ON THIS Memorial Day, for a change, our nation can salute an American military operation that was marked by operational competence. As a long-time military officer and critic, I am proud to acknowledge that, unlike some other recent military forays, Operation Just Cause in Panama last December was well-planned and effectively executed. The brass at the top got everything right and the warriors at the cutting edge were highly motivated, maneuvered well and hit hard. They accomplished the assigned mission and sent a signal to the world that our military machine is once again a professional combat-ready force.

It was a far different performance from the 1983 Keystone Kops farce that we know as our invasion of Grenada. In Grenada, nothing went right. The Army acted like a green recruit screwing up everything it touched and then couldn't even complain to the Navy boss because the radios didn't match. It probably wouldn't have mattered had they actually made contact, especially after our Air Force bombed our Army. After the disaster, the top brass went into total damage control, lying even better than their predecessors who lost the tactical war in Vietnam with equal incompetence. The cover-up was made complete by stamping "top secret" on the after-action reports. Grenada became just another splendid victory.

But despite our success in Panama, it wasn't all roses for the infantryman -- the guy on the ground who really takes the chances, the prey of another trained human being methodically trying to kill him. Our infantryman must be the best and have the best: the best training, the best leaders and the best gear. In Panama, he won despite the fact that he did not have the best of everything. He was not well served.

Yes, the megabuck Stealth fighter supported him. It cunningly swooped through Noriega's air-defense system and blew up a garbage dump or something just as strategic. Yes, the Sheridan tank that failed the course in Vietnam 20 years ago rumbled through the streets of Panama, supporting the groundpounder with a crew that was more frightened of the piece of junk they were riding in than they were of the enemy. (The Abrams tank that has cost our nation billions of dollars could not be airlifted to Panama because it was too heavy, and if it could have been deployed, it would have collapsed virtually every bridge that it crossed.)

But the individual GI still packed the modified M16 rifle that, as in Vietnam, jams excessively and gets so hot after firing two magazines that the gunner needs gloves. He used the M60 machine gun that I took into Berlin almost 30 years ago. His radio, uniform, load-bearing equipment and jungle boots haven't changed much since Vietnam. He still doesn't have an effective anti-tank weapon. He still totes his grenades in an old canteen cover or discarded gas mask container because he doesn't have a grenade pouch. And for our soldiers stationed in a colder clime like South Korea, there still isn't a decent winter glove or winter boot in the inventory.

If you compared a photo of today's infantry warrior all suited up for battle with his father's photo from Vietnam 25 years ago, you would see little difference, except for the new Wehrmacht-style helmet and the camouflage war paint that is applied with the same care as a Vogue model's mascara.

But another, more important thing remains unchanged: Our infantrymen still are not trained hard enough. During the Vietnam War, at least 70,000 Americans were killed or wounded by our own firepower -- a tragedy I attribute in large measure to poor training. We didn't learn. Except for our top-notch Ranger battalions and a few infantry units with determined commanders, today's groundpounder doesn't fire his individual or crew-served weapon enough and he isn't trained to live and fight in a realistic and risky armed environment. This criminal shortcoming is exacerbated by two deliberate policy decision.

One is to save ammuniton and hence money by curtailing "live fire training" -- even though each warrior's life depends upon his ability to shoot. The money that it costs for one fuel-guzzling Abrams tank would provide enough bullets and shells to supply each combat infantry division for a year or more. Instead, the shortage of training ammo will get worse as the defense dollar shrinks. This has happened after every war since World War II, and the doughfoot has always paid the price in blood because he has not been ready for the real thing. The battlefield is the last place to train infantryman.

"Safety first" is another reason for not training in a live-fire environment anywhere near as realistically as our soldiers' grandfathers trained for WWII. This emphasis results in part from a policy of changing division commanders and assistant commanders every year: With only one shot at division command, few CGs will risk blowing their careers on casualties in training. Congress could take the heat off the safety issue if they'd cool it with their stinging tell-me-what-happened-letters, realize that preparing men for battle is a high risk-business and that accidents happen. I would rather lose one man in training than 50 men on the battlefield because they were not properly prepared. I'ts about time that the people at the top get their priorities straight. It is their sacred responsibility to insure that the fighters in the middle of the action get the best gear and best training for their life-and-death occupation. Our Army has spent billions of dollars since the Vietnam War ended. The lion's share of its hardware money since the 1960s has gone for wonder weapons like the Abrams tank, the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, the Sergeant York, the Pershing missile and the Apache helicopter, preparing for the least probable war scenario -- Western Europe. Meanwhile our light infantry -- which actually fights the wars -- has gotten the scrapings at the bottom of the defense-dollar barrel.

The top guys today are not responsible for this crime. They were captains and majors when most of these high-tech wonder weapons were on the drawing boards. But they must stop defending this junk and start putting our defense dollar where it's needed.

I think the secretary of the army, Michael Stone, can provoke his senior Army leadership to do just this. He recently said, "Our Army must be superbly trained and superbly equipped and be ready to fight." And that is exactly right.

If the Army could get the big picture right, as it did so well in Panama, then it should be a piece of cake to equip, train and provide leadership for the infantryman who will fight in the dirty little wars which the last four decades have proven to be the most probable.

David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel, is the co-author of "About Face." His 25 years of Army service included 28 months in combat in Korea where he was wounded four times and 54 months in combat in Vietnam where he was again wounded four times.