THE AMERICAN military hasn't done anything right since the Inchon landing. It was unable to win in Korea, lost Vietnam completely and had more than 200 Marines killed at Beirut through military incompetence -- not to mention what happened to USS Stark -- and barely managed to knock off a few hundred Cuban construction workers in Grenada. It's equipped with weapons that cost millions but don't work terribly well, if at all.

The Russian military is the most formidable in the world, lavishly equipped with more tanks, guns, ships and aircraft than the rest of the world combined -- all of which, being nice and simple, work quite well, spasivo -- designed with one single task in mind: the utter destruction of Western culture.

Those, at least, are the two views we hear from the political Left and the political Right, respectively. Together, these views form an unholy -- not to say illogical -- alliance between the Left and Right, resulting in a distorted view of the world balance of power. In both cases, the distortion results from a fundamental lack of understanding based on a combination of intellectual laziness and ideological preconceptions that do not allow for the objective examination of evidence.

The American military -- at least the service I know best, the Navy -- is the most capable in the history of the world. That's not the same as "perfect," by the way, and in any case the effectiveness of any country's military is, in isolation, totally irrelevant. An army or a navy is a tool of national policy. Like any tool, a military establishment must have a purpose other than mere existence. When used, it is supposed to have a clear mission, preferably a mission that bears some semblance to its design. This has not recently been true of the U.S. military.

People on the left look at Vietnam as the vindication of their political views: We failed, therefore we should never have gone; therefore we should never attempt anything even vaguely similar to Vietnam. In supporting this political view, they find the reason for failure in the military itself. Nothing is too small to ridicule. The stories of the overpriced hammers and toilet seats are repeated until they become as permanent as the figures on Mount Rushmore, despite the fact that they are inaccuracies at best, and outright lies at worst.

The Left has even sprouted its own "military reform" movement. It is noteworthy, first of all, for its singleconsistent thread: the weapons they oppose have real offensive capability, and those they suggest have none at all. Three examples are diesel-electric submarines versus nuclear ones, small carriers versus large ones, small, short-range fighters versus large, long-range ones.

Every submarine officer I know has served aboard or commanded a diesel submarine; they all think that nuclear is the way to go. Had Great Britain retained full-sized carriers -- or even just one -- capable of power-projection instead of replacing them with smaller, less capable ships, the Falklands War would never have happened. The Israelis say the big, long-range F-15 Eagle is the best fighter in the world.

But what really galls me are the attacks on the men and women of our armed forces. The most recent example is USS Stark. The captain could have done better, but he did not choose to be in a war zone with an equivocal mission and rules of engagement that required him to be at war, and at peace, at the same time. one might also note that Lt. (j.g.) John F. Kennedy, USNR, was decorated after losing his command under more favorable tactical circumstances, while Capt. Glenn Brindel lost his career even though he saved his ship.

Grenada, for all its faults as an operation, is an illustration in contrast. The mission was to rescue American students and neutralize the government forces of that small island. Despite only a few hours of preparation and the consequent lack of good intelligence information, the mission was carried out rapidly, with minimal loss of life to friendly forces. What distinguished Grenada from Vietnam and Beirut, however, was a clear mission concept and the delegation of command authority to the men on the scene. The result was success.

As much as the political Left (and its pet "reform" movement) claims to desire an effective military, it invariably shrinks from acknowledging that we might actually have one. Whipping boys are hard to come by, especially the kind required by oath to respect public officials. It must be quite a thrill to abuse those who cannot reply in kind because of their loyalty to the constitutional process.

I wish I could report that the political Right takes a more realistic view of defense issues, but it just is not true.

Let's take an example of a Soviet military threat that has been highlighted by the Right. Practically everyone has seen a glossy color photograph of the Russian "battlecruiser" Kirov, usually with an ominous caption about how she (the Soviets call ships "he," by the way) is the most powerful, best-armed surface warship built in the past generation.

Back in 1983 I showed such a photograph to a friend of mine, a former commanding officer of an American submarine. "Tom, you know what that is?" he asked. "that's a Navy Cross that hasn't happened yet. That is a target." This view is shared by the skipper of every submarine in the United States Navy, and their main concern is that the British Royal Navy might get there first and spoil the fun.

I sprang my friend's line about Kirov on a British submariner a few years ago and got an even better reply: "Tom, do you know that Kirov has a great bloody bow sonar, that it ensonifies the whole bloody ocean, but it doesn't tell its operators a bloody thing!"

The submarine drivers in our Navy refer to the Soviet Navy as a "target-rich environment." The Brits are a bit more colorful.

So you have to ask yourself: Why aren't American and British submarine captains properly terrified of the Soviet Navy? Where does this confidence come from? Can't they count?

The confidence comes from the fact that, unique among Western military forces, the submarine community operates against the Soviets on a daily basis. They track Soviet surface ships and submarines, gather intelligence information of various sorts, and generally conduct themselves as though on war footing at all times. To a submariner, the only difference between peace and war is pulling the trigger.

The Soviet navy and the Soviet military in general look formidable. Anyone can get information on the numbers of ships and tanks and aircraft. That's called "bean-counting." It is an entirely valid approach, as far as it goes, but there is more to evaluating an enemy than counting beans. What one cannot count in KH-11 photographs is the competence of the "drivers."

An army or a navy is not a collection of tanks or missiles. A fighting force is composed of people. A tank is only a piece of steel -- without a crew it won't go anywhere. Without proper maintenance support, even a good crew can't take it very far. The French navy throughout history was composed of better-designed ships than the Royal navy that consistently defeated it. "Better to have good men in bad ships," as a submariner told me last year, "than bad men in good ships."

It's the men who count. (Women count, too, of course, but they're not allowed in combat arms at this writing.) How good are the Soviet soldiers and sailors?

The Soviet army is the first in modern history that tries to function without sergeants. Oh, they do have "sergeants," but what that means is that early into the conscription period individuals are selected on the basis of intelligence and politically reliability to go to sergeant-school. after a few months they are sent to their units -- but like everyone else, at the end of their two years, they go home. I need hardly point out that two years do not a sergeant make. It takes more like five.

When I go aboard a U.S. Navy ship, I am always struck by the same fact. You expect the officers to be sharp. They're all college graduates, exquisitely trained and reasonably well-paid. What always surprises, however, is the quality of the enlisted personnel. The average age is 22 or so. Most are high-school graduates with their first job, and they've been in for about four years. Already they have more experience than their Soviet counterparts (the conscription period in the Soviet navy is three years, and two years in their army).

These kids are sharp. They are proud. They know why they're out there. They all have responsibilities. If a radar breaks, some 21-year-old kid fixes it, probably with the advice of a senior petty officer or a chief. Enlisted men on our ships stand watches. I've seen a Signalman First Class conn (direct the course of) his ship as the Junior Officer of the Deck, and a Chief Petty Officer stand watch as Officer of the Deck. That's called democracy in action.

By contrast, when a Soviet navy ship is underway, either the captain or the starpom (executive officer) is always on the bridge -- and if they have a flag officer aboard, the admiral frequently rides the bridge and gives rudder orders. Think about that for a moment; it consistently astounds American officers. How much confidence do Soviet captains have in their junior officers if they spend 12 hours per day, every day sitting on the bridge?

If something aboard a Soviet ship breaks, generally an officer fixes it -- he has to, because the sailors don't know how. As a result, the best way the Soviets have to make sure things don't break is not to use them. While American sailors conduct DSOTs (daily systems operations tests) every day, the Soviets for the most part don't even turn on their radars, much less their weapons mounts. Their "days out of port" numbers may look impressive, but what they mean goes roughly as follows: a Soviet warship leaves port, generally accompanied by a sister ship and a small oiler. The two warships take turns towing each other (good seamanship practice, and it reduces war and tear on the engines). When they get to where they're going, they drop their anchors and sit for a month or two, then return home the same way. By comparison, the U.S. Navy generally plows along at 20 knots. In short, the U.S. Navy spends quite a bit more time actually working then does its Soviet counterpart.

Do the Soviets have good ships -- yes they do. They also have impressive weapons of all categories.

But so do we -- though not as may -- and we have people operating those ships and weapons who actually know their jobs. The Soviets generally do not.

So, how good are the Soviet armed forces? How good can they be? How good would our forces be if we operated under a similar system? How good would our submarines be if their at-sea time was cut by two-thirds? How effective would they be if they didn't train on their equipment every day? How much confidence would we have in a military in which only officers have professional experience?

Why, then, do the Soviets hamstring their armed forces, you ask? Think about it for a moment. Soldiers and sailors the world over are not terribly different. They tend to be loyal to good leaders. If the Soviet military had real professional soldiers, they might start liking the officers over the party leaders . . . perhaps even enough to forget that they're supposed to be loyal to the CPSU . . . and the Soviet Army has a lot of guns . . . and even with the KGB's Third (Military-Oversight) Directorate to keep an eye on things, that worries the Politburo. A truly professional Soviet military might be more of a threat to the CPSU than to NATO.

Defense issues are hard to cover in 10 column inches of a newspaper or 120 seconds of air time. Reporters in particular seem to lack anything resembling expertise in the defense area. (There are a few stellar exceptions, one of whom is John McWethy of ABC.) I have on several occasions offered to show TV journalists how to acquire the sort of knowledge I have -- and it is not difficult. I have yet to get a response. Instead, reporters take prepackaged information, either from the Right or the Left, and merely repeat it.

Our political leadership is also failing. There can be no consensus on defense policy until our political leadership assumes its responsibility of debating -- and ultimately answering -- the following questions:

What are the threats to America and the West?

What is the mission of the U.S. military?

What do we expect our armed forces to do?

How do we expect them to do it?

Wars usually start because one side misperceives the strength and intentions of the other. Overestimation of the enemy can sometimes be as dangerous to world peace than the weapons everyone worries about. Wars usually start because one side misperceives the strength and intentions of the other. It's time to ask how we can expect to generate good public policy from skewed data.

Tom Clancy is the author of "The Hunt for Red October," "Red Storm Rising" and "Patriot Games." This was adapted from his piece in the January issue of Policy Review.