It hardly seems an auspicious way to launch either a new year or a new administration.

Was it believed that just a whiff of the Inquisition might be good for the souls of the nation's civil and military servants? Was this a follow-up, at a higher level, to earlier leaks chastising selected ambassadors for the effrontery of carrying out their instructions from the Department of State? Was this the thought-police's muffled footfall somewhere out there in the transition fog?

More likely, a few zealots felt that the nation's senior officers need a quick and vivid demonstration of the meaning of duty, honor, country. Perhaps the nation's respect for its military establishment would be enhanced, and the new administration's own high regard displayed, if the nation's principal military officer, the chairman of the Joint Cheifs of Staff, were to be unceremoniously fired on the say-so of transition staffers through anonymous leaks to The Star?

On the premise that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, these self-appointed disciplinarians were starting needlessly to tamper with civil-military relations; indeed, with the constitutional system itself.

The charge against Gen. David Jones was rather novel -- not dereliction of duty but fulfillment of duty to his civilian superiors. Jones apparently had been insufficiently insubordinate to his commander in chief. In the past, most generals from MacArthur on down had been fired for insubordination. Now we were to have a superior criterion; failure to be insubordinate to a predecessor president.

A continuation of this effort might well turn the current political transition into something of a circus. In the center ring would be Republican senators, perplexed and angry that certain Democrats feel it proper in a confirmation proceeding to inveigh against the continuing loyalty of Gen. Haig to his president in the dying days of the Nixon administration. Meanwhile, in the side ring some of the same men seek to upset the normal tenure in office and to fire Gen. Jones for his delinquency in failing publicly to defy his commander in chief. Haig will be vigorously defended for his respect for the chain of command, while Jones is castigated for his devotion to the same principle.

Bashing general officers for the decisions, judgments or errors of their civilian superiors is an act of cowardice and spite. It is also an act of extraordinary folly, for it will make virtually impossible that proper subordination of the military to civilian leadership on which our constitutional system rests. Military men are required to serve those civilians contemporaneously in office. Are we to establish a new political test for general officers -- of selective insubordination? Are our senior officers now required not only to serve their current superiors but to anticipate the different views of their possible successors?

Take, for example, the issue of manpower. There is scarecly anyone knowledgeable about defense matters, including the president-elect's advisers, who believes the United States can field ready forces competitive with the Soviet Union without the draft. Yet this issue is a delicate one, ideologically and psychologically, with the incoming administration. The All-Volunteer Force was established in 1973 through an alliance of McGovernite end-the-war types and conservative Republicans who believed that market processes were inherently nobler than national service. Former president Nixon has stated, simply but courageously, that it was a mistake.

Senior officers have over the years understood that what cannot be cured must be endured. Does this castigation of Jones' working within the system constitute a mandate to speak out on fundamental issues? Our senior officers have attempted over the decade, quietly and loyally, to make the all-volunteer policy work, though most are keenly aware of its corrupting effect on discipline and retention, even on record-keeping. Does the new administration really prefer its senior officers to become whistle-blowers on manpower and other policies -- rather than maintaining a discreet, if somewhat hypocritical, public silence?

The term of the chairman has been purposely set not to coincide with that of the president. This underscores that, while senior military leaders serve at the pleasure of the president, their offices are distinctly non-political. David Jones has steadfastly adhered to the concept of civilian supremacy and the proper subordination of military officers who may advise, but should not rebel, if an issue does not require resignation. More is achieved by direct advice than by theatric public defiance. He loyally served two Republican defense secretaries as Air Force chief of staff. When elevated to the chairmanship by Secretary Brown, he did not feel his loyalty was necessarily bounded by service to prior Republican secretaries.

On the question of necessary defense expenditures, Jones has been more outspoken than any of his predecessors. One need not agree with Jones -- and the other chiefs -- regarding the SALT II issue.No doubt considerable intra-administration bargaining took place in the fall of 1979 that resulted in the Carter administration's first effective support of real defense growth. However, one may come down on SALT itself, it is plain that subjecting general officers to retrospective political tests is bad for the military and bad for the country.

In 1977, the incoming Democratic administration was tempted to discipline two senior commanders. One was the then chairman, Gen. George Brown, who had offended some and amused others by his comments on such matters as the ownership of banks and newspapers in the United States and the decline of British military capability of a handful of generals and military bands. (In the 1976 campaign, Sen. Mondale had stated that Brown lacked the qualifications to be a garbage collector, or words to that effect.) The other was Gen. Haig himself. Like Jones, he too was then accused of being a "political general" -- in Europe, where he was subsequently honored, as well as in the United States. The Democrats wisely stayed their hand.

One trusts the Republicans will similarly avoid acts of small-minded political vindictiveness. Otherwise, we will wind up with a military as politicized as in Germany -- where the CDU has its generals and the SPD has its generals. To fire Davey Jones midway in his tenure for acts of service to his constitutional superiors would strike a severe and needless blow against proper civil-military relations -- indeed, the very concept of military professionalism.