As a retired Marine Corps officer, who served as a military lawyer and a trial and appellate court martial judge, I read Paul Schroeder's letter "The Obligation to Disobey an Order" {Feb. 6} with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief. Although Mr. Schroeder states he is a retired military officer, no military force could be effectively led under his skewed criteria. His system of personalized analysis of every order, dependent upon one's individual sense of what's "unlawful," would presumably require a commander to conduct plebiscites based upon each man and woman's personal, subjective view of the lawfulness of the orders they received. That might be fine for the traditional town meeting, but it would eviscerate a military organization.

No such authority for "I'll do it if I think it's okay" response is contained in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. On the contrary, the U.S. Manual for Courts Martial states: "An order requiring the performance of a military duty or act may be inferred to be lawful, and it is disobeyed at the peril of the subordinate. This inference does not apply to a patently illegal order."

Certainly the Nuremberg war crimes trials dispelled the notion that all orders must be obeyed without regard to their objectively illegal character. The William Calley case is the most widely known of U.S. military trials that underscored the concept that objectively illegal orders such as orders to kill unarmed, nonthreatening civilians are obeyed at the peril of the subordinate.

In other words, contrary to Mr. Schroeder's everyone-responds-to- his-or-her-own-drummer concept, members of the U.S. armed forces are required to obey all orders issued by their superior officers and noncommissioned officers, but they are held to an explicit check upon unlimited "I was ordered to do it" excesses by the concept that if they carry out an order that they personally know to be illegal, or that a person of "ordinary sense and understanding" would know to be illegal, they do so at the risk of criminal charges for the acts committed, and they may not cite such illegal orders as justifications.

In short, Capt. Yolanda Huet-Vaughn does not have "every right to disobey if in conscience she feels the order to go to war is unlawful." Quite the contrary, the captain, whatever her personal beliefs, can neither rest upon any personal knowledge nor an objective, reasonable personal analysis that the orders sending her to active service are unlawful. Under any objective analysis, her activation orders are not illegal, and she should be prepared to face the consequences of military court martial proceedings.

All of us might also reflect on the personal opinions and thoughts of many thousands of our men and women serving in the Gulf. They, too, were faced with leaving their homes and loved ones to go thousands of miles away into harm's way. They probably have some personal beliefs as strongly held as those of Capt. Huet-Vaughn with a singular difference -- they obeyed the same oath that the captain took some years ago.

JAMES S. MAY Professor of Law, University of Baltimore Arlington