Washington — EARLY on an October morning 18 years ago, a North Vietnamese rocket exploded in John A. Wickham Jr.'s tent. General Wickham -- at the time commander of a United States infantry battalion in Quang Ngai Province -- rolled into a foxhole, gravely wounded by shrapnel. Seconds later he was sprayed with bullets from an enemy's AK-47 rifle. He lay in the hole for three hours, using a radio to direct American return fire until the attackers were driven off.
At the aid station a Roman Catholic chaplain administered last rites. Today Wickham is the highest-ranking general officer in the US Army, its four-star chief of staff.
``Having gone through that, I learned eternal humility,'' he says. ``For some reason I may have been given another chance. I am reminded of that every day.''
From his office in the outermost ring of the Pentagon, Wickham presides over an institution that is perhaps unique in history. With weapons research and purchasing growing more costly and complicated by the day, with bases flung to the far reaches of the world, the Army has become as hard to manage as any multinational corporation.
The very model of a modern major executive, Wickham has two degrees from Harvard and talks often of ``mentors'' and ``the marketplace.'' In an hour-long conversation he refers to ``A Passion for Excellence,'' a recent book on corporate management, at least four times. Many of his weeks are spent drawing up and defending his $80 billion budget.
Yet the Army is self-evidently not a corporation. Its product is not computers or cars but the threat of destruction. And more than General Motors, perhaps even more than the Navy or the Air Force, the Army depends on strong personal bonds between leaders and led to accomplish its mission. Army surveys of World War II showed that when bullets started flying, soldiers fought as much for their officers and buddies as for God and country.
``Quality of leadership is what makes the difference between a good army and a great army,'' says Wickham.
``Leadership'' is the Army's official theme for 1985. For Wickham, it was a veteran sergeant named Putman who showed him what leadership entailed.
Wickham was a second lieutenant then, newly graduated from West Point. His first assignment was a weapons platoon, and on the night he took over, his sergeant first class -- Putman -- suggested he memorize all his men's names.
The next day, meeting the platoon for the first time, Wickham asked each soldier to stand as the lieutenant reeled off names. ``I noticed as I went on they were sort of aghast. They thought, `This lieutenant, green as he is, cares about us as individuals.' ''
A few days later, Putman suggested that Wickham learn all about the platoon's main weapons: 60 mm. mortars and 57 mm. recoilless rifles. He also suggested a time and place that Wickham thought strange for those lessons: a muddy field near the latrine, at 5 p.m.
It wasn't until much later that Wickham realized the wisdom of Putman's planning. In the evening, the platoon's enlisted men invariably visited the latrine before dinner -- and on the way they would see their lieutenant, grimy and tired, learning their own jobs. ``A special appreciation for me grew out of that experience,'' says Wickham.
That was in 1950. The coming decades would not be easy ones for the Army. In Vietnam, Army units took most of the weight of an unpopular war, at times shattering the trust between leaders and the led. By the end of the war the Army was short 15,000 noncommissioned officers (NCOs) -- the Sergeant Putmans who hold any fighting force together.
Today, says Wickham, the Army has recovered and is in better shape than at any time in the last 35 years. The NCO corps has been rebuilt. The quality of recruits has seldom been higher -- some 90 percent now have high school diplomas. The defense buildup of the Reagan years has paid for large numbers of modern weapons, such as M-1 tanks. The Army itself judges that its fighting capability has increased 20 percent since 1980, when measured against its Soviet counterpart.
There are problems. The rise and fall of the DIVAD, a recently canceled Edsel of an antiaircraft gun, is but one example of the Army's lack of weapons development skill, say many critics. The pool of US youth is shrinking about 3 percent a year, and there are signs that Army recruitment is beginning to fall off.
And in the mid to low levels of the officer corps there is some grumbling that perhaps the Army has lost sight of its real mission -- which is, to paraphrase Col. Harry Summers, a retired US Army War College professor, to be ready to blow things up. Instead of warriors, the Army brass is dominated by budgeteers and procurers, in this view -- generals whom military consultant Edward Luttwak calls ``view-graph artists,'' after the overhead projectors used in Pentagon briefings.
These kinds of criticisms, among others, have helped fuel the drive in Congress to reform the way the Pentagon conducts its affairs. The most recent evidence of the drive came on Wednesday, when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to strengthen the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Wickham complains that the distinction between warriors and managers is artificial. In peacetime, he asks, how do you tell who the warriors are? ``Whoever heard of Patton in 1938? It took a war to bring the heroes out into the headlines,'' he says.
He says that young officers today are better trained in military leadership than at any time in the recent past. Army schooling on the subject has proliferated. At Fort Leavenworth, for instance, there is now a popular course for majors on the ``Operational Art of Warfare.''
Such schooling is needed because any future conflict would place great demands on relatively young officers, Wickham says. US doctrine now calls for fluid tactics in large-scale conventional operations, with quick strikes deep into enemy territory.
On another level, the Army is trying to meet the need for flexibility by creating controversial new light divisions, designed to give the US more ability to respond rapidly in today's smaller-scale conflicts, says Wickham.
``The Army, like any organization, needs to be relevant to the times, and that leads to the kind of changes and upgrades in the way we do business,'' he says.
Wickham has earned two master's degrees, one in public administration and one in government, from Harvard. He failed the oral exams for a PhD. After recovering from his wounds in Vietnam, he served as deputy chief negotiator at peace talks with Hanoi. He rose to commander in chief of the UN forces in Korea and was named chief of staff in 1983.
But even in his expansive office, with the desk that belonged to Gen. John (Blackjack) Pershing and the table that belonged to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's father, the night in the foxhole remains with him.
``I learned about the extraordinary capacity for life that everyone has, the will to live,'' he says. ``Another lesson was the deep pain that I feel about the loss of life or injury. Have I done everything in my life to protect people from carnage on the roads due to alcohol abuse? Have I done everything I can to reduce the incidence of suicides in the Army? Because I feel diminished when someone dies in the Army. Just the way I will forever feel diminished by that night. Did I do everything I could?'' Wickham asks.