Swashbuckling generals always are popular when there's a war on - but their more circumspect colleagues tend to last longer and fare better in government and politics.

A gruff, commanding, no-nonsense style can inspire the troops and stir public confidence in wartime, but voters have to be asked, not told.That goes for war heroes no less than for civilians.

And the niceties of politics do not fit the storming image of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Desert Storm commander who became a folk hero.

His four-star popularity in the polls started some politicians talking about his potential as a candidate, perhaps for the Senate. Schwarzkopf said he wasn't thinking about it, but he wasn't slamming the door, either.

There also has been speculation about a political future for another general, Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested by some as a second-term running mate for President Bush.

While that's not likely in 1992, he does have military style with staying power.

He served as the White House national security adviser before taking his current assignment, so he knows both sides of the table, civilian and military. Powell says that was valuable during the Persian Gulf war because he knew from experience the pressures and problems the White House was facing.

Now there's controversy over Schwarzkopf's statement that he recommended continued offensive operations against Iraq before President Bush halted them on Feb. 28, a claim contradicted at the Pentagon and the White House.

That is the kind of debate generals do not win. And in his televised interview with David Frost, Schwarzkopf added some other observations that wouldn't wear well in a political setting.

"Frankly, my recommendation had been, you know, continue the march - I mean we had them in a rout, and we could have continued to, you know, wreak great destruction upon them," he said in the interview.

"We could have completely closed the door and made it, in fact, a battle of annihilation."

Annihilation is not an objective that would play well politically.

And it certainly was not on the list of U.S. aims in the war to force Iraq out of Kuwait, a conflict halted after concluding that it also had eliminated the offensive capability of Saddam Hussein's forces.

There's still no firm count of Iraqi war dead; Schwarzkopf said in the interview that it could be 50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000.

Schwarzkopf said Bush's decision to halt the offensive left some escape routes open for retreating Iraqis.

"And I think it was a very humane decision and a very courageous decision on his part also, because it's, you know, it's one of those ones that historians are going to second guess, you know, forever," he said.

The general himself had given a somewhat different version of the finale at a briefing in Riyadh on Feb. 27. "If it had been our intention to take Iraq, if it had been our intention to destroy the country . . . we could have done it unopposed for all intents and purposes," he said then. "But that was never our intention . . . Our intention was purely to eject the Iraqis out of Kuwait and to destroy the military power that had come in here."

There was no hint that day that Schwarzkopf had reservations about the cease-fire.

After the Frost interview, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said Schwarzkopf had been consulted and had concurred.

And on Thursday, President Bush telephoned the general in Saudi Arabia to express support and tell him not to worry about the incident.

"He just wanted to reassure the general that this is much ado about nothing, there is no difference in views, they're on the same wave length," said a White House spokesman, Roman Popadiuk.

That didn't explain away the contradictory accounts on cease-fire recommendations; the White House tried instead to submerge it in praise for Schwarzkopf's wartime performance.

Generals are schooled in tactics, politicians in tact.

But Schwarzkopf is learning the latter. On Friday in Riyadh, he said he had apologized to Bush, that he'd agreed with the decision 100 percent, and that "someone took an inappropriate use of words on my part and tried to blow it into a major controversy."