LATELY, I'VE BEEN getting pamphlets in the mail about the draft. They're from organizations opposed to it. They had a rally here recently and more than 20,000 people showed up. That's pretty good considering there is no draft and no announced plan to have one. It may be the nation's first just-in-case rally. It came just in the nick of time.

Other people who once opposed the draft, now say they favor it. James Webb, the author of the Vietnam war novel, "Fields of Fire," was interviewed on the radio and he said he favors the draft. The draft, he said, will keep us out of war.

He is not the only one to say that. Back when the draft was abandoned and the volunteer army instituted, some people insisted that this would lead to war. The nation would not care about the lives of mostly poor people and professional soldiers. No one mourns a mercenary. We would not pay attention. We would dirft into war.

Certainly, there is something to be said for this theory. If there is one thing that got us out of Vietnam, it was the threat it posed to the middle and upper classes. It wasn't until middle and upper class kids started to get drafted and killed that people got into a moral snit over the war. Back when the war was being fought with volunteers and enlistees, only what George Wallace called "pointy-headed intellectuals" thought the was was a moral issue. The rest of the country caught on when their sons were called: Greetings.

The draft has more than that going for it. The draft and the army if produces is a great educator. It teaches those who get drafted that this country is more than pleasant suburbia, downtown and a place in the country. It taught me, for instance, about poverty -- real, awful no-teeth poverty. I met people who didn't know how to use a toothbrush and I met some who were so weak and addled in the head from a life of poverty that they made lousy soldiers. Too bad, too. Many of them just loved the Army.It fed you regular-like.

This is a pretty valuable lesson. Most of us grow up in our own little worlds and we see precious little of even that one. It's work and then home and always by car. In Los Angeles, for instance, I drove for months on a freeway that cuts through Watts without knowing where I was. In New York, commuters take the train through Harlem. No one gets off. In Washington, the traffic for the northern suburbs goes right through the ghetto. Few stop to see what's happened. Few really care.

The Army makes you care. It makes you live with men you wouldn't normally talk to. They put you in a barracks and then turn out the lights and the whispers hang in the night like fireflies -- love, sex, the future, the Army. You find out people are just like you. Not the same, but similar. It's a lesson you can learn almost nowhere else.

Something else I like about the draft. I like the concept of service. I like the notion of people doing something for someone or something else -- the community, the city, the country. The concept of service is central to the Judeo-Christian ethic, but lately it's being laughed at.

People want to know what's in it for them. A volunteer is someone who serves at little pay and always the issue comes back to number one -- ME! At its bluntest, it comes down to the sign held by one person at a recent antidraft rally: "Nothing is worth dying for." I, for one, beg to differ. The right to hold up a dumb sign is worth dying for.

In the end, reality intrudes. The concept of service is wonderful, but not when it is compelled. The idea of mixing the melting pot is terrific, but not at the expense of two years of your life. But the real bottom line is whether the draft encourages war or discourages it -- whether Webb is right or the speakers at that antidraft rally. History says that it is the speakers.

Maybe in the long run the draft tends to discourage war, but at the outset it gives the government a blank check. It loads the guns, hands the government the lives of young men for two years and says do with them as you want. In an age where Congress has all but surrendered its right to declare war, the lack of a draft is one of the few checks on the Executive.

In the end, the draft got us out of Vietnam -- but not before it got us in.