On the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1990, without so much as a White House press release, the United States government effectively announced that our nation's 17-year experiment with an all-volunteer Army had failed and was being terminated. That is the inescapable conclusion from the order signed that day by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, which freezes on active duty the Army officers who would have retired and Army enlisted personnel who had fulfilled their terms of duty.

The all-volunteer military always relies on a basic libertarian, free-market faith in the autonomy of the individual to serve or not to serve, a freedom the secretary of defense's order has now suspended. The Navy and the Air Force are considering similar freezes on their active duty personnel. The freeze means quite simply that the U.S. military is no longer all-volunteer.

So now the unavoidable question for President Bush, Secretary Cheney and the Democratic Congress to answer immediately is not whether Americans ought to be "drafted" to defend our country, because we are already doing that, but instead just exactly which Americans are to be drafted.

The tough job of Army recruiters was made a lot more difficult by the freeze. As one recruiting official conceded to The Post's George Wilson and Mary Jordan, "A kid signing up for two years now doesn't know whether it will be two years or not." How tough that recruiting job had already become was evident in the dramatic drop-off in Army enlistments since the increasingly insistent drums of war were first heard in the Persian Gulf. Army recruiters fell short of their enlistment goals by 28 percent in September, by 24 percent in October and by 32 percent in November. As Sgt. Thomas Risher told Wilson and Jordan, "The crisis is making it harder to recruit, because people don't want to go to war." And because there are often months between a young American's decision to enlist and the actual reporting date, there is a strong probability that come early next year, the personnel shortages could become acute.

The Cheney freeze order, by its very publication, asserts unequivocally the administration's conviction that our military now needs more people than it is attracting. Perhaps Capitol Hill Democrats, who have been mostly mute on the matter, will now explain why it is less unjust to retain on active duty involuntarily an American who has fulfilled his voluntary obligation to his country than it would be to bring to active duty involuntarily those Americans who have yet to serve.

Or maybe the free-market friends of Secretary Cheney can explain why a draft to oppose a menace who is, according to President Bush, worse than Adolf Hitler would constitute involuntary servitude. All that is really needed, such folks will probably insist, is an upward adjustment in the price mechanism. And who will be the first of them to propose a federal income tax hike to cover the cost of quadrupling military salaries?

The White House and the State Department publicly question the effectiveness of the economic embargo the administration has masterfully imposed and which deprives Iraq of approximately 98 percent of its income. Yet that same administration was angrily certain that the world's economy would never recover from a simple amendment to the trade bill offered by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), an amendment that would have threatened to limit in three years the number of VCRs the Japanese could sell in the United States if Japan did not open up, just slightly, its market to American wood products.

Now that the secretary of defense has announced the end of America's all-volunteer service, he would do well to read "Fields of Fire," former Marine Jim Webb's memorable novel of Vietnam. From a Marine sergeant returning to Vietnam for a second combat tour after a visit to the American home front, Webb wrote these words: "Lieutenant, you'd hardly know there was a war on. It's in the papers ... but that's it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids go to college. It's like nothing really happened, except to other people. It isn't touching anybody except us."

That was the truth and the tragedy of Vietnam in the United States. Today, the all-volunteer American military, Secretary Cheney has told us, is no more. And we must confront a new truth. As we have learned from painful experience, the strength of a nation is ultimately measured by that nation's will and resolve to stand together at individual sacrifice for a common good. Now before the bullets fly, before the bombs drop and before the brave young widows come again to Arlington Cemetery, we must as a nation pass that test by deciding whose brothers, whose sons and whose fathers will fight in the Persian Gulf.