The U.S. Army has fought many battles since Bunker Hill. But now, during the mop-up of one of its most brilliant campaigns – a war that took down Saddam’s best in a mere few weeks – it’s engaged in still another critical fight.

And not in Iraq, or with North Korea, Syria or Iran, but with Donald Rumsfeld, the tough guy who runs the Pentagon. Insiders there say that the secretary of defense views the Army top brass as rigid obstructionists unreceptive to his vision for the armed forces. And that Rummy, known as an impatient, ruthless, crafty and very unconventional bureaucratic fighter, will do whatever it takes to kick the Army into the 21st century.

Rummy fired the first barrage in his campaign to bring the Army to heel more than a year ago when he announced that Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was toast 14 months before his term expired. Shinseki, a soldier who has served this nation with distinction for almost 40 years, suddenly found himself a lame-duck general in a military society unused to such rude, underhanded – and unprecedented – treatment of its senior leaders.

Then, two weeks ago on a Friday night – after the Washington media had conveniently disappeared for the weekend – Rummy released shot No. 2 by calling in Secretary of the Army Thomas White, a West Point-trained war hero like Shinseki, and abruptly firing him. White, who’d become a boy general before checking out to make his mark in the corporate world, was treated like some inconsequential dishwasher sacked for breaking too much china. The word is that both White and Shinseki went down because they stood up to Rummy.

Another great warrior, John Keane – Shinseki’s vice chief of staff and heir apparent – has suddenly given that job a pass, citing family problems. That’s an act comparable to a bishop saying no to being pope. My guess is that Keane figured the gain wasn’t worth the pain.

Rummy is unquestionably right about reform. Once North Korea is defanged, Special Operations, air and naval power, missiles, gadgets zipping about in space and unmanned aircraft will be the main players in future fights. Large formations of mud soldiers will only be needed much as they’re now being used in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo – to keep the peace after the blitz.

That means the Army drastically needs to shape-shift – starting with disappearing a few of its redundant huge headquarters and tank divisions and using the personnel assets and cost savings to expand Special Forces, light infantry and Ranger units.

But in his savage attacks on Shinseki, White and the U.S. Army, Rummy, a former reserve naval officer, has given new meaning to the Navy chant “BEAT ARMY.”

For sure, the Army Top Guns are reluctant to let go of the Powell Doctrine, which calls for overwhelming force, and accept Rummy’s idea that this proven policy should be scrapped based on the success of the Afghanistan and Iraq models – even though those were actions primarily against insurgents employing mainly Vietnam-era light-infantry weapons against all that “shock and awe.” The generals do have a point: The template for the future should be carefully tested before drastic change becomes locked and cocked.

While Rummy, too, has a point – the Army brass are cautious – they weren’t exactly planning a coup. They well understand that the SecDef is the boss and that what he says is what’s going down. It’s fundamental to our Constitution and the American military system: Civilian leadership rules the roost. No way did Rummy need to employ the chain-saw approach and repeated salvos of rudeness and humiliation to have his way.

The SecDef seems to take great delight in antagonizing Secretary of State Colin Powell, senators and House members, the press corps and anyone else downrange. But his bloody assault on distinguished warriors who’ve repeatedly risked their lives for this country has been way over the top.

Rummy could take a lesson from Abe Lincoln, who had more than his share of problems with stiff-necked generals. In spite of their differences, however, he treated them with respect and dignity and eventually won them over – and along the way also won one of the most important wars in this country’s history.

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