumbered by equipment and other structural changes.Marching Alone

Barely a month after Webb took over, the Navy was jolted by the May 17 Iraqi attack on the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf that killed 37 sailors. That would be the beginning of Webb's first major clash with the leaders who had put him in charge of the Navy.

The Reagan administration's decision to use Navy assets to carry out a new policy of escorting U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tankers in the gulf was the most controversial, high-profile naval issue of Webb's tenure, yet he had no direct control over any of the operational decisions.

The civilian Navy chief was not in the chain of command. The critical decisions were made by the military chief of naval operations, his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary. Webb was left on the sidelines.

In July, he wrote a sharply worded memorandum to Weinberger, raising serious concerns about the roles and vulnerabilities of U.S. forces in the gulf. He questioned the military objectives of the mission and the lack of cooperation by allied nations in the venture.

Weinberger returned the fire, reiterating his views of the Persian Gulf policy and suggesting that the Navy secretary act like a team player and support the effort rather than criticize it.

During one of the most volatile gulf periods last November, Webb infuriated then-national security adviser Carlucci by telling a group of newspaper editors and reporters that he believed the United States should respond to Iranian hostilities with strikes that would prevent further aggression rather than hitting small military targets. The United States recently had destroyed Iranian oil platforms used for communications and launching small boats.

Carlucci dashed off a "Dear Cap" note, saying he hoped Weinberger would "instruct your secretary of the Navy" to refrain from such speculative statements.

Two weeks later, Carlucci took over the Defense Department after Weinberger resigned, and his relationship with the man who was now his Navy secretary only grew worse, according to Pentagon officials.

Webb continued to chafe at the gulf operations. While Webb said he believes some of his concerns eventually were addressed, he said he still opposes using the Navy's mine sweepers, barges, gunboats and other "brown water" assets in the operations.

Webb antagonized the administration with other foreign policy statements. Secretary of State George P. Shultz was furious when Webb recommended in a January speech at the National Press Club that the United States reorganize its military priorities and redistribute some of its European forces to other parts of the world.

The speech angered North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders at a time when some were already concerned that the treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe could leave NATO allies more vulnerable than ever.

But from his point of view, Webb said he thinks the defense establishment is not taking a close enough look at long-term strategies for the military.

Webb says he'll return to writing and attempt to negotiate a contract on a novel about the first year of the Civil War, a project he planned to start before he took the Navy post.

As for another foray into government, Webb hedges, saying, "You never say never."

------------------WEBB'S TENURE-----------------

------------------- IN BRIEF -------------------

April 10, 1987: James H. Webb Jr. is sworn in as Navy secretary.

April: Webb reverses officer-selection decisions of predecessor John F. Lehman Jr. in effort to "depoliticize" the process.

April: Webb reverses another Lehman decision, saying the Navy will not give special accommodations to officers who want to participate in professional sports, citing cases of Ensign Napoleon McCallum and Midshipman David Robinson.

May: Webb orders Marine Corps to determine if it has become too "heavy" with weaponry to perform its mission effectively.

July: Webb sends forceful memo to then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger raising serious questions about Persian Gulf operation. Weinberger responds tersely, encouraging Webb to be a team player.

November: Then-national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci sends searing memo to Weinberger seeking to curtail Webb's public criticism of Persian Gulf policy.

December: Webb, responding to results of internal study, increases number of seagoing combat-support jobs open to women.

December: Webb engages in battle with new Defense Secretary Carlucci's office over cuts in Navy budget.

January 1988: Webb infuriates some administration and NATO officials with speech recommending that the United States reconsider military strategy and force levels in Europe.

Feb. 22:

Webb resigns.