Some readers may have been surprised to learn of former assistant secretary of defense Larry Korb's reported offer to trade paychecks with some of his "griping" military subordinates {Nov. 14}. Having been in the Pentagon during Mr. Korb's tenure, I can understand the subordinates' reluctance. It would have been truly shocking, however, if Mr. Korb had offered to trade jobs with them as well.

In reporting the General Accounting Office's finding that active-duty military personnel now earn an average of 27 percent more in total compensation than civil servants of similar age and educational level, reporter Judith Havemann seems to imply that pay should be based more on demographic factors than on supply and demand -- i.e., the old "comparable worth" argument.

But demographic-based comparable worth is wrong, whether in the private or in the public sector. Mine workers must generally be paid more than secretaries -- not because mine workers are usually male, but because working in a coal mine is less appealing than typing and filing. Similarly, military compensation must generally exceed federal civilian pay. Otherwise, the hazardous but necessary job of defending American interests around the world would be left undone.

The day that bureaucrats in civilian agencies start queuing up for service in the Persian Gulf is the day that military compensation can be said to have excessively outstripped federal civilian pay. But until then, we should discard the fallacious "fairness" argument. Compensation in both the military and the civilian sectors should be set at a level that allows for adequate attraction and retention of needed personnel -- even if that level is unequal for the two sectors.

LEE S. MAIRS Falls Church