THE DRAFT has always deeply divided nations. Who should serve, for how long and why, is an emotion-charged issue. But "the draft" is also a code word for the type and amount of defense a nation needs. From Rome's decision to recruit "barbarians" into her legions, through the French revolutionary government's imposition of 25 years' service on all male citizens, to the New York draft riots of 1863 with over 1,000 dead, into today's post-Vietnam world, the question of the drft has been a watershed issue -- one that people decide emotionally on the basis of who they are and how they view the world rather than on the strengths of various rational arguments.

Growing up in the 1930's, I could always start an angry fight over the draft at the family dinner table. My father, born in the East, with overseas service in World War I and with both emotional and business ties in Europe, believed passionately that a draft was necessary for America and peace. My mother, from a midsize, midwestern town and of Low Church dissenting background, was equally certain that the draft was the first step on the road to ruin for the nation and to sin ("worse fates than death") for her children.

And I? Though looking eagerly forward to those "fates" I sided with my mother. I was writing articles in the school literary magazine against war and the about-to-be-adopted draft, with such titles as "No Hero This," "An Invitation to Turn DOWN" AND death's Kiss." They made me slightly sick to reread today. But then, much of today's debate on the draft makes me slightly sick.

In the soft fall months just before Pearl Harbor, convoys from nearby Camp Devens, Mass., used to rumble by along the road in front of my school. The school was President Franklin Roosevelt's alma marter, Groton. I was then a senior. On quite a few of the tanks and trucks in those convoys were smeared the capital letters OHIO. OHIO stood for "Over the Hill in October."

The previous year, when Congress had passed the Selective Service Act, giving Ammerica its first peace-time compulsory service, the draft had been limited to one year. That year was due to end in October. A vocal and demonstrative portion of those in the Army were proclaiming in word and symbol that they were deserting in October no matter what action Congress took. Thier protests drew solace and intellectual support from the American First Committee, which had its strongest intellectual roots in the Yale and Harvard law schools. Two months before Pearl Harbor, with the country divided, Congress extended the draft by just one vote. Practically no one went over the hill. Finally the Japanese kindly forced upon Americans the national unity we had been unable to find for ourselves.

I, crusader against selective service, enlisted in the Army ground forces on graduation in June. I was the only one of my class from this "elite" school to volunteer into the ground forces on graduation. I say this not to boast (to be honest, Private Hadley entered the Army as much to grab those "worse fates" sooner as from patrotism) but to stress that the draft is divisive in large part because it has been so unfair. The draft was totally unfair in Vietnam, largely unfair in Koreas, markedly unfair in World War II, confusedly unfair in World War I, totally unfair again in the North in the Civil War. During World War II there were a variety of routes through which the clever or wealthy could, with luck, avoid combat. I favor a just draft. Unfair selection, so rife during Vietnam, enrage me as much as anyone.

I was constantly reminded both of the OHIO signs and the draft's unfairness as I chopped into jungle or mountain landing zones as a reporter in Vietnam and saw the peace signs on the bunker roofs and the peace beads around even the sergents' necks. Yet these men, like the soldiers who scrawled OHIO, continued to do their jobs. The time was 1970. sI had been writing articles and taking actions against an active U.S. military involvement in Vietnam since 1954, when Adm. Arthur Radford, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to force President Eisenhower to come to the aid of the French at Dienbienphu.

In my three months plus in Vietnam I found only four junior officers from any of the prestigious American universities along both coasts. Friends at MIT report that not one MIT graduate became a casualty in Vietnam. The legacy of that unfairness further poisons today's already acid debate. Those who avoided Vietnam through loop-holes (or more correctly, loop-highways) in the draft, being in the main honorable men, now feel guilty. They relieve these feelings either by venomous attacks on all things military, including the draft; or, becoming 200 percent American, make Attila the Hun sound like Mother Goose and advocate colossal military expenditures. Here they repeat history. A recent biography of Theodore Roosevelt concludes that much of his bellicosity derived from shame over his father's having avoided the Civil War by purchasing a substitute. Nor can the emotions of some of my generation be much different. Gen. Lewis Hershey, who directed the Selective Service during World War II, once remarked: "In the Civil War it required $300 to escape service. In this war it requires sufficient funds to attend college."

Conventional wisdom hs it that soldiers want wars. I have found more truth in the words of Gen. James M. Gavin, parachute hero of World War II and early critic of the Vietnam war." It is both my concern for peace and my alarm over the fragile nature of peace in the world today that lead me to actively support a just draft.

My adolescent lessons were learned in the years immediately prior to World War II, those Chamberlain/Munich years of apeasement into which my generation put first roots. I was not just antidraft and antimilitary: I went further, and would argue passionately that even our involvement in World War I had been wrong. Out of my files, an issue of my school newspaper implacably reminds me that I twice successfully upheld the negative on the question: "Resolved, that the United States was right to come to the aid of the Allies in 1918." The paper reports that I convinced the judges that we had been tricked in to war" by the infamous house of Morgan. I blush. Were I not a journalist I would claim misquotation.

Next came Pearl Harbor and newspaper accounts of defeats suffered and dying sustained because of our lack of preparedness. Then came my own involvement, neither more nor less than that of many, but adequate to experience the horrors of that pit into which we had descended with faltering steps: Failure to join the League of Nations. Failure to stand with our allies when Hitler invaded the Rhineland. Failure to remobilize in tme. Failure and weakness had led to this dying. I even had the fortune, good or bad -- you name it -- to be in the lead tank in a column that liberated a major led to being one of those inside the high wire. That was a worse fate.

After the war I entered Yale. While I was happily enjoying the good time I was stupid enough to believe I'd earned and trying to get educated enough to figure out why the world believed as irrationally as it so often did, guess what happened? America did it again. The Army and Navy demobilized, the draft stopped and we all raced home. Again from my files I take a page, this one much thumbed. It has stapled to it a picture from Life magazine of 1946 showing all that is left of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division drawn up in a Texas field. There are 60 officers and men in the picture. No tanks. Two years before, when that veteran division pinched off the German thrust in the Battle of the Bulge, it boasted 14,620 officers and men and 390 tanks. i

This time we paid must more quickly for weakness. In the early days of the Korean War we went from defeat to defeat, almost being pushed off the peninsula. One quarter of the American fighting formations were actually Korean: bodies hastily scarfed up wherever they could be found. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Soviets deprived of freedom those very countries for whose freedom we had, in part, fought. I was now a newsman covering the Pentagon and later the White House, able to see first-hand our stumbling attempts to scramble back to where we once had been. I concluded that one of the fundamental defects in the American character was the belief that you can get something wihout paying for it. In Korea again young men paid. In Europe our friends paid.

So we move to Vietnam, the corruption of the draft, the attempt to fight a war out of sight, without paying for it, until misjudging the war's nature, duration and cost, we were defeated, and began another spasm of anti-militarism and unpreparedness. The draft this time was not only stopped, it was dismantled.

Are we unprepared right now? Or is the present volunteer Army working? Again, I'll rely largely on personal observation. We all remember how reliable the statistics were in Vietnam, and we know to whom those top officials who claim the volunteer system is working owe their jobs.

For the past two years I have observed the autumn series of NATO maneuver. Primarily I've covered these to compare the American units with those of our NATO allies. Let's take tanks for openers.

The present tank, in constant dollars, costs more than twice as much as a World War II fighter plane. Its equipment -- laser rangefinders, infrared sights, multipurpose armaments -- make it more complex tahn that same World War II fighter plane, let alone a World War II tank. Yet that World War II fighter was flown by an officer who had, in theory, two years of college or its equivalent. The far more simple World War II tank was commanded by a sergeant who was probably a high school graduate. Today's fighterplane-complicated tank is still commanded by a sergeant, only now he's probably a high school dropout. What's the result?

Brig. Gen. James Armstrong is short, smiling and in command of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd U.S. Armored Division. He stands before his command truck parked against a German farmhouse. He tells me he has, on this fourth day of the maneuver, "over 90 percent of my tanks in operation." I drive off to look at some of his companies. "See you at the bridgehead at 1730 [5:30 p.m.]," he yells as I leave at 2:55. The maneuver plan calls for him to attack across the Kusten Kanal in north Germany at 1730.

Of the two companies I visit, one is down to four tanks, the other to one tank. It has also lost 50 percent of its infantry fighting vehicles, all through mechanical failure. Shortly after 2 the next morning, as I leave the canal bridgehead frozen and cold, the Americans still have not shown up. A German brigade, which does have 90 percent of its tanks, makes the attack instead. "They [the Americans] are having more trouble maneuvering then expected," says a senior umpire.

Two years ago the United States was finishing last or next to last in NATO tank gunnery competitions. We still are. And, lest I seem to be picking unfairly on tankers, last year U.S. Air Force target scores in key events dropped below those of the Germans and British.

The Army has been claiming that less than 10 percent of those men and women it was accepting as volunteers were in Category IV, the lowest mental catalog. Last month the service newspaper Stars and Stripes reported that 14 to 28 percent of the Army was Category IV. Sources in the Pentagon now tell me the figure is closer to 40 percent. Those old Vietnam statistics again. Catagory IV soldiers read at a 5th-grade level and are marginally trainable.

Yet even with such soldiers, the U.S. fighting unit in NATO remain under strength, while back home the famed 101st Airborne Division, part of the so-called rapid reaction force, has 27 of its 81 rifle platoons with no one -- yes, no one -- in them. Meanwhile the Germans, believing that casualties in the first days of any battle will be high, maintain their divisions at 120 percent of strength. And our able sergeants who must lead and train our volunteers are an exhausted and discouraged group who increasingly leave the service.

Our allies know what is happening. They see the broken-down tanks beside the roads. They watch infantry units we call outstanding flunk on the rifle range. They know about our race problems, economic problems, drug prolems. The British Army of the Rhine had only two drug cases last year. The British and Germans practice behind live artillery ammunition. We don't. Gunners not accurate enough. We haven't fooled anyone into thinking that the volunteer Army is working but ourselves. Certainly not the Russians.

"The Gretchen Frage" is the code phrase used by British and German soldiers to discuss the worth of American combat troops. The phrase derives from a famous moment in "Faust" where Gretchen breaks into a long philosophical discourse by Faust to ask him pointedly where he stands with his God. If you know the phrase" Gretchen Frage" you're assumed to be an insider and get a flood of horror stories and very different answers about the worth of U.S. troops. "You think your undisciplined city boys can take their disciplined farm boys?" a German parachute colonel put it brutally to me at 2 in the morning in a British mess, while the other six British officers drinking with us nodded.

Since all allies always criticize each other, let's take one area of horror story which can be checked, and which involves our understrength army and the draft: the single-parent soldier. Our allies say that in some American NATO units 10 percent or perhaps more, mostly women but some men too, are single parents with children. When queried, the Pentagon admits to 7 percent, no more. The Army has a child care plan, people who are meant to take care of the kids so the soldiers can fight. But in an alert this breaks down. Phone operators, radar specialists, cooks, and drivers arrive with their babes in arms. Until 1975 soldiers who became pregnant were discharged. tThe women's movement and the Army's need for bodies stopped that. Since they cannot be discharged, other soldiers have to do their work; and those who are single later show up with children. This may social justice. But will such a unit fight well?

I don't mean to imply that if we adopt the draft all the tanks, artillery and planes will run like Swiss watches. Even the better educated will have a hard time mastering the complexities of today's equipment in the time most will serve. The Germans, with a 15-month draft, have problems maintaining and fighting their equipment.

But they do better. In fact -- I hate to write it -- they do far better. And so do the Dutch, Belgians, Danes, and others when working on equipment identical to ours.

I know there are abstract arguments that by spending several more billions for pay, or providing certain career benefits, or having the sun always shine on Tuesdays, we could patch up the volunteer force. That has not been historically true. It does not seem to me to be true today, when the situation is far worse then generally perceived. Our allies have found the draft works for them. They wish us to return to the draft. Today America has the worst of all possible worlds; a large, expensive force that can't fight well enough to free hostages in a small, disintegrating country.

So from my psychological terrain I arrive at certain conclusions: that a strong force is necesary to keep the peace, that we do not have such a force today, and that a just draft will most economically and fairly provide a strong force. I know there are other intellectual arguments in favor of the draft; but for me they do not have the same emotional impact. There is De Gaulle's statement that he could not have ended the Algerian war if he army had been all volunteer and professional. He needed the draftees to keep the soldiers responsible to the civilian authority.

There is the feeling of many, including myself, that it is demeaning for a great nation to put so much of the burden of defending itself upon the outcast and the poor. There is the often asked question: Would not the war in Vietnam have been ended sooner if the sons of the Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and Stanford had served there and brought the truth back to their peers early, as experienced first-hand?

As a reporter, I certainly experience the problem of the present separation of our "defenders" from our "elites." I feel, when describing the armed services, that I write about a country as foreign to most of my readers as Patagonia. Few have, or have had recently, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends in the service. Most readers lack the all-important personal, private knowledge to evalutate my work -- worse, perhaps, few care.

On a higher level of abstraction, I believe that strong conventional forces supported by a just draft decrease our reliance on nuclear weapons. This both lessens the chances of nuclear war and makes it easier to ratify SALT II, a treaty I support. I am frightened -- I do not choose that adjective lightly -- of what may happen shortly after Tito's death. If we had been able to rescue our hostages in Iran and had the trained forces available to provide some support to the Yugoslovs if asked, I feel the world would be a less dangerous place. I am certain others, with different life experiences, feel otherwise.

The draft has never been popular in America. How can choosing who is to go or not go be popular? In 1864, when it seemed as if Lincoln would lose the October state elections in Indiana, which would then lead to his losing the White House in November, he cam under extreme pressure to halt the draft. Lincoln replied: "I have been pressed to stop the draft. But what is the presidency to me if I have no country?"

The draft's stormy history continues. Today our allies wish we had it, our enemies fear we will accept it, our security needs it and peace calls for it. The peace lover, the peacekeeper and the peacemaker can with good conscience and stout hope support a just draft. CAPTION: Picture 1, No Caption, by Allen Appel for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Only 60 men remained in the 2nd Armored Division in 1946, down from World War II strength of 14,620. By Wallace Kirkland, Life magazine; Copyright (c) 1946 Time Inc.