The rambling discussion that passes as a "national defense debate" has focused largely on the material dimensions of the security challenges confronting the nation, and on whether the government's investment in military power is sufficient to meet them. How much is enough -- numbers of ships, missiles, divisions -- is the major issue attracting attention.

Yet the issue of resources, while important, has submerged discussion of a far more critical issue: is the United States capable of competently employing military power?

Military reputation is desirable in a world where force remains the final arbiter of international disputes. Proven military prowess is indispensable to the United States, whose interests abroad are in fact being threatened and to whom others look to for protection. Manifest incapacity to use force effective tempts adversaries and discourages allies.

As an American and professional defense analyst, I am therefore deeply disturbed by the recurrent failure of American arms during the past 30 years. the bungled attempt last April to free our hostages in Iran is but the latest page in a dismal chapter in American military history. Not since the Inchon landing has a significant U.S. military venture been crowned by success. On the contrary, our military performance since September 1950 suggests that we as a society have lost touch with the art of war. Inchon was followed by the rout of American forces along the Yalu; Yalu by the Bay of Pigs fiasco; the Bay of Pigs by disaster in Indochina; Indochina by the fizzled raid to retrieve U.S. POWs thought to be confined in North Vietnam's Son Tay prison camp; Son Tay by the abortive assault on Koh Tang Island in search of the crew of the highjacked Mayaguez; and Mayaguez by the debacle in the Iranian desert.

The cumulative impact of these military miscarriages upon foreign leaders has been detremental to our fortunes abroad, particularly against the backdrop of a foreign policy that has made a virture of irresolution when it comes to the use of force even in defense of interests deemed vital. It is hard to believe that perception of a United States unwilling to use force and unable to do so effectively failed to influence the actions of Khomeini and the Kremlin during the past 18 months.

More disquieting than the consequences of our declining military reputation has been the absence of serious inquiry into its causes. That we have suffered military reverses consistently for 30 years suggests that something far more fundamental is amiss than "obvious" and oft-cited factors. Without doubt, poor intelligence, insufficient force, rigid tactics, equipment failure and excessive political intrusion into military planning have been among the discernible casues of misfortune. But are they not symptomatic of more profound ills?

I would make the following observations. Since the early 1970s our society has refused the military either the material or the moral resources needed to fullfill the tasks assigned to it. Psychologically traumatized by Vietnam, and morally debilitated by an ethic that sneers at any semblenace of individual duty to the nation, we slahsed real defense spending, gutted our intelligence community and abandoned conscription, hiring a volunteer army of citizen mercenaries whose attraction to military service is based on what it can do for them. Thus we transformed the very concept of military service from a patriotic profession to simply another government job. We transformed the concept of the military itself from Defender of the Nation to (Armed) Job Corps. We forgot the ultimate purpose of a military establishment.

The result is a U.S. Army recruited largely from the unemployed and economically disadvantaged, deprived of the energy and talent of middle-class America, and whose mushrooming personnel costs (dictated by the necessity to compete for manpower in the private sector) gobble up funds slated for the modernization and care of its equipment -- an army, in short, of declining human quality and material readiness.

The widening estrangement of our military from society has been accompanied by an equally troubling development within the military: the rise of a historically illiterate officer corps possessing unbounded faith in the power of technology and managerial technique to overcome virtually all problems on the battlefield. Born in the bureaucratization of the military during World War II and nurtured under the corporate ethic prevalent during the McNamar years, it is an officer corps that tends to equate leadership and administrative ability, to regard war as a firepower equation rather than a human encounter and to treat the enemy as simply an array of targets. As such, it is an officer corps ill prepared to deal with the unexpected, be it the product of nature or the actions of an opposing commander.

Nowhere was this inability to cope more apparent than in the paralysis and panic that gripped the U.S. rescue force in the Iranian desert. Patton would have made do and pushed on to Tehran, but then Patton was a student of war's history and a warrior, not a "military manager." Indeed, it is unlikely that Patton would have confronted a crisis at Desert One in the first place, since he would never have endorsed a plan whose rigidity, inadequate resources and lack of proper rehearsal betrayed a gross insensitivity to the degree to which any military venture is subject to events and circumstances beyond the commander's immediate control.

Defining problems is often easier than devising solutions. I have no facile answers for restoring America's military reputation. Equitable conscription probably would produce an army of better quality, higher morale and greater social representativeness. As for our career military's addiction to gadgetry as a substitute for thought, let us hope that the increasingly disproportionate dollar costs of even marginal advances in technology will at some point force upon those in charge a recognition that the quality of weapons is less important than how they are used.