Many months ago, the Army hierarchy made an unwise decision.

A doctor named Leon T. Davis had asked the Army to honor its recruiting promises, but the Army ignored him Capt. Davis thereupon began to disobey orders, and the Army had to decide how to deal with him.

After due deliberation, the big brass decided that Davis must be tried for his offenses. So Davis was tried, and the Army won. But it may how pay dearly for its Pyrrhic victory.

Davis had the facts on his side. And the law. And common sense.

All the Army had was the row power to try the man and punish him. It chose to use that power. In doing so, it called attention to the fact that somebody at a high level was more concerned with "getting even" with Davis than with doing what was best for the service.

The Army had been promising doctors that if they signed up they would enjoy many benefits. They would work with modern medial equipment, be given equal pay for equal work, and be promoted to the rank of major in three years.

Davis said the Army failed to keep its promises and therefore had breached his contract. The Army admitted it hadn't kept its promises but called them mere puffery - the kind of overstatement one can expect from a salesman. Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

The presiding judge, Lt. Col. John W. Hanft, upheld the Army's "puffery" defense and found Davis guilty. However he also had the good sense to throw out some charges and soften others, with the result that the punishment meted out to Davis was quite mild.

The bottom line was that an Army judge had gone along with the Army's unwise decision to prosecute Davis, but had done his best to make the outcome look fair and civilized.

There may have been a time whe the guiding legal principle in a matter of this kind was caveat emptor, but that was long ago. The modern trend has clearly been toward caveat venditor - "let the seller beware." He must not lie or misrepresent his wares.

If a salesman tells you an auto has "the most luzurious ride," or a rental agent says an apartment offers "the finest view of the city," those statements are allowable puffrey - a salesman's harmless enthusiasm for his product. He is entitled to his opinion as to what is "most luxurious" or "finest."

However if the salesman says his car has 200 horsepower although it has only 140, that isn't puffery, it is misrepresentation. If the rental agent says an apartment contains 900 square feet but it really contains only 600, that isn't excusable exaggeration, it is inexcusable fraud. A salesman's opinions are puffery, but his statements about material fact mush be truthful.

When false promises or false advertisements have been used to induce a person to enter into a contract, it is no more than simple justice to release the victim from the contract.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to understand why somebody in the Pentagon though Davis had to be prosecuted. Unfortunately for the Army, the court-martial that followed focused attention on the Army's lies and its unwillingness to respond to a protest against deceptive practices.

Even worse, it left the Army looking like an organization that doesn't have the brains to recognize when it has blundered - or doesn't have the decency to back off after it finally recognizes the blunder.

The United States Army deserves better than that. Thousands of its career personnel have devoted their lives to preserving and protecting this nation, and have earned a reputation for excellence, bravery, devotion to duty, and lifelong adherence to a rigid code of honor.

An Army officer gives his word as "an officer and a gentleman." Those who violate the honor code at West Point find out with a jolt that honor isn't an empty claim in the Army. It is a way of life, not idle puffery.

The man who decided to prosecute Davis doesn't seem to understand what is required of an organization that wants to protect its reputation for honorable conduct.

Instead of drawing attention to the Army's broken promises, he should have permitted Davis to resign quietly. Meanwhile he should have taken vigorous action to make sure the Army would promise no more than it intended to deliver.

If the Army wins any more victories like the one it won over Davis, the entire voluntary enlistment program will be in jeopardy.