Accusations of military incompetence should come as no surprise when the ball is fumbled deep in enemy territory. Defeats resulting from inadequate preparation, crossed signals or an ill-conceived game plan can hardly be blamed on the opposing team. A recent essay by Jeffrey Record called into question our military's competence. His comments are part of a rising chorus of critical commentary from responsible circles.

Many Americans in uniform are similarly concerned that our win-loss average since World War II has been discouraging: a stalemate in Korea, a rout in Cuba, a pointless bloodletting in Vietnam, and a desert raid launched with all the hope of an Apollo moon rocket only to fizzle embarrassingly before the world audience.

Given the general doubt that America is unable to employ its military power to achieve even limited objectives, some of Record's observations merit comment:

A historically illiterate officer corps is obviously unacceptable. At the company level, however, a deep awareness of historical precedent is of little value. As a young lieutenant, I went to Vietnam as familiar with Clausewitz as most of my contemporaries were with Playboy. It was poor preparation for the shock of battle. Perhaps this is because there are a good many books about war, but relatively few about fighting. Green troops in every war quickly learn that no classroom exercise is adequate preparation for the dry-mouthed fear and confused anxiety of the battlefield. It makes more sense to spend less time teaching the cadets at West Point the finer aspects of the Peloponnesian War and more time on basic, small-unit tactics -- ours and theirs.

It is risky to generalize that today's officer corps possesses an "unbounded faith in the power of technology." If anything there is a healthy skepticism, particularly in the "people intensive" Army and Marine Corps. Anybody who has been in a fight knows that how much gear one has is irrevelant -- how much of it work does count. Perhaps we have fallen into the trap of trying to design weapons to compensate for the shortcomings of our troops. Instead of producing smart warriors trained to maximize the effects of relatively simple weapons, we have built "smart" weapons to mechanize capabilties frequently beyond the ken of the typical front-line troop. There is little doubt that the imaginative application of technology often opens new possibilities; placing it in the hands of functional illiterates is foolishness.

Late in World War II, a "blitzkrieg" attack on the Americans was proposed to Gen. Heinz Guderian, chief of the German General Staff. The latest tanks, guns and material would be available. "Nonsense," snorted Guderian, "we haven't got the troops we had in 1940." Neither do we have the troops in 1980 that we had in 1965.

It is a pity that our officer corps does not generally equate "leadership with managerial ability." The officer incapable of managing his resources is wasting the people's money and he unduly hazards the lives of the fellow citizens entrusted to his care. The Department of Defense is one of the largest species of dollar-eating agencies in the federal zoo, where even slight economies can yield substantial savings. Yet, million-dollar tanks, $20 million fighters and cost overruns are practically the norm rather then the exception. Perhaps designing to cost, rather than spending whatever is necessary to achieve an idealized capability, is one way out of this dilemma.

In any event, a sound familiarity with the tools of management is the bread on which the modern officer's tactical "butter" is spread. The officer unfamiliar with the means of maintaining a spare parts inventory is hardly capable of leading an armored brigade, however brilliant his tactics. Patton understood this; his charisma was matched by a penchant for detailed planning and the skillful and adroit use of an expert staff. Management and leadership are synonymous: to suggest otherwise leads to officers more concerned with running marathons than doing their homework.

It should not be forgotten that good staff work, i.e., sound management, has been key to many military successes. The Germans' 1941 Ardennes offensive was considered by Liddell Hart to be a model of solid preparation and staff functioning. Careful and detailed planning, however compressed in time, is the key to successful amphibious assaults such as the Inchon landing. Some of our best military minds, MacArthur and Marshall to name two, made their reputations as managers.

None of these factors excuses or allays the sense of embarrassment we all feel about our military shortcomings. Compared with Israel's much briefer martial legacy, we appear as the big clumsy kid on the block who isn't feared as much as the small wiry runt who invariably fights "all out" and is not above a dirty punch or two below the belt.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to lament problems than to propose solutions. "Eqitable conscription" is hardly the solution of first resort: how is it possible to "equitably" draft half a million conscripts annually out of a pool of millions? Moreover, armies of hastily trained draftees have hardly left a legacy of distinguished battlefield competence. they have usually prevailed more through overwhelming numbers than skill, usually at terrific human cost.

Now, for the first time in our history, we are outnumbered by our potential foes. Clearly, a professional miliary is vital, and there is much room for improvement. Some possibilities:

We can retain the positive features of both a draft and a volunteer force by considering a hybrid: discard any pretense of social equity and draft the fraction of annual enlistees required in the upper mental groups. The remaining needs can be satisfied by taking the best qualified volunteers.

Emphasize the basics. Marksmanship, crew drill and battle exercises too often take second place to meeting an unrealistically compressed operational tempo. Army tank crews may have difficulty shooting as well as their NATO counterparts because they don't spend enough time on the firing range.

Another reason they don't spend this time together is that base support has been cut to the bone, forcing tenant combat units to lend people necessary to provide essential base services. In the interest of "efficiency" we have siphoned off needed NCOs and fragmented combat units to mow grass and wash dishes. A more robust base support establishment makes sense on two counts: fighting units are kept together to train together, and the bases are better manned to handle any wartime buildup of tenant commands.

The notion of careerism as typically practiced in the officer corps tends to produce rather more generalists than true experts. The route to the top is usually the road of orthodoxy: following a progression of varied (and usually brief) assignments in accordance with a stereotyped career template. This practice of career "ticket punching" encourages orthodoxy and entails incentives for officers to avoid those assignments perceived to delay promotion. Thus, claims Frederick Mosher, "careerism is an important discourager of creativity, innovation, and risk-taking because of the perceived . . . dangers of stepping out of line."

Our tactics in Vietnam bear witness to the price of orthodoxy; as in Korea we tried to "dollar the enemy to death" with a rain of steel as original as the dismal battles of the Somme, Ypres and Paschendale.

The need for well-rounded officers of varied experience remains, but there is also a need for creativity and original thinking. Our officer assignment and career development practices can be modified to achieve a better balance.

Of equal importance is an honest assessment of our state of discipline. The principal element of military discipline is the subordinatation of individual prerogatives to the needs of the unit. Unfortunately, the administration of military justice has been placed in the hands of lawyers more concerned with the "right" of their clients than the commander's problems. The accused now waits weeks for trial; he usually remains with his unit, where additional transgressions may be overlooked because adding them to the original charges only creates further delays. Thus it comes about that a state of discipline is too frequently accepted because the price of imposing high standards is an unbelievable administrative nightmare of writs, statements, charges and testimony.

There are many worthy features of the military judicial system, but much can be done to provide swift justice to those who break the rules. As in the civilian community, the military community must also be protected from those who would threaten its cohesion and stability.

The American experience has proven that the U.S. soldier will rise to any standard of excellence demanded of him. The best trained, most disciplined units invariably reflect a swagger and pride that extends down to the last private in the reat rank. No real man can take pride in being part of a mob, and the kind of men we want in uniform will enlist in the needed numbers when we quit serving up the military as some sort of expermintal playpen for would-be sociologists.

It is time to stop kidding ourselves that spending more money and keeping up the numbers are a sufficient national sacrifice to maintain tough, effective Armed Forces. Gen. Sherman was right to say, "Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster." If we are unhappy with the current state of military proficiency, it must be recognized that we bought it on ourselves, and the old palliatives won't work anymore.