When pirates along the Barbary Coast demanded that we pay them "protection money" to let our ships pass unharmed, our ambassador to France, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, became very angry.

He thought we'd be better advised to build up our naval power than to pay blackmail to a bunch of bandits. Schoolchildren are taught that Pinckney declared, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." However, there is evidence that what he really said had more zing to it: "Millions for defense, but not a damned penny for tribute."

Still another version substitutes "sixpence" for "penny." Whatever Pinckney's exact words were, they expressed a policy worth recalling, especially when it comes to mind as a colorful story about American attitudes in 1796 rather than as a guide to current policy.

Today we regard as inadequate a budget that allocates $153 billion to defense, yet we argue around the clock about whether we ought to spend $13 million to take down the names and addresses of young men who might have to be called to the colors to use the weapons that will be bought with the $153 billion.

The real argument in the Senate wasn't over money, obviously. After all, $13 million is less than one-hundredth of one percent of $153 billion. (The relationship can be more graphically stated as 13 vs. 153,000.)

The disagreement apparently arose because there is strong support in Congress for spending almost unlimited amounts on preparations for war, but only if it is understood that nobody will be asked to risk injury in fighting the war. In its modern version, "millions for defense" refers to dollars, not people. Our guns-and-butter policy consists of buying the guns and then turning to butter when it comes to asking somebody to fire them.

Horace may have believed that "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," but Horace isn't running for reelection in 1980.

We now prefer wars that fight themselves. And we hang a "warmonger" label on anybody who suggests that people ought to prepare to defend themselves because in these enlightened times the need for self-defense can be thrust upon people on 15 minutes notice.

Think of it this way: If the next computer alert of a missile launch is in earnest, an hour later there might be nobody left to marvel at the warning system's efficiency.

For good measure, our schizophrenic reaction to registering young men of draft age has been complicated by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose mission appears to be to speak out when nobody else dares to, or when everybody else has sense enough not to.

As soon as the Senate approved the registration appropriation, the ACLU announced that it would go to court to ask that the measure be declared unconstitutional because it is discriminatory. It would register men but not women.

This is what is known in the profession as a smart legal maneuver. The ACLU doesn't want women included in the registration; it wants to kill registration, period.

There may or may not be merit to the charge of discrimination. There is no merit to raising the issue as a subterfuge in an attempt to dictate national defense policy.

If the courts uphold the ACLU position, Congress will be forced to make a choice: Either bite the bullet and decide what role women should play in the national defense, or run away from the issue in terror in this election year. It shouldn't take Congress more than 10 months to decide that the registration question can be laid over until 1981 without endangering the nation's safety.

Well, this more or less brings you up to date on defense-related issues: If there's a war, both sides will program their computers to aim all missiles at outer space and thereby make sure that no people are hurt.

I find this reassuring -- except when I recall an electronically recorded message from the Electronic Industries Association that was partially broadcast by WTOP a few nights ago.

The message was that although electronic equipment is very reliable, it's nice to know that if it ever needs repairs you can . . .

I did not hear the remainder of the advice about what to do if automated electronic equipment needs repairs because at that moment the network's or WTOP's automated electronic equipment went out of whack and the Electronic Industries Association never had a chance to finish reassuring me about the reliability of its products.

I wonder if the ACLU would be agreeable to a compromise: If we're going to spend billions on hardware but not have enough people to use it, would it be all right it we compiled a roster of electronic repairpersons, male and female, just in case we ever need them in an emergency?