We must either discharge all women from the military or permit their entry into combat specialties. The choice must be made now, not to advance the cause of either the feminine or the feminist, but to restore the effectiveness of our military.

Superficially, the increased recruitment of women has helped the All-Volunteer Force approach its strength goals. But beneath the surface, the presence of women has precipitated the flight of male warriors to a private enclave called "combat" -- there to worship a self-image of heroism, sacrifice and clashing steel.

In consequence, we now have two militaries: those who inhabit the combat enclave, an evershrinking minority, and those who occupy the amorphous terrain beyond the walls -- men and women who make up the majority of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Though outwardly the two groups are indistinguishable -- both wear uniforms, shine their shoes and salute -- only the enclave population claims for itself the special purpose that sociologists say gives a profession its uniqueness and legitimacy. That special purpose -- combat -- justifies the need for discipline, instantaneous obedience to orders, hierarchical organizations and visible symbols of rank.

Those outside the enclave find themselves subjected to the same tempering processes, but excluded from their ultimate purpose. The parades and military spectacles in which they participate, divorced from their raison d'entre, become annoyances and interruptions -- something to put up with. Without their combat connection, these symbols do not relate to the daily work experience, pay, assignments and promotions. No rationale is offered why all must be decked out in the trappings of a dangerous profession when only a few claim the right to be exposed to danger.

With so many consigned to pseudo-militarty status, we may no longer have two million under arms, but less than a third of that.

What is frightening is that this self-decimation of strength rests more on mythology than on fact. The official and legislative view of combat that has divided the military into two camps is little more than an extension of past war lessons to future situations. It is made up, in equal parts, of senior officers' reminiscences of youthful glories and the public's evocation of John Wayne movies. Simply stated, the prevailing definition of combat is that no part written for the late Duke will be played by a woman.

This definition stresses close encounters of the dangerous kind -- no matter that these are on the wane -- and downplays the widely scattered damage that enemies can inflict on each other by means of the greater mobility of units and the longer ranges and greater destruction radii of weapons.

To fit the John Wayne definition to their own situation, the services have become embroiled in a metaphysical and theological self-analysis that would be of credit to a medieval monastic.

Initially, the Army may have thought that it could make an easy distinction between combat and noncombat. We will keep women out of combat units, the Army said, while retaining all-male staffing for the infantry, armor and artillery. On closer examination, however, it was noted that combat units contain soldiers who are not combat specialists. Even a rifle company has its complement of cooks, clerks and supply people. What to do now? Let women be cooks, clerks and supply people -- but only when the positions are assigned to noncombat units.

A second, equally ornery problem was uncovered. Is there a cleanly defined front line, where two sides struggle fiercely in sight and touch of each other, while duties become less dangerous and more vocational the farther one moves to the rear? If belief in a front line holds, how far forward can a woman be assigned? Can she hold a mechanic's job in a division maintenance battalion, which is rear, but not be permitted to go forward with a repair team that fixes a disabled tank where it broke down, near the front line? Must a male mechanic perform this job?

Can combat be excluded from the rear? What if a rear area is threatened by guerrillas, long-range patrols and helicopter assault teams? Will units, located there, defend like a medieval town, with the men on the walls and the women safely behind the fortifications?

For that matter, is the concept of combat limited to offensive acts, while excluding the defense?

As the Army struggles with these fine points, the other services are engaged in their own introspection, seeking to define their combat myth. Distinctions are being drawn between ship and shore, ground and air, between combat and noncombat vessels and aircraft, between combat and noncombat positions aboard the same ship or plane, and between combat and noncombat missions.

The issues raised are as complex as they are arbitrary and artificial. Their solution evokes a union-card maze of "gos" and "no-gos," "dos" and "dont's." Special restrictions, in the form of codings, are added to occupational descriptions, delineating when a position or even a task within a position must be performed by a man and when it can be performed with no regard to sex. The man-job matching system, almost impossible to balance, according to GAO reports, sinks even deeper into the morass of unmanageability.

And this is where we stand today -- with two militaries. A retrenched Group One that bitterly defends traditional values and professional characteristics by denying them to Group Two, creating, in the process, a semantic mess that destroys morale and a management mess that defeats effectiveness.

If all women are to be discharged tomorrow at 11:00, the combat-noncombat nonsense will have faded away by 11:01. The military would be reunified, the combat cloak extended once more over one and all.

But that is not a good choice. It would be far better to disperse the macho smoke screen and its false concept that some elements of the military, and only some, will face combat, while others will not. Let us admit that, in modern warfare, all uniformed members are exposed to operational risks. Such an admission can return more than one million men and women to full membership in our armed forces, with all the rights and responsibilities that wearing the uniform entails. It can double our strength without expending a penny.

The old generals and admirals may dream of bayonet and cutlass. But let them remain dreams.