The foreign policy of the United States is the least pragmatic in the world. And we're at the point of proving it again. After a few days of immersion in the savagery of El Salvador, that's the kindest thing I can say about our "involvement" there; we're going to get egg on our face, one more time.

The people born in the place and still alive are being spent like money. The Catholic human rights organizations hand over a stack of photographs to make sure the visitor understands precisely what their pages of statistics mean, to be certain that it is understood that this conversation is about men and women who were alive last Fourth of July.

Here is a crisply dressed young man in khaki trousers, with a neat canvas belt holding his fresh sport shirt in a tight tuck. He's wearing running shoes, but he's lying just off a road, with his head by his side, about waist level. There is a companion picture of a middle-aged woman equally well turned out; she's in the same fix. There are people pictured in attitudes of death that cannot be imagined: a portly man sitting upright, somehow, in a chair. A small row of teeth dangles in the mass of tissue that erupted when someone put a live charge in his mouth and blew the bones of his face away.

No more picture descriptions. Let us move to the living, out under a leafy tree on a warm, quiet afternoon in the capital city. A group of people listened to a mother telling about her family. She had parents, brothers, a husband and children. She still has some of the children, but all of the male members of her family have been taken by the government and killed, one by one. On the occasion of each "arrest," she was taken too. Of course, her teeth were knocked out. She was used for target practice and winged all up and down her body. Winged means shot. Another time her right breast was sliced and slashed; what was left was barely enough to give surgeons two skin flaps to sew together. That is only the beginning of her mutilation, yet she stood speaking in soft-voiced despair of the future.

War is hell; you can't get sentimental about war; everybody deplores what happens in war. Wrong, wrong, wrong. No description of hell touches the beastiality of what is happening to the people of El Salvador. Not a handful of people; thousands of people. It is not sentimental to face squarely the consequences of human brutality. It is the necessary reality for those who order, allow and do it and those who bankroll and apologize for it.

Nobody in the United States knows what the guerrillas deplore: we don't talk with them. However, those conducting the war on the government side definitely say "tch, tch" and attain a serious look in order to add that it is terrible and recite the litany about war and hell and deploring. What really engages the conductors are the power play and the argument. That is where the eyes sparkle and the fist hits the table and the words spill out. Whatever it might have been in the beginning, that is the point of the engagement now.

The power players are few in the general scheme of things, but they are lethal. There is that old Salvadoran standby player, the army, once the kept protector of the oligarchs, now ours. Its human rights abuses are exactly the same as they were for all the years the army has been in charge of the government. It was brutal before the war and it is brutal now. The army is responsible for its practices; that comes with the power. No matter that yesterday's oligarchs didn't care and no matter that the U.S. government can't figure out how to be their friends and make them look or be better.

The United States is the banker, as reckless and shortsighted as the bankers who have loaded poor nations with debts they can never repay and equally as desperate to find some way out of its trouble. Unlike those other bankers, however, even desperation can't seem to make the Reagan administration act in the national interest--not in the short run, not in the long run. We have bought ourselves an army of killer children, commanded by vile generals at the top and God knows who in the field. The United States trains and equips the army to make it more efficient and supports the government in power.

The guerrilla leaders or their spokesmen/defenders seem to be the usual mixed bag. Some speak of genuine democracy and justice, others offer a new set of thugs whose strings are or are not pulled by still another foreign government. If they "won" someday, the strongmen would be likely to sweep the democrats aside and leave the Salvadorans no better off than they are today.

That's the list of power players. The legislative body doesn't appear because it is not a factor in the game; it is simply of use in the argument. The argument for our involvement is composed of items to be used as assertions, as in: look, they had a democratic vote, this legislative body was elected, thus, a fledgling democracy was produced. The one time the legislature took any action not dictated by the man it elected its leader, Roberto D'Aubuisson, there was public and private diplomatic handwringing that he might simply sweep it out of the picture altogether. The president is not in the game. His only possible constituency would be the people, but he doesn't see a way to get to them and stay alive.

The Catholic church is an unknown factor in that it has integrity, ideas and moral authority, but there is uncertainty about the direction the pope will impose when he comes to visit. Will the Salvadoran church be confined to burying the dead, consoling the survivors, offering the end of suffering in the hereafter and sending gentle ideas for peace from the pulpit? Or will the whole church thunder and demand, of all the power players, an end to the ungodly carnage and deprivation?

The men with the glittering eyes who would topple D'Aubuisson, or one general or another, those men in their bulletproof clothes who would represent the political right, only get to play if they make the big win. Until then they too are part of the argument: we could be a lot worse off, if General Blank were running the army or if Senor Soandso knocked off D'Aubuisson.

Meanwhile, back here at home the secretary of state seems to be disengaged. Maybe, as a Foreign Service officer told Post reporter Christopher Dickey last fall, it's "The gang that couldn't shoot straight gets another chance," and the whole question just rocks along below the secretary's office, out of sight and out of mind. While administration flacks are out flogging the propaganda that we're moving right on to democracy in Salvador, no one appears to be thinking about what our interest could be in keeping this war and horror going.

Every six months the president certifies a lie: that progress is being made on human rights in El Salvador. Progress is not being made.