In the area of the country where I live, defecting from military service is almost unheard of. Most of the young people in my section of Georgia are quite poor. They didn't have enough money to hide in college. They thought the war was wrong. They preferred to stay at home, but still they went to Vietnam. A substantial disproportion of them are black. They had never been recognized for their service to the country. They had often been despised, characterized as criminals, they were never heroes and I feel a very great appreciation to them. They were extraordinarily heroic, serving their country in great danger even if they didn't have the apprepriation of their fellow citizens and even if they felt the war was wrong. It's very difficult for me to equate what they did with what the young people did who left the country . . .

But I think it is time to get the Vietnamese war over with. I don't have any desire to punish anyone. I'd just like to tell the young folks who did defect to come back home with no requirement that you be punished or that you serve in some humanitarian capacity or anything. Just come back home, the whole thing's over.

THAT'S HOW JIMMY CARTER explained, in an interview with editors and reporters of this newspaper last March, what he was to describe in a speech to the American Legion in August as "the single hardest decision I have had to make during the campaign" - his decision to grant a blanket pardon to draft evaders in his first week in office as President, and to deal with Vietnam deserters on a case-by-case basis. Performance on this campaign promise is not going to be popular among many Americans. Those who resisted the war and joined the protest against it are not likely to be satisfied unless Mr. Carter does his pardoning in a way that suggests the "defectors" were right and that the war was wrong. And those who engaged in the war or supported it and who care most deeply about its hundreds and thousands of victims - the dead, the wounded, the drug-addicted, the men with bad conduct discharges, the unemployed - are going to resent any suggestion that those who served were wrong.

So it has the look of a no-win proposition for Mr. Carter, when you look at it in the narrow and inflammatory terms of a pardon for "defectors," which is the way most people have been impelled to look at it by the nature of the campaign debate on this issue, by the sharp focus on draft evaders and deserters as the unfinished business of Vietnam, and by Mr. Carter's own emphasis on "the young people who left the country." But it becomes a far more palatable and promising proposition if you approach it in the context of the Vietnam legacy in its totality and of what the new administration can do about those hundreds of thousands of victims of the war who never left the country - or left it to serve the country in Vietnam.

We have no clear indication of how Mr. Carter is looking at it right now. But the deadline for the President-elect's decision is drawing closer. So we would like to draw attention today to that larger problem - to the totality of the wreckage - and to suggest some ways to deal with that . And we would take as our text some other things that Jimmy Carter said in his American Legion speech that did not receive quite as much attention as his controversial commitment to a "blanket pardon" for the draft evaders now in exile in Sweden and Canada:

We must recognize that, in far too many cases, the Vietnam veterans have been a victim of governmental insensitivity and neglect. Large bureaucracies of the federal government have often been incompetent, inefficient, and unresponsive in their fulfillment of responsiblities to veterans . . . Each month, thousands of veterans are plagued with later delivery of badly needed benefit checks. Hundreds of millions of dollars of benefit payments have been improperly computed . . . In 1973 and 1974 Congress passed legislation requiring special consideration of veterans in public service jobs, in training programs, for jobs with federal contractors, and for jobs in the federal government. None of these requirements has been fully or effectively carried out . . . The record of placement in private sector jobs and training is no better . . . Last month [July 1976] there were still 531,000 Vietnam veterans who had no jobs . . .

The Vietnam veterans are our nation's greatest unsung heroes . . . a lot of them came back with scarred minds or bodies, or with missing limbs. Some didn't come back at all. They suffered under the threat of death, and they still suffer from the indifference of fellow Americans.

We recite these campaign statements by Mr. Carter not to suggest any lack of support for his pledge to pardon the draft evaders and deal with the deserters case by case, but simply to put that pledge in its proper perspective as a part of the unfinished business of Vietnam - but not only a very small part, and to our mind, by no means the most important pary.To put it in its simplest terms, the Vietnam war was a generational calamity. Leaving aside for the moment the private citizens who agonized over it and the taxpayers who paid for it and the next of kin of those who served or resisted, it has been calculated that there was a "Vietnam generation" of draft-age men numbering 26,800,000, and it is probably fair to say that, one way or another, the war touched the lives of most of them. Some of the brightest and best educated took refuge in higher education, or found other grounds for avoiding the draft. Roughly 570,000 were draft offenders. Nearly 9,000 draft offenders were convicted. Three thousand more draft offenders are thought to be still at large. From these two groups, it is estimated that about 5,000 are now expatriates, unable to return to the United States.

On the other side of the ledger, almost 11 million draft-age men served in the military, of whom only about 2 million can be classified as Vietnam veterans - those who actually served at one time or another in Indochina. Of these, about 52,000 died, 270,000 were wounded, and 70,000 received "bad paper" discharges under other than honorable circumstances. Another 180,000 young Americans who did not go to Vietnam received bad discharges, a handful for failure to report for Vietnam duty (7,000) and the great majority for other offenses. Astonishingly, of the bad discharges awarded to Vietnam veterans, only 24 were awarded for desertion under fire, 2,000 were awarded for those who were absent without leave in the combat zone and the great majority (68,000) were for other offenses.

Now, "other offenses" covers a multitude of things, including such "civilian" crimes as assault, homicide, and theft, as well as violations of milatary codes and regulations. But when you consider that the overwhelming majority of those who got caught up in the draft were poor, undereducated and the least qualified for military service, do you not have to include them, in a certain sense, among the victims of the war? It is estimated that at least one quarter of the 200,000 Vietnam-era veterans who received "undesirable discharges" or bad conduct discharges go into trouble after serving honorably in Vietnam. Yet their "bad paper" discharges severely damage their employability and will dog them the rest of their lives. Once you start talking about pardons, the numbers and the number of categories of potential candidates boggle the mind. What, for example, of those war resisters who stayed home to protest and were convicted of non-violent offenses under federal law? The point is simply that the problem only begins with the estimated 6,000-or-so self-exiled draft evaders and deserters in Sweden, Canada or elsewhere.

There are other measurements, equally devastating, and even more difficult to calculate, of the full legacy of Vietnam: the drug-addicted, the psychiatrically disturbed (some of whom committed crimes of one sort or another after the service), the unemployed. The jobless rate in the 20- to 24-year-old category is almost twice as high for Vietnam veterans whose employability has been marred two ways: directly, by drug addiction, psychiatric problems and service-connec ed physical disability; and indirectly by the popular image of Vietnma veterans as unstable and violence-prone.

President-elect Carter, we think, is on the right track - and never mind the semantical confusion he has created by his misuse of the strict meaning of "pardon" as opposed to "amnesty." He is proposing to deal with draft evasion and desertion (under some circumstances) as offenses to be forgotten and in a sense forgiven, without respect to the rightness of the act or the wrongness of the war. This is a welcome first step beyond President Ford's clemency program, which demanded a penalty for those who evaded the draft - which said, in effect, that they were wrong and that the war, by implication, was right. But if that is all Mr. Carter intends to do, he will not put Vietnam behind us. For he will be picking up a small piece of the Vietnma wreckage. The rest of it - the biggest part of it - is also the hardest part. But if Jimmy Carter really wants to be able to proclaim that "the whole thing's over" he is going to have to make good on some of those other promises he made to the American Legion. He is going to have to do something about the wreckage of those who served.