One of every six Army Colonels hand-picked this year to command troops has turned down the honor.

This is shocking to traditionalists, who insist that leading men, potentially into battle, is what the officer corps is all about. At least, they add scornfully, that was true before the all-volunteer Army turned everything upside down.

Turning down an Army command is but one of the cracks in the military officer corps signaling that men, not arms, will be President Reagan's biggest problem as he spends $1.5 trillion to rearm America.

No number of $2 million M1 tanks, $1.2 billion Trident submarines or $35 billion MX missile systems will addup to military might unless the United States has people who know how to use them.

The officer corps of the services are the keys to using weapons well. They are the supervisors on the battlefield, aboard submarines in the ocean depths, in missile fields and on warships off the Persian Gulf. Many officers also help design and produce such weaponry.

Though they represent only 13.6 percent of the 2.1 million men and women in the armed services, officers determine in large measure whether battles are won or lost, whether men live or die. But within the services' officer corps, as Reagan launches the biggest peacetime military buildup in history, cracks beyond the Army's command turndowns are becoming visible:

Navy submariners are resigning faster that they can be replaced as deliveries of new boats are accelerating.

Air Force engineering officers are leaving in droves for civilians jobs, confronting the service with the biggest technology gap since the Soviets ushered in the space age by launching sputnik in 1957. A shortage of pilots also persists.

Despite the fact that the Marine Corps has won front and center position in Reagan administration military plans, Marine officers are retiring before their time at worrisome rates.

Pentagon executives, congressional committees and the press have been riveted on the enlisted part of the All-Volunteer Force, paying comparatively scant attention to the officer corps in the post-Vietnam era.

"We don't know whether we want an officer to fight, kill or to manage," retired Col. William J. Taylor Jr. complained recently in stating that the Army officer corps is in disarray.

The biggest problem confronting the officer corps is convincing enough of the best and brightest to stay in the military, and there is no overnight solution.

Bringing back the draft would not solve the problem. Higher pay can only buy the nation so much commitment before other influences take over, like young men and women demanding their own "space," whether in the military or outside it.

Lt. William W. Matzelevich, 26, of Weston, Mass., dramatized the "space" problem as he described why he rejected the Navy's offer of a $28,000 bonus if he would keep sailing on submarines.

"I have a lot of outside interests, things that I enjoy doing, things that require a certain amount of skill or expertise that you're unable to pursue in a submarine.

"Like, I like playing tennis. It's something you need to practice to play at, I haven't been able to do that. It sounds hokey, but I used to play the trumpet, and that's obviously something you can't do on a submarine.

"I computed that out of 38 months [with submarines] there were only five months that I could consider having to myself." Not counting vacations, civilians with Saturdays and Sundays off would have 10 months' free time in 38 months.

What the armed services and the nation are up against as they try to attract and hold people to run the military is a radically changed value system among the young who fight the wars.

In response to these changed values, military officers, like their civilian counterparts in industry, are turning down or quitting top jobs in worrisome if not alarming numbers.

Young male officers have children in school, wives with good jobs, homes with lawns finally free of crabgrass. Better-paying civilian jobs often beckon. Many such officers are asking themselves why they should keep moving across the country and across the world, and losing money each time, for the benefit of their current employer, the Department of Defense.

Further eroding the old military values, in the view of many officers, is the post-Vietnam experiment of trying to fill the ranks of a 2 million-member military with volunteers rather than forcing a cross-section of the population into uniform through the draft.

Officers say today's volunteers must be trained repeatedly to be effective, bringing fire down on their commanders from the top brass.

Because turning down commands dramatizes the changed value system at work in the Army officer corps, The Washington Post focused on it during an interview with the nation's top-ranked soldier, Gen. E. C. Meyer, Army chief of staff, as well as with officers who quit.

High-ranking officers of the other services were interviewed for subsequent articles on the state of the nation's officers corps.

Meyer, unlike some of his subordinate generals, did not try to play down the significance of the new phenomenon of carefully screened officers turning down command. "I'm concerned," he said, adding that the Army has to "find a way to restore the appeal of commanding troops."

"Unheard of in my history," said Meyer of commands being turned down for such family reasons as wifely demands to stay put. "I really don't see the near-term solution. . . . The biggest change in the value system is the working wives. I really don't see the near-solution to that."

Retired Col. William Hausner, author and commentator on the Army officer corps, said the turndowns of commands "have to be bad news. Either they're picking the wrong guys, or, worse, they're picking the right guys who are decling the best jobs the Army has to offer because command has become so encumbered with minutiae and pretense."

Army figures tell this story about the rejection of command opportunities:

17 percent, or more than one in six, of the colonels selected for commands so far in fiscal 1981 have declined to take the jobs. This continues the high percentage of what the Army calls "declinations," which showed up in fiscal 1979 when 21 percent of the colonels selected said, "No thanks" to command. Only 10 percent declined in fiscal 1978, the first records were kept. A full colonel commands a brigade of about 2,000 men.

11.2 percent, or one in nine, of lieutenant colonels selected for commands turned them down. This is close to the record high 11.4 percent for fiscal 1980 and significantly above the 8.6 percent for fiscal 1979, and 5.5 percent for fiscal 1978. Lieutenant colonel is the typical rank for the commander of a battalion of 825 men.

Only about 5 percent of the eligible colonels and lieutenant colonels are selected for command. Among the 160 colonels picked for command in fiscal 1980, the last full year on record, 30 declined, or 19 percent. Of the 590 lieutenant colonels offered command in 1980, 67 declined, or 11.4 percent.

The Army urges officers who do not wish command to say so in writing before selection boards meet. The officers represented in the turndown figures cited did not decline ahead of time, suggesting they ordinarily would relish the challenge of leading troops.

Meyer, in acknowledging that the figures on rejected commands are new and worrisome for his officer corps, pinned much of the blame on Vietnam.

"Once we made the decision to run people through a six-month cycle of command in Vietnam we changed everybody's approach toward command," he said. "You were there six months. You had to succeed during that period of time. So you saw a whole group of captains, majors, lieutenant colonels who grew up with that kind of concept: that in six months you had to succeed.

"That's what we're trying to break in the Army: that run-in, get credit, run-out approach.

"We can have an Army in which you would want to command if we can create an Army in which everybody understands what we really are."

In hopes of promoting such understanding and reducing turbulence in Army units, Meyer is breaking new ground. He has scrapped the quick-hit tours, directing that battalion and brigade commanders stay put for two years and company commanders for 18 months.

He also is experimenting with 19 Army companies to see if keeping them together for three years from basic training through deployment overseas and home again will bring back unit cohesiveness and esprit de corps. Ever since Vietnam, Army companies are places where officers and soldiers meet briefly and then go their separate ways to other posts.

Meyer also is trying to bring back regiments to the point that soldiers and officers feel loyalty to theirs throughout their careers.

Taylor, who retired last month after teaching at West Point as one of the Army's "model" officers, was among the many interviewed who applauded Meyer's efforts to bring back the old values of duty, honor, country, which used to help motivate officers to strive for command. But Taylor said it will take a national effort, not the campaign of one Army general, to turn things around.

In abandoning the draft in 1973 and going to the All-Volunteer Force, Taylor contended, "society was saying that the All-Volunteer Force is just another job. Then being an officer in it is looked upon as just another job. Once it's just another job, you start looking at pay scales."

Asked to explain why so many Army officers these days are turning down the prize of command, Taylor and other "model" officers at West Point cited a bureaucracy of second-guessers extending from division headquarters to the Pentagon; a "don't fail" commandment that discourages imaginative leadership; lack of training resources, and a steady flow of soldiers who never stay in one place long enough to enable officers to put a unit in fighting condition.

"You have to allow people to fail" to train them to fight, said Lt. Col. Donald Rowe of West Point in assailing the Army's practice of holding troop commanders to the "don't fail" commandment.

"You know they're promoting you on the basis of eliminating failure," Rowe said. The Pentagon's "zero defects" philosophy of the 1960s toward arms makers is being applied today to Army leaders, he said, deterring many fine officers from risking their futures on command jobs.

Army Chief of Staff Meyer sees, in the reluctance of officers to take that risk, both a challenge and a concern for the armed services. The challenge, he says, is in ensuring an officer corps good enough to meet the needs of tremendously modernized armed forces. The concern is "that we have not made leadership as attractive as it was in the past," a problem that Meyer suggests cannot be solved simply by making the job better-paying or making concessions to the pressures of social change.

"There just has to be a sense of a different set of values that are, in part, that you are willing to give of yourself," he said.