The Polish Army has become involved in public life during the past few months on a scale unprecedented for a communist country in peacetime. A career soldier, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, now holds the three key posts of Communist Party leader, premier and defense minister. Last month, teams of soldiers were deployed throughout the country to check on local administrative abuses.

Army generals run the ministries of the interior, local government, defense and mining. The head of the national airline, LOT, is a soldier, as is the deputy prosecutor general and 10 members of the party's 200-member Central Committee. A militia general, Miroslaw Milewski, is the party secretary with overall responsibility for security and administration.

It is sometimes tempting for Western commentators to conclude that the steady process of militarization must eventually result in the formation of a Polish military government and the imposition of martial law.

In fact, there is a sharp line between exploiting public respect for the Army for political ends and using that same Army to suppress a great national movement such as the independent Solidarity trade federation. Thus, while it is still possible that the Polish authorities will resort to emergency measures, it would mark a dramatic change of policy from what is happening now.

For a nation of individualists, Poles have a remarkable respect for their Army. But the paradox is that this makes the imposition of full-fledged military rule less, rather than more, likely.

With labor unrest still rife and economic problems mounting, public confidence in Poland's 317,000-strong armed forces is one of the few pillars underpinning the crumbling communist regime. But -- and this is a point that has largely been overlooked in debate in the West over the possible introduction of martial law -- this trust depends almost entirely on the belief that the Army is on the side of the people.

A recent public opinion poll among members of Solidarity rated the Army the country's third most trusted institution. Its 68 percent approval rating was less than that of only Solidarity itself and the Roman Catholic Church. By contrast, only 50 percent of Solidarity members had confidence in parliament, 20 percent in the government, and 7 percent in the ruling Communist Party.

Past experience has shown that if the Army were to be used as an instrument of internal repression, it would forfeit its hard-won popular support virtually overnight. What is more, the very attempt to suppress major disturbances could seriously damage the military's own morale, whether or not it were successful.

Since his election last month as the party's first secretary, Jaruzelski has shown that he remains committed to a peaceful solution of Poland's problems. Together with the leaders of Solidarity and the church, he has called for the creation of a grand national coalition and new forms of dialogue between the authorities and society.

A major factor in Jaruzelski's determination to avoid the use of force if at all possible is his own experience as a Polish Army officer. He remembers how, in June 1956, troops were used to suppress food riots in the western city of Poznan, as a result of which some 50 people were killed. The tragedy provoked much debate, not only among civilians but within the Army.

Later that same year, in October, the Polish Army took up positions in defense of Warsaw when Soviet troops were mobilized in an attempt to prevent the return to power of the nationalist Communist, Wladyslaw Gomulka. The Navy, too, was put on alert and the Soviets backed down.

It was following this upheaval that the Polish Army became renationalized. Soviet officers, including the defense minister, Marshal Konstantin Rokossowski, were gradually ousted and Polish uniforms and insignia introduced in place of the old Red Army replicas. The Army was transformed from an instrument of Soviet control to a modern, professional, and above all Polish institution.

It was also in 1956 that Jaruzelski began his meteoric rise through the Polish general staff. First he was appointed the youngest general in the Army at the age of 33 and then commander of the 12th Motorized Division. He played a major role in turning the Polish Army into one of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact's most efficient fighting forces -- second only to the Red Army itself.

Some Army units were again brought in to restore order when workers' riots flared up again along the Baltic coast in December 1970. This event proved so traumatic that later the Army came down decisively on the side of moderation in dealing with strikers. In June 1976, Jaruzelski himself is widely credited with advising the party leadership: "Polish soldiers will not fire on Polish workers."

Exactly how the Polish Army would respond if ordered to clamp down on Solidarity is an unanswerable question since it depends on the circumstances -- and whether the crackdown would be accompanied by foreign intervention.

In the Army proper, which numbers 210,000 men, there are 154,000 conscripts on obligatory two-year military service. Half of these conscripts could have belonged to Solidarity before joining the Army. Most of the remainder would have brothers, sisters or parents in the union.

In a private conversation, a conscripted soldier said that -- despite all the rumors of martial law-- most recruits gave little credence to the idea. Information about what was happening outside the barracks was scant, with only Army newspapers readily available.

"You have to understand that what really motivates a soldier is staying out of trouble, doing as little as possible, and trying to get extra leave and vacation," he said.

A former recruit who has now left the Army and joined Solidarity insisted that his unit would have refused to get involved in large-scale repression.

Both men, however, agreed that the main burden of implementing martial law would fall not on conscripts but on career soldiers, including the 77,000-strong paramilitary internal security forces. Eighty-five percent of the officer corps are Communist Party members who, it is generally assumed, would obey legally given orders.

Much would depend on the highly professional internal security corps, or KBW, which contains only closely screened conscripts and is under the command of the Interior Ministry. It has the reputation of recruiting "the tallest, the strongest and the dumbest" soldiers in the Army.

It is this corps, rather than the regular Army, that was used to consolidate the Communists' power in the late 1940s and put down workers' revolts later on. But it was also the KBW that swung the balance in favor of the reformers in the Polish Communist Party in October 1956.

Even assuming that the KBW can be relied upon to implement martial law if ordered to do so, it is highly debatable what this would achieve. Some Poles believe that, if sufficient force were used, workers would be cowed into obedience, if only out of a sense of despair. The majority opinion, however, holds that the most likely result would be enormous bloodshed, possibly leading to civil war and a Soviet invasion.

In any event, martial law would not solve Poland's basic and structural problem, which is how to create a system under which it is in the people's interests to work harder voluntarily. It is the lack of such a mechanism that caused the present crisis in the first place.

Nobody is more aware of the dangers and uncertainties of military rule than Jaruzelski, who regards himself as a soldier first and a politician second. All the evidence suggests that he will do all he can to avoid using the Army against the Polish people.