On the Wednesday before Memorial Day 1999, without so much as a White House statement, the federal government of the United States effectively announced that this nation's 26-year experiment with an all-volunteer military service had failed.

There it was in the The Washington Post, buried in the 21st paragraph of a 21-paragraph story: The Pentagon, in order to guarantee that the United States will have the pilots and aircraft support personnel needed to carry on the NATO air war against Yugoslavia, has immediately frozen the planned retirement of about 6,000 Air Force officers and enlisted personnel. An additional 120,000 Air Force active duty personnel -- including pilots, air traffic controllers, navigators, weather forecasters and ground crews -- also will be prevented from voluntarily leaving the service. The entire U.S. Air Force now has only 363,000 men and women in uniform.

The all-volunteer military has always depended upon a libertarian faith in the free-market choice of an individual to serve or not to serve. That choice has now been suspended. The freeze on Air Force retirements means quite bluntly that the U.S. military is no longer an all-volunteer operation.

In political and journalistic Washington, following that Pentagon announcement the silence was deafening. Washington turns out to be, as charged, an elitist place. This noisy, quarrelsome town turned mute because almost without exception, no Washington dinner party invitee -- Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal -- personally knows a single one of the 1.2 million enlisted Americans who are now defending this country. They know the best merlot. They know the latest on Hillary and Rudy. They know the hottest maitre d'. They just don't know any staff sergeants or chief petty officers.

This is not the way it was supposed to work. A wise and just manpower policy is the foundation of our national defense. The all-volunteer American military, it was agreed, was to be a peacetime operation. Any major military engagement would require a resumption of the draft. The reasoning was straightforward: If the goals of our nation are worth fighting for, then we ought not to hesitate to ask all Americans to share the obligation and the perils of that fighting.

So now the unavoidable question for President Clinton and the Republican Congress to answer immediately becomes not whether Americans ought to be "drafted" to defend our country, because after last Wednesday we are already doing that. Instead, the question must be just exactly which Americans are to be drafted.

Missing in action recently has been the commander in chief. On the urgent subject of U.S. combat, the man who commanded a White House "War Room" just to pass his 1993 deficit reduction package, this masterful communicator, has lost his tongue. The president has a moral and civic obligation -- at least twice daily -- to make and remake the case for the U.S.-NATO war in support of the brutalized Kosovars and against the brute Slobodan Milosevic.

An American public increasingly troubled by civilian bombing casualties, and lacking fresh evidence of either genocidal acts or NATO progress, is losing confidence in this worthy mission.

Have you ever been in a subway car that, without warning, stopped suddenly and completely between stations? The car is plunged into darkness. The anxiety within is palpable. In a well-run subway system, this is when a strong, confident, informed and reassuring voice informs the passengers what has happened, what is being done about it and how soon the corrections will be made. In the late spring of 1999, in the matter of NATO and Kosovo, the United States is that darkened, stopped, nervous subway car -- waiting and hoping for a national leader who is confident, informed, reassuring and strong.

Dick Strout, a wonderful man and an even better journalist, covered every American president from Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan for the Christian Science Monitor. For the New Republic from 1943 to 1983, Strout wrote the influential TRB column. In his very first TRB piece, at the height of the fighting in World War II, Strout urged the American leadership to define and explain our postwar goals. In words both timeless and timely, he wrote, "When a man dies, he wants to die for something important."

Kosovo is not about oil. Kosovo is not about jobs. Kosovo is not really about power. But Kosovo is important.

Creators Syndicate Inc.