January 28, 1991 12:00 PM

Edited by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr.

These two books represent different approaches to using visual images to describe and explain that incomprehensible topic, war—in particular. World War II.

Images of War (Orion, $65) includes paintings and drawings by some 200 talented artists from both sides of the battle lines. These are often brave attempts to explain men’s propensity for inflicting violence on one another, from Thomas Hart Benton’s crisp Industrial Age realism to Leslie Cole’s bizarre Scorched Earth to the subtly subversive, unknown German artist who painted an indifferent populace ignoring Hitler’s birthday parade.

Yet it is all but impossible for this kind of art to push beyond the small window in front of our eyes and make us feel the fire of war itself.

Picasso came close in his famous rendering of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. where surreal broken bodies and the frightened eyes of a horse evoked some great sob and clutch of emotion that went beyond the stroke of a brush. And some of the art in this book reflects a similar eloquence; for instance, both Anatoley Smirnov’s The Last Stop, showing doomed Russian soldiers moving to the front in the brutal winter of 1942, and newspaper artist Bryan de Grineau’s simple sketch, depicting the preparation of a bomber for a mission, have grit and style. There are true evocations of mood and scale in paintings of London during the Blitz and of the breathtaking turning point of the war in the Pacific, the Battle of Midway.

But Images of War is often most expressive in the large blocks of text that accompany the art, mostly diary entries of soldiers or parts of letters. “The climax of our misery is near,” wrote Robert Röhlich, 22, a German medical student in the Afrika Korps, shortly before he died at El Alamein. “I haven’t prayed as many times in my entire sin-filled life.”

By contrast, the images in Life: World War II (Little. Brown, $50) show how the explicitness and immediate emotional impact of photographs can translate into a deeper understanding of war.

This collection-of more than 1,000 photographs begins with the foolishly valiant Polish cavalry charging Nazi tanks, then displays the same battlefield littered with the predictably wretched aftermath.

A picture of the launching of the 1,500-ton submarine Peto into Lake Michigan is a raw, terrifying sight because it suggests a nation’s clenched fist behind it. The gaunt, frightened and determined faces of the soldiers and civilians from Manchuria to Berlin are vivid beyond description. Robert Ca-pa’s blurred shot of the Normandy landings on day still has an impact unapproached in painted versions of war.

Indeed, perhaps no brushstroke could capture the sudden sacrifice and suffering of war as well as does the startled and blinking speed of a shutter. With one or two exceptions, that is.

There is a picture of World War II that some of us carry in a billfold of memory. It is the Bill Mauldin cartoon (not, alas, included in Images of War) of a group of German prisoners being led into captivity by a bedraggled American GI. The caption reads: ” ‘Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners…'(News item).”

The real, naked images are indispensable, but sometimes captions and a spray of irony help you see war more clearly too.

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