The charm of Campaign '80 (I guess) is that everythin it touches it turns into parady. This is true even of deadly issues of war and peace, which by the time the candidates get through with them, seem to be coming to us direct from "Saturday Night Live." Carter, in his overwrought attacks on Reagan, for instance, seems determined to display precisely the same kind of temperament -- impetuous, reckless, bellicose -- that he says is such a menace in Reagan. But Reagan, for his part, even though, he was beginning to get a little hot under the collar with Jimmy Carter by last week, has been coming on almost languid-- amiably and tolerantly calling for ever more expenditure on a military establishment whose flaws are demonstrably worse than the kind mere money can fix.

Maybe the present danger in the Middle East will turn the argument -- and the arguers -- serious. But the early signs have not been encorageing. From one side we get charges that the feebleness and inconsistancy of the Carter government brought down the late shah and created the conditions around the Persian Gulf with which we are faced now. This is to skate around the reality of the shah's own endemic weakness, which may actually have been aggravated by our overload of military equipment and responsibility on him well before Jimmy Carter came to town.

The American-weakness-did-it argument is, in itself, weak. But that is not to say the Carter administration's performance under the revolutionary pressures from Iran has been exactly strong or brilliant or that grave-looking, statesmanlike photographs from the West Wing of the White House represent what you would call a policy. At an abstract level, anyway, each side in the tough-versus-weak argument is 50 percent right: bellicosity can bring on bloodshed and disaster, but then so can prolonged passivity and weakness, never mind which candidate is being which in the current campaign.

In a strange way, however, for all its immediacy, and despite the charges being hurled back and forth about it, the fighting in the Gulf area is not an issue with which either candidate seems especially comfortable.They are seemingly much more at home with something like the revelations concerning the Stealth aircraft, or Presidential Directive 59, which is the case, committed to paper, for a new strategic-targeting doctrine. This, I am convinced, is because these questions, unlike the mess in the Middle East, still dwell in the realm of the theoretical, the unreal, the place where debating points, not warheads, are fired off. It is in this realm that you can argue the great principles involved, without tangling with unpleasant reality or facing the danger of being proved wrong.

But surely, at some point, the people who are conducting this argument and laying claim to fitness for the top should be obliged to deal with dismal truths. These are that, money apart, our military establishment is in a much weaker and worse condition than anyone allows, that we don't know exactly what we want it for, any way, that we talk mostly baloney when we talk about our armed forces and their role in national security and that behind all those forbidding acronyms and intitials and exotic-sounding possibilities, there is often very little -- or nothing. And the institutions -- from Congress to Pentagon to White House to private contractor -- that are responsible for everything from formulating policy to judging competency to manufacturing bullets are, in considerable measure, faking it.

Behind the cautious conclusions and recommendations of the report the president received on the collapse of the Iranian hostage-rescue mission, for example, in the body of the report, the material, page after page of it, draws a picture of terrible mismanagement and failure. On the heels of an investigation into their safety that pronounced the Titan II missiles just fine, one Titan, reacting to a dropped wrench, lobs a war head 200 yards into a pasture in Arkansas. Under scrutiny, the vaunted Rapid Deployment Force that is supposed to be the answer to much of our trouble in unstable oil-producing places turns out to be a paper exercise. Don't the politicians who put in so much time arguing the abstract virtues of more versus less and restraint versus engagement need to take note of the fact that what there is isn't working very well?

To say even that is at once to have to explain that no slur is meant on the military people who are willing to risk their lives for the rest of us. But the bravery and dedication of the individual soldier is no answer to the gross inefficiences of the institutions he serves. And, equally important, neither -- by itself -- is the claim that money is short or that politics has undermined the strength of our armed forces. In episode after episode, the big talk of the planners and the fancy-schmancy scenarios they project have turned out to be smoke. Both the people who keep saying our military needs more of everything and those who portray it as an already oversize monstrosity of people and weapons just waiting to go BANG! look away from the evidence of things gone wrong that do not fit into either political argument.

How can we keep having this national shrieking-fest over what is too much and what is too little, when we refuse, stubbornly and stalwartly on all sides, to say too much or too little for what? The worry just brings about more studies that no one reads or which become one-day news wonders. We have all these strategies in the icebox and all these wonderful projections, but they are Fantasyville. Why is it that when we go about trying to employ any of our miraculous gimmickry and resources, the thing seems to drown in glue?

It is not wholly for want of money: what we have bought too often is a mess. It is not for want of good intentions: everyone, inlcluding even Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, wants the country to be strong, secure, efficient, peaceful. But it is also true that nobody seems to want to talk about the dramatic and dire shortfall between that noble ideal and what we've got. That nobody includes most prominently the candidates tossing back and forth their charges of warmongering and weakness.