Now landsmen all, whoever you may be, If you want to rise to the top of the tree, If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool, Be careful to be guided by this golden rule -- Stick close to your desks, and never go to sea, And you may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee! -- H. M. S. Pinafore

The Navy wants to bring back the battleships, and the Reagan administration ardently approves. For less than a billion dollars, it tells the nation, we can pull two battleships out of mothballs and into active service. Later, two more might be extracted from the cobwebs of the past.

This is most reassuring. In terms of the overall cost of the planned defense buildup -- some $1.3 trillion to be spent the next five years -- the price is small and the benefits obviously great. Nothing conveys more majesty, more of a sense of deadweight power, than the sight of battleswagons on line at sea. Not the whooshing of missiles nor the blinding crack of light from a nuclear explosion quite equals the big sound of those 16-inch battleship guns firing at once.

Some are churlish enough to suggest battleships are obsolete, the dinosaurs of the seas. It's true not one weighs anchor anywhere in the world today, and the question inevitably arises: at whom -- or at what -- will they be shooting? It's also true that in an age when intelligence satellites continually circle the oceans and deadly nuclear submarines patrol the depths, no place exists for battleships to hide. But these are beside the point. The point is that bringing back the battleships provides a symbol, and this administration, no less than its predecessors, clearly believes in the efficacy of symbolism. As Mr. Gilbert also wrote, in Pinafore: Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream.

When a doubtful member of Congress asked one of his colleagues what the Reagan people wanted to do with old dreadnaughts, the confident reply quickly came:

"We'll paint them up, set the flags flying, and send them around the world."

Perhaps they can follow the route of Theodore Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet." That voyage around the globe early in the century, led by our big battleships, was intended to show other nations the United States had become a world power. Or perhaps, as another Hill type said, they can be ready to refight the Battle of Jutland. In case you've forgotten, that was the greatest naval engagement in history. It took place during World War I.

"Rearming America" is what the Reagan people call their five-year defense plan. The state of our military is worrisome, all right, but whether it's our armaments that are the real problem is something else. Personnel -- their training, esprit de corps, combat-readiness -- and the strategic conception of how to use them are even more important.

Still, the political climate being what it is, the administration is going to get most of the new weaponry it wants without much of a fight. But reactivating battleships? The most you can say for that decision is it creates the illusion of strength.

The Navy admits that it needs 22,000 more petty officers and chiefs to man the 456 ships in its fleet properly. Administration plans for the Navy of the '80s call for increasing the number of combat ships to 600, including the resurrection of the battleships Iowa and New Jersey. All this, again according to the Navy, will require 90,000 more naval personnel.

This announced buildup comes at a time when the Navy's desertion rate is disturbingly high. It has been so throughout the last decade. In the last four years, for instance, Pentagon figures for annual naval incidents of desertion show the following: 14,539 deserters out of a total force of 459,857 in fiscal year 1977; 13,949 in 1978; 13,552 in 1979; 12,381 in 1980. So even if the Navy gets all its new ships -- and old battlewagons -- it still faces a severe personnel problem.

Perhaps the big boosts in pay and benefits the administration also plans as part of its new defense spending package will ease the desertion problem. But how many sailors would want to serve in the ancient, steaming hot engine rooms of the Iowa and New Jersey?

Thus, again, we have the battleships. They provide a perfect symbol, but surely not what the administration intended. They evoke the image of the time, not so long ago, when America stood supreme militarily and economically, when the United States had the greatest naval and merchant armada the world had ever seen -- some 14,000 seagoing ships at the end of World War II. Rather than scrap that naval force, a decision was made to keep 5,000 of the most valuable vessels "in mothballs," ready for another emergency.

It was a wise decision, and the Navy proved it had learned some lessons from its past: part of the mothball fleet was swiftly pulled into service at the time of the decisive Inchon landing in Korea, and performed splendidly. (That was in sharp contrast to the way the Navy handled its surplus ships after two other wars. After the Civil War, steam-propelled iron ships were tied up and left to deteroriate while conservative admirals, worried about funds to buy coal, kept wooden sailing vessels in service. After World War I, the Navy stripped down its surplus ships, slapped red paint and preservatives on them, creating the so-called "red-lead fleet," and hoped for the best.)

For the last 24 years, America's reamaining battleships have been in the suspended animation of the mothball fleet. No need for them has been found. The painful military experiences of those years of limited wars, guerrilla operations and organized bands of terrorists have taught -- or should have taught -- the U.S. military other lessons. Big bombers and blasting away with unprecedented amounts of firepower do not necessarily bring victory against peasant forces in the Vietnams of the world. Smaller, leaner, more diversified, less conventional forces would seem to be the way of the future.

No matter. The marching orders of the moment, bringing back our battleships, signal a move backward. Not retreat, mind you, but an attempt to recapture the glory days when we got, as they said, more bang for the buck.

So let the cheering begin as we rearm America. But also let the private words of one former officer be heard: "Whenever you sail backwards you're in trouble."