War secrets: what we say and what we don't

In ''War and Peace'' Leo Tolstoy depicted war as primal confusion. Ear-splitting explosions. Commands shouted and not heard, or ignored. Men and horses running hither and yon. Smoke everywhere. So went Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. So went what Tolstoy called ''modern war.''

In 1984 we seem to be thinking about ''modern war'' the way Tolstoy saw men fighting it - by fits and starts, in brush-fire skirmishes, with lots and lots of primal confusion. The decibels are high. The visibility is low. We just can't get our war-and-peace discussions organized.

We declare it to be The Most Important Issue of Our Time. But our characteristic approach to the subject is oblique - the hit-and-run fact. We seize eagerly upon the testimony of accountants, making legends out of Pentagon cost overruns - the $7,600 coffeepot. We cite with a kind of perverse pleasure the weapons systems that don't seem to work, like the $6.8 million antiaircraft cannon DIVAD, caught tracking as its target the whirling blades of a latrine fan. We publicize the novelty items, like the demand of Brown University students for free suicide pills in the event of a nuclear holocaust. We deplore the cost of war, in every sense. But because we're half-convinced of its necessity, its inevitability, we don't know quite what to do. We don't know quite what to say. And so we let somebody else say it.

At the moment, our favored method for discussing war and peace is to turn on the tape recorder and catch veterans telling their stories - back with Homer around the campfires, keeping things anecdotal. Two new books on Vietnam bear the revealing titles, ''Vietnam Voices'' and ''Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Americans.'' Then, of course, there's Studs Terkel's oral history of World War II, '' 'The Good War.' ''

Everybody from Studs on down emphasizes the irony of the title, so carefully placed in quotes. Still, a sort of moral nostalgia surrounds the book. The recorded comment of Robert Lekachman, a GI in the Pacific and now a prominent economist, summarizes the mood: ''It was the last time that most Americans thought they were innocent and good, without qualifications.''

Simple enough to satisfy John Wayne!

At least we can keep the subject of war and peace under control when we look backward - or can we? How confusing it is to move from World War II, the war safely under glass, to Vietnam, the war that just won't succumb to the past tense and take its place in the museum. ''The nastiest war in our history,'' one typical commentator calls it - like ''some terrible and mysterious family scandal that no one would explain.''

Was Vietnam that ''bad''? Was World War II that ''good''? Or are we using the contrast, to an extent, to express our divided feelings about all war? What self-contradictions our confusion creates! It was a general, Dwight Eisenhower, who indicted the ''military-industrial complex.'' It is a retired admiral, Gene La Rocque, who tells Terkel, ''We've institutionalized militarism.'' It is a civilian, briefly in uniform 40 years ago, who confesses that World War II was ''the most exciting experience in my life.''

Here we arrive at the intensely personal side of all the confusion. Is war the ultimate drama of manhood - still the ''field of honor'' despite its latter-day horrors? Or is it the supreme shame of humankind? Living in the post-Hiroshima world with dreams of Agincourt still dancing in our heads, our voices on the tapes are of two opinions - if not three. Doves on Monday, Hawks on Tuesday, and the rest of the week, something in between.

Tolstoy summed up ''modern war'' thus: ''Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, ... incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts in the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.''

How strong, how indignant, how unqualified these words sound today! Today we live in a world where a ''limited'' nuclear war passes as an ''acceptable'' risk with some, while the rest of us are tempted to settle for a peace consisting of a series of so-called conventional wars, thousands of times more destructive, and confusing, than anything Tolstoy could imagine.

As we listen to ourselves and our tapes, we must ask: Was Tolstoy a 19 th-century naif or a conscience for his time and ours? Alas, that is just the question we can't answer until we do clarify our thinking about war and peace.

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