According to those who served under him in West Germany's 12th Tank Division, Maj. Gen. Gert Bastian drew respect and admiration as the kind of commander who fostered leadership in others and kept a mind of his own.

As a military man in a politically sensitive country like West Germany, however, Bastian had one dangerous flaw -- he touted his opinions, which did not always agree with the positions of the Bonn government.

Last week, the two-star commander finally went too far. In an eight-page memorandum to Defense Minister Hans Apel, he criticized the December NATO decision to station medium-range nuclear missles in Europe as a senseless escalation of competitive armament. Saying he was unable to accept the decision, Bastian 57, asked to be allowed to retire early.

The government responded swiftly. Within an hour of reading the memo, the Defense Ministry rejected Bastian's request, announced that he would be relieved of his command and strongly suggested that he resign -- which would mean losing rights to a full pension.

The general refused to quit on such terms. A flurry of criticism followed, attacking Apel for reacting rudely and too hurriedly, without even contacting Bastian directly beforehand. The press quoted numerous statements of loyalty from soldiers in Bastian's division, and there were reports of unrest in the army over how the matter had been handled.

This week the government said Bastian would be reassigned to a desk job in any Army office in Cologne. But just as officials were beginning to think the affair had passed, the original memo -- which the government had refused to release and which Bastian legally could not make public as long as he remained in active service -- appeared in the press.

The memo revealed that Bastian in addition to criticizing the NATO decision, also had attacked Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the significant role West Germany played in promoting the alliance's action.

For the Bonn government, the case of the disagreeing general has posed a delicate dilemma involving a clash of two fundamental principles.

On the one hand is a belief that generals ought to be allowed, indeed encouraged, to have their own opinions. Since its formation in the 1950s, the West German military has been generally sensitive to appearing like a corps of yes men.

On the other hand, West Germany, like the United States, holds to a belief of civilian control of the military and thus demands loayalty by military leaders to politicial decisions.

Twice before has the outspoken Bastian tested these principles. Last March, at a political assembly of the Young Socialists, he argued publicly the Soviet military strategy was influenced by historical experience of wars against Germany and so was basically defensive.

Shortly afterward, he worte an introduction to a book entitled "Murderers in Uniform" that few who served in the Third Reich could honestly claim they had been duped into contributing to "the assembly line of death" of those times.

In both instances the Defense Ministry dismissed conservative opposition demands that Bastian be fired. Apel personally supported the general, saying that Bastian had not violated his responsibilities as a soldier by any of the remarks he had made.

Apel drew the line, however, at Bastian's request for permission to retire.

'Bundeswehr [army] officers must serve our state and are not free to quit whenever a decision is not to their liking," the defense minister declared.

No one seemed really to argue with this premise. Nor was there much, if any, discussion of Bastian's reasons for wanting to leave. The Bonn governments has staunchly defended the NATO decision as a necessary response to counter new Sovier SS20 multiple-warhead rockets, and as important leverage in still hoped-for-disarmament talks.