IT IS A PECULIARLY AMERICAN phenomenon that we can hunker down in the shadow of World War III and devote our attention, not to the cause of world survival, but to that vital detail of whether women should be drafted. If we could only get the Soviet Union to hold a similar debate we might discover the way to world peace. If their debates and press conferences go the way ours are going, there wouldn't be anyone to fight the war. It seems no one wants to go.

The draft issue is creating some very strange bedfellows. On the left, we have Women U.S.A., an umbrella organization headed by former congresswoman Bella Abzug, Patsy Mink and Yvonne Burke, announcing plans to oppose any draft registration. They oppose war as a means of settling international disputes.

On the right, we have Phyllis Schlafly announcing a nationalwide petition drive to influence Congress not to draft women. Schlafly is also against drafting men -- at least for now. She's not convinced it is need for national defense. But "if it is, then I would be for a draft of men only."

She says that pro-ERA forces who are lining up against the draft are "hiding out." She has a point. The pacifist position allows them to duck the issue of whether women should be drafted and sent into combat.

The issue of drafting women and sending them into combat is clearly upon us. We can go on about how unfair conscription is and how war is not the solution to world problems, and how the Persian Gulf is not the place to draw the line anyway. But there may will be a time soon when we will have reached a national consensus that we must go to war and that we need the draft. That will not be the time to sit down and hash out the relatively modest question of whether we should draft women, or the toughie, which is whether we should send them into combat.

Let's get it over with now.

Schlafly has always linked the ERA and the draft. "We can beat it now, but if the Equal Rights Amendment is passed we wouldn't have a leg to stand on. The only reason we can debate this issue now is because we don't have the ERA."

She says, "Equal treatment in the military is the most fantastic takeaway of women's rights in the history of the world."

She believes it will harm the military, whose effectiveness will be diminished by soldiers getting pregnant and bringing their children on base.

"I think the purpose of the armed forces of the United States is to defend our country. The purpose is not to engage in social experimentation or to give jobs to needy people or to run day-care facilities for people who have babies. The purpose is to defend us. I think most people believe we are better defended by men than women.

"Drafting women does nothing to enable us to defend the Persian Gulf. In my opinion drafting women would be a signal of weakness to the world," Schlafly said.

The feminist party line is that ERA and the draft are two separate issues and, in theory, they are. ERA is essentially economic in its origin. Congress has always had the power to conscript women, and discussed doing so during the end of World War II. "There certainly wasn't any real push for equal rights at the end of World War II," says Janyce Katz of the National Women's Political Caucus. "There was a shortage of manpower."

"So some people were talking about drafting women," answers Schlafly, "but they didn't do it."

She says it's "the ERAers who've brought this upon us." Again, she has a point. "They've been saying we want equality . . . There's no way women want this kind of equality."

No so fast there. A national climate was created in the '70s in which we came to tolerate and then to affirm th equality of women. Schlafly is right in saying the pro-ERA forces promoted it. The courts affirmed it through a whole series of sex discrimination cases brought under the Fifth Amendment. Women affirmed it in the conduct of their personal and professional lives. They did so because they wanted to.

Diana Steele of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union says we have come to a point that any exclusion of women from the draft probably would be successfully challenged by men. "Under current constitutional doctrine, any exemption of women . . . would have to be closely and substantially related to maintaining the country's national security," she says. "With the expiration of the last draft, there has been an influx of women into the military, and their performance has illustrated that their presence is wholly consistent with national security."

"I would argue against the draft," says Judith Lichtman, executive director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "But . . . I believe that every citizen, man and woman has to accept all responsibility of citizenship. If it's necessary for anybody to serve, then we all must serve. I never knew any men who were happy about being drafted, and women aren't going to be any happier.

"Just in terms of elementary fairness, just as i am a stronger supporter of the ERA, if there has to be a draft . . . then sex isn't the disqualifier."

Schlafly says women don't want this kind of equality. I think she's wrong. She says women aren't as strong as men, but that doesn't mean they aren't strong enough to carry a rifle.

Many of us debating these questions grew up in an era in which women simply could not develop or demonstrate their strength or endurance. It was not ladylike. We didn't swim or play soccer because it would give us big muscles. Young women now play soccer around here just like the boys do, and their swimming times in AAU meets are sometimes faster than the boys'. Young women aren't like we were, and we need to recognize that.

The position of the ACLU is that women should not be barred from combat on the basis of sex alone. "There should be gender neutral tests for combatability," says Isabelle Pinzler, director of the Women's Rights Project. "Many women wouldn't be able to serve, just as there are some men who aren't able to serve."

"Women ought to be registered because they're citizens," says Betsy Griffith, a historian and a Republican feminist. "I frankly would go so far as to say young women ought to be qualified for combat too. If they can fire M16s and pass muster then they ought to serve. There's no reason it should be your sons and not my daughter."

Or, as Diana Steele told the House Armed Services Committee last November, men haven't cornered the market on patriotism.