CHICAGO. — CHICAGO-- Bob Woodward's books -- on Watergate, the Supreme Court, William Casey, John Belushi -- are usually instructive and always controversial. His new one, ''The Commanders,'' is no exception. Excerpted in Newsweek, it is drawing a great deal of attention to Colin Powell's early attitude toward the gulf war.
General Powell is supposed to have felt misgivings about abandoning sanctions for attack, misgivings he suppressed, partially at least, when faced with President Bush's determination to prosecute the war. The New York Times has already made Mr. Woodward's book the basis for an editorial criticizing the president's inhibition of dissenting advice.
General Powell is in an equivocal position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is a role principally advisory (not strictly included in the chain of military command), and independence is treasured in an adviser. On the other hand, he is a military officer dealing with his commander-in-chief. That creates a conflict with which he was already familiar from having been the security aide to President Reagan.
Another new book, Theodore Draper's ''A Very Thin Line,'' finds a similar conflict in General Powell's predecessor as Mr. Reagan's security aide. John Poindexter was also a military officer on active duty while serving as adviser and coordinator of information. Admiral Poindexter claimed to be carrying out the president's orders even on things he did not present to the president -- e.g., the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to contra ''freedom fighters.''
These conflicts may show the desirability of giving advisory roles to civilians wherever that's possible. But they are dwarfed by what seems to me the real revelation, a genuine shocker, in Mr. nTC Woodward's book. This has not yet received much attention. Mr. Woodward treats it in a paragraph without giving any sign that he appreciates the gravity of what he is revealing.
Adm. William Crowe, who immediately preceded General Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was worried about the bellicosity the Reagan administration. He felt that his advisory role meant he should oppose the president at times -- fair enough, when one is talking of open opposition in the consultation and debating process. But Admiral Crowe went further. He entertained the possibility of -- and opened the facilitating channel for -- secret opposition. Here is part of the key paragraph from Mr. Woodward's text:
''In 1987 he [Crowe] had made an alliance with his Soviet counterpart, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the chief of the Soviet general staff. Although they were the leaders of the world's two great military adversaries, Crowe and Akhromeyev had hit it off personally. Both believed it was too easy for politicians to let a misunderstanding throw the superpowers over the brink to nuclear war. That would be suicide, they agreed, and they had to do everything they could to avoid it. They had set up a secret, private communications channel, with the understanding that each was to contact the other if he saw any hostile, dangerous or confusing action by the other side that might lead to war.''
Mr. Woodward may or may not approve of what he is reporting. In general he treats Admiral Crowe with respect, and apparently Admiral Crowe is a thoughtful man. I agree with many of his political attitudes. One might say that he was only agreeing to inform his opposite number of a decision, but the purpose of that act was clearly to thwart a directive from his own superior.
For a military man to take steps for countering the civilian leadership of the republic is about as heinous an offense against the Constitution as may be imagined. Liberals who might sympathize with the admiral in this matter should consider their own attitude when General MacArthur tried to negate the instructions he received from President Truman. MacArthur's offense was in some ways less serious because it was more open. There is no way to counter at the time a secret initiative like Admiral Crowe's.
For that matter, why is it different for Admiral Crowe to take on himself the possible thwarting of a presidential directive than for Admiral Poindexter to take on himself the promotion of a president's presumed desires? In both cases secret policy is made by a military man without subordination to his authorized civilian superior.
These are serious matters, and Mr. Woodward deserves credit for raising them. It is up to the rest of us to pursue the issue before such conspiring becomes irreversibly fixed within our system.
7+ *Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.