THE REAL story of our military reserves in the Iraq-Kuwait crisis is not about the reserves who have been called up, but those who have not been -- and those who have been mobilized belatedly and reluctantly. Only last week, three months after Operation Desert Shield got under way, did Pentagon officials begin to call up reserve combat units. Left undecided was when, or if, the units will be committed to the Saudi Arabian front.

Why is this news? Because it means that a nearly two-decade-old policy of increased reliance on the reserves has been discarded in its first major test. The reasons seem to be both military and political.

Ever since the end of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon has touted a "Total Force" policy. Under that doctrine, the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps Reserves and the Army and Air National Guards (the "reserve components") and their full-time comrades-in-arms in the "active components" are supposed to complement each other in one effective, efficient military structure.

Total Force dictates that the reserves be ready to fill in and flesh out the armed forces so that the active components need only be large enough to maintain a basic level of deterrence and to handle immediate emergencies. Reservists are theoretically indispensable in a major crisis: The Army chief of staff told Congress in 1986 that reserves would have to be used in any multi-division commitment.

By various estimates, approximately 50 percent of the Army's total strength of 1.5 million troops, 50 to 60 percent of its total combat forces and 67 percent of the Air Force's tactical airlift capacity are in the reserve components. More than 50 percent of combat service-support capabilities -- cargo-handling, truck and medical units -- are reserves.

To facilitate the Total Force policy, Congress granted the president permanent authority to mobilize up to 200,000 reservists at any time for up to 180 days (beyond which a congressional declaration of emergency would be required). Appropriations for the reserves increased to about $20 billion in 1988. During the 1980s, new equipment -- not the usual active forces' hand-me-downs -- flowed to the reserves. Reserve units occasionally spent their annual two weeks of active duty overseas, where they would be deployed in wartime. But there is a considerable distance between theory and practice. Take, for example, the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga. Like all Army divisions, it is composed of three brigades, each with approximately 4,000 troops. Two brigades are active; one is a so-called "roundout" brigade in the Georgia National Guard. The roundout brigade has up-to-date armored vehicles and weaponry and trained with the division.

The active Army brigades of the 24th Mech have long since arrived in Saudi Arabia, but the reserve brigade has just received call-up orders. And even now, the Pentagon says only that the roundout brigade will soon be sent to the Army's desert training center in California -- where the brigade has trained before.

One other active Army division now in Saudi Arabia -- the First Cavalry -- has a roundout brigade, from the Mississippi National Guard, which only now is being mobilized -- for training in California.

The aversion to using the reserves is not confined to combat forces. The Army has very few psychological warfare specialists on active-duty; most are in the Army Reserve. Many of these reservists work in the communications industry and have more sophisticated skills than their active Army counterparts. Yet the Army seems reluctant to use these reserves in the gulf too.

So what? Why worry that some latter day John Wayne wannabes have not been called to arms? What about all the reservists who have been mobilized?

In the first place, that number is small -- about 34,000 in the initial reserve call-up, not 50,000 as the Pentagon first indicated. The new wave of call-ups is for up to about 70,000 -- of a reserve force of over 1 million.

Nearly all the reservists in the first call-up and most in the second are support personnel such as stevedores, truck drivers, doctors and nurses. This does conform in part to the Total Force concept: there simply are not enough cargo handlers, heavy trucks or medical teams in the active components to handle a peak load like the gulf buildup. But even so, many of the logistics and medical units activated are being used in the United States to replace active personnel who have been deployed to the desert.

Why the general disregard of the Total Force doctrine in the gulf? The reasons that come to mind have much to do with the active military's proprietary sense about going to war -- and the related belief that the reserves are amateurs and would get chewed up in battle. The fear is not baseless, though among the most ready reserves are the combat units, which typically maintain a high esprit de corps. (Pilots of the Air Force and Naval Reserve, many of them pilots in civilian life too, often beat their active counterparts in simulated combat exercises.)

Even in those combat units in which the military job does not seem to have a civilian counterpart, reserve units may have built-in advantages. For example, members of certain Special Forces (Green Beret) teams have worked together for many years, while active duty Special Forces rosters are in constant flux because of the active Army's personnel rotation policies. The same holds true for tank and artillery crews.

Unquestionably, there is reason to be concerned about the reserves' overall preparedness. The real problem, however, is not the limited amount of time available to the reserves (units generally assemble for one weekend each month plus one two-week training period each year), but the waste of the time that is available. That waste includes mountains of paperwork that cut severely into training time. Reservists often spend more time accounting for their equipment than using it. Only rarely are reserve units subjected to combat-readiness tests, which are common among the active components.

Yet even if they are ready for combat, there appears to be a determination to keep reserve forces out of harm's way. Reserve officers have been told by Pentagon officials that they do not think the country would stand for reserve casualties. That may be the principal reason for the lagging call-up and for so few reservists having been sent to the desert. Now this is cause for worry -- for it suggests that Pentagon and White House officials have grave doubts about the public's willingness to accept family members, friends and neighbors being mobilized or, worse, becoming casualties in the Persian Gulf.

And, the risk of casualties aside, just calling up the reserves so disrupts families and businesses that it can stir up questions about the military objective and lead to pressure for a quick resolution and demobilization. That was why, early in the Vietnam buildup, Lyndon Johnson chose not to call up the reserves.

Yet this is precisely why the Total Force policy, with its mandatory use of the reserves in major crisis, is so essential. If the public will not stand for the cost of combat to be brought home to offices and neighborhoods, then the public does not support U.S. objectives sufficiently for the nation to commit its forces in the first place.

To be sure, committing the reserves to the danger of hostilities is not as effective a constitutional check as a congressional declaration of war nor as powerful a political tripwire as the draft. The reserves do, however, provide a real check and balance to sending an all-professional military.

But if the reserves are truly not prepared to make a useful contribution to the gulf deployment, what then? The taxpayers have spent billions so that we can have on hand a trained reserve for just such situations. If all that went for naught, are the reserves nothing more than weekend clubs whose members wear uniforms and carry weapons?

Ironically, the Total Force doctrine is alive and growing. Defense planners have updated it to explain how our active military can be downsized -- and the defense budget pared -- by transferring anticipated post-Cold War missions to the reserves. The theory makes sense, but what the gulf deployment has laid bare is the gap between theory and practice.

The crisis in the gulf -- the first post-Cold War confrontation -- should make clear that even confrontations with smaller nations can require the application of significant combat strength. And if we desire a smaller full-time defense establishment, we are going to need to place substantial combat capability in the reserves.

Yet if this capability is to be real, we need to rethink reserve organization and training. We need to think about such innovations as fewer weekend drills but 30-day annual training periods; active officers actually commanding, and not just advising, high-priority reserve units; requirements that reservists train at active-component schools and that employers be required to grant long-term leave for such training.

And if we cannot summon the wherewithal to train the reserves seriously, or the political will to use them, then perhaps it is time to reconsider whether we need them. For too many thousands of combat reservists who took their reserve assignments seriously, the Total Force policy has proved to be a farce.

Robert Peck is an Army Reserve officer and a lawyer in private practice.