ANYONE WHO KNOWS Charles Peters, the editor of The Washington Monthly, will tell you that he is a wise and warm-hearted man, whose yearning for goodness and readeveloped, although none of us counts that as a fault.

Why, I wondered, is Peters pushing this vicious idea in the pages of his little magazine? A rotten idea hiding behind a bland title -- "national service."

Charlie Peters fears that America has lost its way, that people are too selfish, that young people need inspiration in the patriotic values. His solution is to force my children into involuntary servitude for the government.

That seems a disproportionate price for my children to pay. To surrender two or three years of their lives to the control of some government bureaucrat, civilian or military, so that Charlie Peters will feel good about America again!

Peters wants young people to see the inside of an Army barracks which, I concede, is an interesting experience but surely not one required for true citizenship. I did my turn in the peacetime Army and mostly I learned about mindless regimentation. As the "national service" advocates describe it, young people could choose alternative civilian chores. Emptying bedpans in nursing homes. Playing truant officer in the slums. Trimming deadwood in the national forests. Sweeping hallways in government buildings. This is supposed to instill the American character in our decadent youth.

If our youth refuse to go, of course, the government will have to put them in prison. Let's not talk around that point because, without coercion, there is no way to make universal conscription fair. Draft everyone, put the shirkers in jail. That will teach the little bastards some patriotism.

Charlie, I asked, do you have any draft-age children at your house?

Yes, indeed, the warm-hearted editor replied. He has a 15-year-old son named Christian, who is a student at Georgetown Day School.

Charlie, what does your son think of this scheme of yours to bring back the draft?

There followed a heavy pause, in which my friend, the editor, got the point.

"I don't know that he knows that's a view of mine," Peters said softly.

Why don't you ask him, Charlie? Charlie promised that he would.

IN WASHINGTON, this kind of questioning is considered tasteless, bringing a man's family into the large and important questions of public policy, making nasty personal insinuations. The polite dialogue assumes that all are disinterested. But I think this issue of "national service" calls for a little up-front tastelessness. Better now than later.

Parents of adolescent children, in particular, should ask now some of the hard-edged questions that most parents failed to ask 15 years ago, when patriotic docility was still regarded as a virtue. Some of their children wound up dead or in wheelchairs, in jail or in Canada.

The first question is: Why? Why exactly is it necessary to bring back the draft? What does the government have in mind for our children? Do not give us the grand abstractions of Cold War ideology which satisfied most citizens in the past, the academic garble about "global strength" and the "balance of power" and all that. Give us practical reasons, homely reasons that are truly connected to America's real bread-and-butter self-interest. Do not tell us our children are needed to fulfill some geopolitical fantasy concocted at a California think-tank.

I do not think the gathering political support for restoring conscription can withstand that kind of hard questioning. Right now, what I see are the formative outlines of an obscene coalition between the liberal establishment and the right-wing militarists who may overlook their real differences in order to sell jointly this terrible idea.

On the right, people like Sen. John Stennis want a military draft restored primarily to fill up the ranks with cheap cannon fodder. The all-volunteer military is too expensive and also too dependent upon poor kids, especially poor black kids who still see attractive opportunity in the armed services. The old stalwarts like Stennis are uncomfortable, depending on those young men and women to fight our next war.

Sen. Stennis is 78 years old and never served in uniform. He was too young for World War I. He was a circuit judge during World War II, a U.S. senator for the Korea and Vietnam wars.

Charlie Peters is not exactly the liberal establishment, but the Ford Foundation is. McGeorge Bundy, in one of his last gifts to America as the foundation's president, is bankrolling a campaign for "national service." A blueribbon committee with all the best names on it, even including one youth, has studied the idea and decided that Americans should be "educated" to accept its virtues. Since Bundy was one of those global thinkers whose Cold War strategies in Indochina contributed so much to the disillusionment of young people, it is fitting that he should be promoting the grand solution.

This emerging coaltion is obscene because the Ford Foundation wants "national service" in order to achieve what Stennis and his friends have spent their public lives fighting -- racial integration. All right-thinking conservatives should read the Ford report ("Youth and the Needs of the Nation," the Potomac Institute). They will see that "national service" is another liberal swing at "forced integration."

On the question of coercion, the Ford report is cleverly drafted. The 13-member committee declares itself in favor of a voluntary version of "national service" because it acknowledges that the American people aren't ready to buy the real thing, a mandatory system. Yet, throughout the 134-page study, the discussion repeatedly returns to the virtues of a mandatory system and how it might work.

For instance, instead of jailing the shirkers, the committee suggests that government benefits -- the programs for which all citizens are eligible -- could be withheld from any young people who will not serve. "One member," the report said, "has jokingly but provocatively suggested a novel sanction: denying a driver's license to anyone who declines National Service." A good laugh was had by all. Only 4 of the 13 committee members have children young enough to be affected by their brainstorm.

IUNDERSTAND why Charlie Peters wants mandatory "national service," because we have argued about it several times. As a young man, he enlisted in the Army in 1944 and went off to fight fascism. It was a moment of great spirit for America, of great accomplishment, and many liberals of Peters' generation are still, consciously or otherwise, trying to recreate the great crusade of their youth.

But Charlie has another reason that also affects a lot of liberal thinking in Washington. His son attends a private school. Charlie believes in racial integration. He believes in public schools, in bringing Americans of all classes and races together. But he decided, as a father, to take his child out of public school. No one should question the validity of a personal decision, but why should my children lose their freedom because Charlie Peters' values have been disappointed in life?

In cold, practical terms, a system of National Service would accomplish this: It would provide a lot of cheap labor to do the dirty work -- both military and domestic. These are necessary jobs that we want done for us but not at full wages. Look around and you see lots of poor people already doing this work, although some of them are increasingly unhappy with poverty wages. This is a central contradiction in the prosperous society that flourished after World War II, a contradiction that bothers Charlie Peters as much as anyone else. But his plan to conscript young people to do the dirty work would hide the contradiction rather than confront it.

If America's opinion leaders truly are worried about the decline of idealism among our young, they should consider a system of universal conscription for adults. Imagine the example of McGeorge Bundy, say, taking a year or two off to sweep up in a nursing home. Or Sen. Stennis, if he were only a bit younger, interrupting his political career to stand watch somewhere on freedom's frontier.

I mean to be serious about this: The young people I know have complicated views on America, a sophisticated mixture of old-time idealism and yes, an informed cynicism based on our recent history. They have seen with clear eyes an adult world whose government indulged murder, bribery, lying, pointless war. Since adult behavior teaches the moral values in this country, why punish the chidren?

THE NEXT DAY, Charlie Peters called me back, pleased with himself. He had a statement from his son, Christian, and he read it to me:

"I agree that there is too much selfishness in society today and would like to see more volunteering. But I'm against universal service because this country is based on the idea that people should be able to decide for themselves what to do with their lives."

Christian Peters is clearly a young man who understands what America is all about. I hope he can pound some sense into his old man.