IN A COUNTRY that has made the Alamo a symbol as well as a monument, the subject of quitting is a complex one. No one quit at the Alamo, or at Bastogne or Bunker Hill. In fact as well as myth, not quitting is different from losing. In retrospect, it can even seem as good as winnng.

Whether this will be the case with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy remains to be seen. At the moment, he has refused to quit the presidential race, staying in even after he has been counted out. He does not have the delegates to win. The president does, and the margin is not a narrow one. Nevertheless, Kennedy does not quit.

It is not an easy thing to know when to quit. Men are taught not to. They are taught examples from warfare and from its metaphor, sports. In boxing, for instance, the fighter who stays in the fight until he gets beaten to a bloody pulp is given almost as much credit as the winner. To lose is one thing. To quit, something else.

George Bush has this lesson down to a T. When he threw in the towel, it was after having been bloodied. He did not quit as much as lose and when he did leave the race, he said it went against his "every gut instinct . . . I have never quit a fight in my life." He thought he was saying something to be proud of, but the question that popped into my mind was "Why not?"

Was he never in a fight that was doomed? Was he never in a fight he could not win? Was he never in a fight where the end was forseen even before the fight began, or maybe sometime into it -- as apparent as a knockout blow to the chin? Why this pride about never having to quit when all he was saying, really, is that he has something in common with fighting dogs?

To raise the concept of not quitting to such a high plane is to say that you prefer the matter to be taken out of your hands. Quitting takes judgement. When? Under what circumstances? To continue until you lose may say more than that you won't quit. It could say that you prefer to have the matter decided by someone else and that you don't have the courage to say, simply, that you will fight no more.

This is the mentality of the schoolyard -- the one that holds that the only honorable way out of a fight is either as the winner or as a comatose loser. Anything in between is dishonorable. It is also the ethic of people who are not used to losing. Bush, in some sense, is one, as as Jerry Brown and maybe, in some sad quixotic fashion, Harold Stassen -- an unparalleled winner in his early days and a loser ever since.

Sometimes, though, the no-quitting ethic makes sense. In both sports and warfare, victory really can go the side that refuses to quit, and certainly the lesson for children to learn is that is it better to hang in there and persevere rather than simply quit when the going gets rough.

But the going for Kennedy is not rough. It is impossible. The numbers say he has lost and yet he refuses to quit. He keeps coming off the mat, charging Jimmy Carter, flailing wildly with challenges to debate and to release all delegates and see once again which is the better man. Carter will not play. He doesn't have to. He has won.

To persist for some greater good is admirable. To persist, to keep some sort of dialogue before the public is terrific, but little of this is happening. Kennedy, alas, is saying only what others have said and will continue to say except possibly changing his reasons for being in the race. First it was to win and then later not to lose and now it is to keep the thing alive for someone else.

He seems to be pursuing some sort of private agenda -- a grudge, maybe. He seems not to know how to quit, how to say uncle. It can't be easy for him. He has never had to because he is a Kennedy and Kennedys are used to winning. He is courageous -- but sometimes recklessly so.

Maybe he feels the way a lot of people do -- that a Carter victory can't possibly be the outcome of the primaries. Maybe he feels that if he just stays in, something will happen -- something will turn up. But the fight is over, the outcome is in sight and the time has come to say uncle.Any schoolyard kid can tell you that it's easy to keep on fighting. It takes real courage to know when to quit.