Johnnie Shepherd was on the fast track, all right, a lieutenant colonel in the Army with all the right tickets punched. His appointment last year to the National War College further identified him as a rising star in the U.S. military elite.

The War College, after all, is where they make generals.But on the wall over his study cubicle in the basement of Roosevelt Hall, Shepherd has pasted a photograph of an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, just like the ones in the battalion he commanded back at Fort Stewart, Ga.

"It makes me lonely just to look at it," he said the other day. "Am I frustrated about not being in the gulf? You bet. I trained that squadron, took them right to the cutting edge, then this war comes along and you watch your career go marching over the hill.

"Makes you wonder, `What am I doing HERE?' "

What Shepherd and his classmates are doing here - and at the nation's four other war colleges - is studying Sun Tzu, Caesar and Socrates, ethics and the law, Plato, Marx and Madison. They read the journals of Ulysses S. Grant and the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. They brush up on the Constitution.

"And when they walk the battlefields at Gettysburg, they can reflect on what those places might mean," said Sam Floca, a retired Army colonel from Temple, Texas, who is director of military strategy at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

"The War College gives officers the big picture."

It also gives them the little insights. They learn how to deal with the media, how to handle themselves in public, the art of writing letters, public speaking.

"Part of it's charm school, sure," said Col. Kirk Lewis of the National War College. "If you're going to be a general, you have to know how to use your stationery."

The students, typically, are lieutenant colonels or Navy commanders in their early 40s and in the fastest of career tracks - 20 years of service, with another 10 to go until retirement.

When they are selected to go to war college, the officers-students already know how to use Hueys and howitzers. They've already been at Mach 3. They've captained battalions and battleships. What they need now, as potential generals, is a more scholarly, more global sense of the world, and how the military fits into that world.

"The war colleges are the finishing schools for general," said Art Blair, a retired Army colonel who is deputy director of the Mosher Institute for Defense Studies at Texas A&M University. "They teach officers how to operate in the areas of diplomacy, the military and politics. It's the military's Ph.D. level."

But combat experience is another important part of the perfect military resume, and a number of current war college students say they asked out of their college daze. There's a war on, and they want in. But very few have been released.

"We've spent 20 years preparing for this," Pilnacek said, "and now we're going to miss it."

When new officers are commissioned, they go straight to their service schools. A West Pointer, for example, might go off to Army artillery training for three years or so. A graduate of the Naval Academy may study marine engineering. A new Air Force officer might learn how to fly an F-16.

The Advanced Course is next, another three to five years, where training becomes more specific.

Then comes the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where majors learn the industrial-strength strategies of making war - known in the business as "operational art." Leavenworth is also where lieutenant colonels are made, although only half the ranking majors are selected to go there.

"If you don't go on to (any) next level of school, you're finished," Blair said. "Looking up, you see the war college as a ticket you have to get punched. Looking from the top down, though, it's a screen."

"We're basically dealing with the top 6 percent of the officer corps," said Col. H.T. Linke, a graduate of the Army War College. "For us to make general, or even colonel, it's a must."

But a war college diploma is hardly a guarantee of a star-studded career. About 75 percent of the graduates of the Army War College, for example, do not make it to general.

Until recently, the war colleges of each branch of the service pretty much kept to themselves.

Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania served principally Army officers.

The Navy ran the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

And Air University, at Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery, Ala., has long been the finishing school for "superburners," those officers who have slipped the surly bonds of the standard Air Force career track.

But in 1986 a significant emphasis began to be placed on cooperation among the services. Now known as "jointness," this concept is akin to a military version of networking - Army colonels meeting Navy commanders meeting Air Force superburners.

Jointness has always been the unspoken motto of the National War College, which along with the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, the fifth war college, is at Fort McNair in Washington as part of the National Defense University.

The National War College is smaller and more selective than the branch schools. With a current student body of just 60, it draws equal numbers of students from the Army, Air Force and sea services (Navy, Marines and Coast Guard), as well as from federal agencies such as the Pentagon, CIA, FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Meanwhile, the Army college, for example, has 288 students.

The Army War College, founded in 1903, is the oldest and largest of the schools. And after West Point, stately Carlisle Barracks is the oldest military post in the nation.

During the French and Indian War, colonial militias launched attacks on Pittsburgh's Fort Duquesne from Carlisle. It later became a school for 18th-century "artilleryists" and still later for cavalrymen. Both Confederate and Union horse soldiers trained here, although Gen. J.E.B. Stuart burned the place down in 1863.

Around the turn of the century, it was the Carlisle Indian School.

The College, previously in Washington, was closed during World War II, but Col. Donald Lunday, the deputy commandant, said, "There has been no need or consideration of that this time."

For the last 40 years, Carlisle Barracks has been home to the Army War College, and its graduates are among the most legendary in American military history - John "Black Jack" Pershing, Omar Bradley, Bull Halsey, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower.

And now, H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Newly decorated with a Purple Heart from Vietnam, Schwarzkopf went to the Army War College in 1972-73. Schwarzkopf was a classmate of Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, who has done many of the Persian Gulf press briefings at the Pentagon. The chief military topic of their day was the all-volunteer Army.

But these days, in the seminars, study rooms and hallways at Carlisle Barracks, the buzzwords are "jointness," "low-intensity conflict" and the new high-mobility doctrine of "AirLand Battle."

There are 36 foreign students among the 288 now at Carlisle. Army officials say there have been Kuwaiti, Saudi and Jordanian students - but no Iraqis. In 1973, during Egypt's invasion of Israel, there was a student from each country at the War College. Although they attended seminars together, Lunday said, "They weren't friends."