MANY AND GRAVE things are wrong with the military, about which nothing will be done; these defects could easily lose us a big war. A major reason why we will do nothing to remedy them is that a few evangelical critics of the military, by focusing on defects which do not exist, have distracted attention from defects that do exist. Not to mince words, much of what prominent adversaries of the military write is absolute, verifiable nonsense -- yet Washington takes it seriously. This is an inadequate approach to the management of a heavily armed world.

A few examples of the work of these people, who invariably call themselves Military Reformers:

Dina Rasor, archenemy of the M1 tank, head of the Project on Military Procurement, and so frequently on talk-shows as to seem part of their furniture, has over the years released all sorts of information purporting to show the manifold shortcomings of the M1. Rather less attention has been paid to the manifold shortcomings of Rasor, the unconscious assumption in much of Washington being that anything derogatory to the military must be true.

In 1985 she published a book, a risk which few Reformers should take. In the book ("The Pentagon Underground"), she tells of going with a congressional delegation to Fort Hood, Texas, in 1981 to see the M1. She tells of getting into the driver's seat, low in the front of the hull, and discovering -- lo! The Army had designed the tank for midgets! There wasn't enough room for people of normal size. For example, her head bumped against the turret. Why, she gasped, one of our boys might be knocked out.

Ever vigilant, Rasor ferreted out another manifestation of the tanks excessive tininess. She is only 5'6" tall, she writes, yet "I later had a crew member close the hatch while I was in the driver's seat. In order to fit, I had to dig my chin into my chest and put myself in an almost impossible driving position."

I had the same problem until I adjusted the seat.

At 5'11" I fit comfortably into the tank. Not only didn't Rasor know about the adjustable seat, she apparently wasn't interested: The book was published in 1985, and the trip made in 1981, allowing ample time to make a telephone call. Her whole book is full of such tales. Thus do we influence policy in Washington.

Ignorance of such august dimensions is customary among Reformers. When I first became a military columnist for the Washington Times in 1982, I was given a briefing by Pierre Sprey, a Reformer and universal expert, about the defects of the tank. Sprey proceeded to tell me many terrible things about the M1. Much of it struck me as implausible: I grew up on a research base (Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory), and graduated in 1966 from the Marine Corps light-armor school at Camp Pendleton. Sprey's notions bore no relation either to the military I had been in or to the engineers I had lived with. On the other hand, I didn't trust the Army. While the services had done little if any actual lying to me, on many occasions they had, er, interpreted vigorously.

Having been duly "spreyed," I showed up at Fort Knox with my own stopwatch and tape measure. I was determined that the Army wasn't going to fool me with a rigged acceleration test. I proceeded to badger the Army into letting me actually use the beast: drag-race it over a 50-foot course, fire it on the move and the rest. In every case I could personally verify, from acceleration to effectiveness of turret stabilization, the Army's version proved correct.

Sprey had told me for example that the M1 was so dependent on its electronics that, should they fail, the tank couldn't fire. This is typical Reformery: Anything technically more advanced than the weaponry of WWII doesn't work. I turned the engine off, cut the master power, turned the turret with the hand cranks, aimed the auxiliary sight and twisted the manual firing handle. The tank fired.

All of these steps are explained in the crew's manual (as is seat adjustment) with drawings. Why didn't Sprey and Rasor know these things? Because they had not tried to find out. Before leaving Washington I had asked Rasor's office for the manual. They didn't have one and had never read it: The tanks' premier critics hadn't bothered to read the instruction book. There are genuine questions to be asked about the tank, fairly interesting ones actually, but you won't hear of them because the Reformers keep the discussion at the level of clowning.

One begins to notice a pattern in the writings of the evangelical Reformers: First, a robust disregard for truth. Second, a taste for parody. Observe that the Reformers do not accuse the military merely of bureaucratic ineptitude, poor judgment, and inattention in the expenditure of other people's money -- the normal foibles of federal agencies. Instead soldiers are accused of absurdity, of serious unfamiliarity with their profession, of behavior explainable only by clinically substandard intelligence. This is not analysis. It is caricature.

Consider another common example of comedic criticism: the assertion that the Army builds combat vehicles of flammable armor. The M2 Bradley, a sort of armored personnel carrier, uses aluminum armor. Various objections may be raised to aluminum armor, particularly in naval use (the Navy uses it extensively), and there are serious reasons for doubting whether the class of vehicles in general or the Bradley specifically is militarily advisable -- but these are grown-up questions. The Reformers, seeking to lampoon rather than to describe, have decided that aluminum burns. (Ha ha -- dumb ole Army, makes incendiary vehicles.)

From "The Pathology of Power," an unremarkably silly book of Reformism by Norman Cousins: "But under the right conditions -- namely, a square hit by a mortar shell, a land mine, or even the right kind of grenade -- this aluminum armor might ignite and burn fiercely, incinerating the occupants. The thicker such armor, the more intense and devastating the conflagration it would fuel." I have seen this notion in a dozen places. The New York Times, the grey mother of journalism, editorialized that the Bradley would go up "in a fireball."

Now, let's break with all tradition and think about this. Aluminum is an extremely common material whose properties are perfectly understood. If it burns, the Army is deliberately building crematoria for itself to ride in. I like to imagine the decision being made:

"What'll we build it of, general? Firewood?"

"Naw. Gotta paint it."

"How about . . . bundles of highway flares?"

"No, the troops would suspect."

"Well . . . aluminum?"

"The very thing! Goes up in a fireball!"

Does aluminum, burn? Of course not. My wife cooks often in an aluminum wok on a gas stove, and that wok has yet to go up in a fireball. Put a beer can on a gas stove -- I did, for this article -- and see whether it burns (the paint will smell up your kitchen). Ever wrap a potato in aluminum foil and put it in a camp fire? Were you incinerated by the intense conflagration? The publication of such stuff suggests a weird idea of servicemen and a non-existent grasp of chemistry.

The media often seem to accept this stuff without question, perhaps because reporters believe the Reformers to be engaged in public-service work. They aren't, exactly. Rasor for example works for a non-profit organization that depends on grants and direct mail solicitations for its income. Cousins isn't directly paid for his advocacy but, of course, book royalties depend on sales. Measured discussions of the design of armor don't sell books or attract donations. Splashy allegations do. Gary Hart's Reformist fulminations (in "American Can Win," a tract by Hart and Bill Lind) were going to be used, one supposes, to position him as a defense-minded presidential candidate before he self-destructed. Further, the attractions of attention are not without weight in Washington, and many reformers would never again go on television if they ceased to deal in sensational charges. The evangelicals are not without agendas of their own.

Another characteristic of Reformist writing is heavy reliance on the fact that much of their nonsense is obvious only to specialists. For example, (I could provide pages of this) Cousins speaks of the Hellcat missile (it's the Hellfire, actually, but why bother about details?) and worries that electronic jamming might make a descending ICBM fly back to destroy its country of origin (this would require repeal of the laws of physics), talks of the superiority of aiming a tank gun with the naked eye (flatly impossible), and admires the virtues of the Belgian Leopold tank (apparently he had heard of King Leopold and figured a Belgian tank must be a Leopold, as indeed it might be if the Belgians built a tank. Really it was a Belgian-owned German Leopard).

With equal insight, Rasor claims to have found that the M1 doesn't need a laser range finder because the optical range-finder works just as well; unfortunately the M1 doesn't have an optical range-finder (unless you count reticles on the auxiliary sight, which she wasn't using). She says the tank uses four gallons of fuel per mile, roughly correct; Lind and Hart say more than nine. (One number is about like any other, especially if you know that nobody will check it.) Yes, these are details. But if I wrote of politics with equal inattention to detail -- speaking perhaps of Rep. Ted Kennedy of Kentucky, who chaired a nonexistent committee -- I would be laughed out of town. The Reformers get away with it.

The lack of adherence even to high-school standards of research is astonishing, but monotonously observable, in many Reformers whose intellectual credentials would lead one to expect better. Consider the DIVAD antiaircraft gun as described in "America Can Win." Lind is a bright and charming fellow, but makes himself comic by an inability to distinguish between what he knows and what he does not know. Hubris is an occupational disease of Reformers. Lind asked me to read the manuscript before it went to the publisher. In it was the familiar story of DIVAD's radar aiming its gun at a latrine fan (again, note the love of the comedic). I had looked into the tale with some care and concluded that it didn't happen. Noting this, I wrote that I assumed Lind had verified the tale.

In the published version the story became, "In another demonstration, a DIVAD's radar reportedly mistook a nearby fan in a latrine for a helicopter and aimed the cannon at it." Cute: "Reportedly" allows retention of the derogatory thrust -- many readers will of course assume that what has been reported must be true -- yet he is covered if anyone calls him on it. This is sheer intellectual dishonesty. It is not an isolated instance: In writing of the Navy's Aegis anti-aircraft cruisers, he says, "The Navy reportedly rigged the tests." If true, the charge is very serious; if not, wildly irresponsible. No evidence is given.

Aclever rhetorical technique of the Reformers, again exploiting the public unfamiliarity with the military, is the formulation of an amusing charge in one sentence which cannot be answered in less than a dense paragraph. Few will read the paragraph, and the answerer invariably sounds defensive as he endeavors to explain.

Take, for example, the rebuttal to the story of the latrine fan: DIVAD used a Doppler radar, which picks up only objects in motion. In particular it was intended to pick up helicopter rotors -- i.e., large fans. Depending on such things as size of the fan, wave length of the radar, and so forth, DIVAD might well have been able to see a latrine fan. Radars pick up what's out there, not just what you are looking for. Naval radars see islands, for example. No malfunction is involved. Fine. But doesn't the foregoing explanation have a tone of trying to explain why one has been caught with one's hand in the cookie jar?

All of this chicanery might be tolerable provided that the prescriptions of the Reformers held up. They frequently don't. As a brief example, from Sprey and others I learned that a good tank should not weigh 60 tons, or have a laser range-finder, a fire-control computer, stabilized turret, or automatic transmission (these all being characteristics of the M1). What does one find on Israel's home-brew tank, the Merkava? All of these things. The same is true of German tanks, British tanks, and increasingly of Soviet tanks. Personally I would hesitate to instruct the Israelis in armored warfare. The Reformers are less timid.

Why do the Reformers do these things? They will tell you they want to Give Our Boys the Best, to promote the national security, to be sure the taxpayer gets what he pays for. (The defense contractors say the same thing. Purity runs in the streets in Washington.) Yet their behavior is inconsistent with these ends. You don't help our boys by making essentially random charges about a highly complex subject whose fundamentals you have made no attempt to master. In fact it is hard to think of a better way to get troops killed.

The approach of the Reformers is not gauged to persuade but rather to anger. But, by their relentlessly sloppy research and cultivated ignorance, they make themselves appear as lightweights, which in fact they are, so that any useful ideas they might have are easily ignored. This is not politically serious behavior.

Why, then, do they behave as they do? Chiefly, I think, because they are not aware that they are dealing in nonsense. The Reformers are zealots of the classic variety, with the usual self-righteousness and the usual hermetically-sealed minds. Having become frantically partisan over years of polemical trench-warfare, having partitioned the world into Themselves and The Enemy, they are perfectly unconscious of the rolling non sequiturs and athletic leaps of logic that constitute their conversation. If the cause is good, the details aren't important. It doesn't matter whether the armor burns as long as your heart's in the right place, and if the tank isn't really too small for humankind, well, it would be just like the Army if it were, and that's close enough.

Fred Reed writes "Soldiering," a nationally syndicated column on military affairs, and is a Washington editor of Harper's.