I see that Clifford Alexander, secretary of the Army, is treading the long grey road toward new and better Afghanistans. More precisely, he asserts that the Volunteer Army works well. Alexander, a political appointee, is playing the game of let's-pretend that got us into our present dangerous position -- saying what suits the political needs of the administration rather than what suits the military needs of the Army.

I have seen the Volunteer Army; for several years I have written for the magazine of the Army Times papers -- an odd occupation for a Washington reporter, requiring one to spend time with troops in the field. I suffent to Alexander that the All-Vol is a grim joke.

Last summer I followed an infantry outfit from an average division through jungle training in the Canal Zone. The level of intelligence was far lower than it was when I was a Marine in 1967. I was radio operators who could barely operate their radios, men who couldn't read, soldiers who couldn't comprehend a simple lecture on jungle survival. The Pentagon says that the percentage of high school graduates is high. Perhaps it is, given the quality of the schools. Nonetheless, those troops were, on the average, very slow. Almost as bad, they lack the leavening of conscripted intelligence to run complicated weaponry.

Further, racial antagonism is serious. Because it is desperate for manpower, the Army recruits anybody it can get: white country kids who don't much like blacks, black street kids who don't like whites at all, Chicanos who aren't enthusiastic about either. Tight discipline can hold such an explosive mix together, but discipline isn't the All-Vol's strong suit.

An instructor in the jungle echoed what I've heard throughout the military: "You can't discipline the blacks because they yell racism, and the officers are scared of being called racists so they won't back you up. If you can't discipline the blacks, you can't discipline the whites. That's where we are. It ought to be equal discipline for everybody, but it isn't. It's no discipline for anybody."

The best men leave. They leave because they are military men and the Army isn't very military now. The problem is serious: folklore to the contrary, brains and leadership are critical in the middle enlisted ranks.

The instructors at the jungle operations school, among the best NCOs I've met, were openly contemptuous of the Volunteer Army. To quote one, "I'm getting out. There's nothing in the Army for me anymore. That's a real problem for the Army. The best NCOs are getting out, and the ones coming up aren't any good. The Army runs on its NCOs. Someday it's going to need them, and they won't be there."

Further, the Volunteer Army has miserable equipment. At Fort Hood, I rode tanks so old and beaten-up that despite heroic maintenance they barely worked. Only one tank in the company had a functioning heater. We spent 11 hours in those steel boxes, in 28* weather and a sleet storm -- a lousy, unhealthy, morale-breaking day. An Army that can't provide its troops with a kerosene heater is in trouble.

In Panama, soldiers used antique radios that worked when the mood struck them, or when their operators kicked them. The Special Forces scuba team at Fort Gulick used outmoded double-hose regulators because of lack of money. A good single-hose regulator costs $100.

Training costs money, and the Army doesn't have money, so the Army doesn't train -- not as it should. The Army can't afford many helicopter hours, so the troops can't practice helicopter operations. Using armored personnel carriers costs money, so the Army doesn't use them often enough. Tanks cost a lot to run, so they spend a lot of time in the barn. Ammunition costs money, so tank gunners don't do much live firing. Any faint hope of survival against overwhelmingly superior Soviet forces will require superior gunnery. No practice, no superiority.

I recommend to Secretary Alexander the following, from a very savvy sergeant (who, incidentally, is getting out): "It's like a percentage. You can improve a lot of mistakes when the crunch comes, but not all of them. The Army's got more mistakes than it's going to be able to correct in a hurry. I'm glad I'm not going to be in combat with what we got now."