The public debate about the draft rolls along, subtracting a bit each day from the sum total of human knowledge about the nation's No. 1 defense problem: how we are to get and hold enough able people in the armed forces to keep us from being stomped if we have to fight. While the world's eyes are fixed on the front-page equivalent of whether Brenda Starr and Basil's daughter, Starr Twinkle, and her dog, Tika, will be drafted soon and sent to defend the wells and harem of Sheik Oily O-le-um, consider the sense being made -- off camera -- by two thoughtful and experienced men.

Robin Pirie is the assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs and logistics. He's a straight shooter. He also has a thick skin. He needs it. For example, he had to explain to Congress recently why the Defense Department's statistics on the mental ability of recruits have been messed up for years. Apparently, several years ago it was decided to stop the expensive calibration of mental tests, a process needed to ensure that the mental categories by which recruits are measured stay constant over the years. The money was saved, the tests weren't calibrated and the standards haven't stayed constant: they've bounced around and generally gotten more relaxed. So, over time, there's been a sort of grade inflation for recruits. Forget what you've heard about there being fewer recruits who are mentally below average in the All-Volunteer Force than there were in the previous peacetime draft -- there are more, lots more. A quarter to a half of the recruits previously thought to be about average ("Category 3") -- tens of thousands of servicemen -- are below that, some way below ("Category 4").

Why does it matter? Go visit any military unit today and the question answers itself. The large gangs of able-bodied seamen who once hauled ropes and manned the gun turrets in the Navy, for example, are gone -- replaced by fire-control technicians, sonar operators, avionics repair specialists. Nor can infantry or other combat units today reasonably absorb large numbers of people of significantly below-average intelligence, given modern weapons and tactics.

It also matters because some fundamental problems are created when the educated middle class becomes so untouched by and unfamiliar with those who defend their civilization. In World War II, of course, vast numbers served in the military, and even in the 1950s, because of the small youth population then, almost three-quarters of the qualified young men served. But then came the split-up between the military and the educated middle class. The student deferment was the trial separation, the Vietnam War was the bitter divorce and the All-Volunteer Force was the property settlement. The deal was that, as long as they kept up their support payments, the educated folks would get to play around without having to suffer all those terrible Vietnam-era guilt feelings, produced because Groton and Levittown were in college, while Watts Appalachia were dying.

The problem that arises when whole generations of professionals, journalists, bureaucrats, teachers and other opinion leaders are never exposed to the military is not merely that too many of them don't appreciate what's needed in peacetime to keep armed forces ready to fight. It's also that they often tend to exaggerate what military force can do and to believe that years of neglect can be corrected by a brief flurry of activity.

It's the same sort of romantic hop to which our Olympic hockey team gave such credence. The extraordinary outpouring of affection for them was at least partly because they confirmed, this time, our great national myth: that, like Cincinnatus, we gifted and virtuous amateurs can step out of civilian life and win the big one whenever we really need to.

It ain't so. Avoiding miscalculations, misunderstandings -- and worse -- is going to require the educated middle class and the military to take up with one another again. And that brings us to the second thoughtful and experienced man. His name is Dr. Charles Moskos, and he's a sociologist at Northwestern University who takes the military's role in American culture seriously. He's also often an odd-man-out because he talks about topics such as upward mobility and quality and aspirations and all those other messy subjects that the economists who dominate the military manpower debate, and who staff the government offices and the study commissions, just hate -- you can't put that stuff in any rigorous way into a computer, so what use can it be?

Charlie Moskos wants to try to save the All-Volunteer Force by bringing back a form of the Gi Bill. Attract the people into the military who want to earn a guaranteed education, he says, and you'll get the ones who want to improve themselves: smarter soldiers and more knowledgeable citizens later. tIt will also be cheaper, he says, than hiring people for cash -- which is what we try to do now, with decreasing effectiveness.

It's worth a hard look, because the All-Volunteer Force is beginning to limp, more each year. Given its current state we may have to go back to the draft -- not just initial registration, the real draft -- soon. But before that hapens; Robin Pirie and Charlie Moskos should get together.

Sir William Francis Butler, a British soldier and author of the last century, gave them their guidance: "The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards."