Moral greed spoiled the Democrats in matters of national defense. Is material greed doing the same thing for the Republicans?

The question needs to be asked as the country pays tribute this Memorial Day weekend to those who died in battles long and not so long ago. For plainly all is not well in the present relation between arms and men in America.

The evidence of trouble spreads itself blatantly across a ghastly record of recurrent failure. Fresh in mind, there is the inexplicable case of the nuclear submarine George Washington, which, despite sonar and all other kinds of detection devices, rammed and sank a Japanese freighter, and then behaved as though nothing untoward had happened.

Before that there was Desert One, the poorly conceived, inadequately prepared and badly mismanaged effort to rescue the hostages in Iran. Before that, the Mayaguez incident with its abortive assault on the wrong place at the wrong time. Before that Vietnam, befor that the Bay of Pigs. As Jeffrey Record, an outstanding military analyst formerly with the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently wrote: "Not since the Inchon Landing [in September 1950] has a significant U.S. military venture been crowned by success."

Heaping blame on the uniformed military services, to be sure, is easy and not unfashionable. But in a democracy, and in particular in the American democracy, the military does not act on its own. It works against the background of civilian life. National elan carries them into battle. Warriors fight badly -- or not at all -- when the political and spiritual atmosphere discounts the value of sacrifice.

Extreme reluctance to apply force marked the outlook of the Carter administration. The president and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance set arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union at the apex of their foreign policy goals. In case after case, they took the "too proud to fight" line.

In Lyndon Johnson's eyes, Vietnam compared to the Great Society as "that bitch of a war" to the "woman I really loved." So he subordinated military requirements to public opinion at home.

The ultimate test for both presidents was approval of the front end of the Democratic Party. They tried to please an enlightened constituency dominated by strong humanitarian instincts. They sought to be better than they really were -- the hallmark of moral greed.

The Reagan administration, like the Nixon and Ford administration, shows no signs of squeamishness about the use of force. The president and his leading advisers love to be seen on television singing patriotic anthems.

But when it comes to deeds that denote a willingness to pay for beliefs in blood and in money, a different theme prevails. It is the theme of selfish materialism.

A striking case in point is the lifting of the grain embargo. That easing of pressure on the Soviet Union was taken purely in response to the importuning of domestic interests. It had, and has, no foreign policy logic. It delivered to the world, and to the American military, the message that this president, for all his rhetoric, wants to maintain penalties against Soviet aggression only after his constituents get their pound of flesh.

Then there is the matter of Selective Service. All reports indicate that the American armed forces lack soldiers with technical skills and initiative. But how could it be otherwise? The surging element in American society, the up-and-at-'em middle class, has bought its way out of national service. In deference to that middle-class clientele, the Nixon administration instituted, and the Reagan administration continues, a system whereby the country's defense depends on an army recruited from among the jobless and the underprivileged -- those with the least to defend.

Finally, there is the defense program put forward by Secretary Caspar Weinberger. I am not one of those who believes it is necessarily inflationary. But the clear emphasis is on the easy way -- on buying the most sophisticated weapons regardless of the capacity to use them, on maintaining the present structures of the Army, Navy and Air Force independent of their relevance to actual military challenges.

Perhaps time will soften this judgment. But so far, at least, I see the Reagan administration yielding at every step to the self-indulgent instincts of its constituents. I find little reason to expect an improvement in military effectiveness. I am haunted by the comment of another military analyst, Edward Luttwak, to the effect that "in lieu of tactics we have bureaucratically preferred procedures; in lieu of an operational art of war we have an attempt to find high technology solutions . . .; and in lieu of strategy at all levels, we have only budgeting, programming and politics."

Note : Numerous complaints indicate that my May 19 article, "The Dark Side of Islam," lent itself to serious misintrpretation. I used terms that were far to general to discuss a delicate subject in a highly emotional context. I am sorry for that, and I regret any offense I may have given, particularly ot my many friends in the Islamic community. It was certainly not my intent to condemn Islam as a society or a religion.