It wasn't John Ehrlichman's fault that the Russians decided to move against Solidarity just when I was enjoying a spell of Watergate trivia and score-settling in his new book. But I did feel slightly embarrassed for us both--myself the eager seeker after tawdry, smaller-than-life political kicks, and Ehrlichman, their willing provider. Not that this was his problem: everything--the Christmas-shopping jokes, the solemn disquisitions on other "issues"--suddenly seemed to me tiny and mindless.

This was especially true of the various political/official positions struck concerning Poland and the learned analyses of them that filled the papers and the airwaves. For, as it is with assassination attempts and other recurrent public ordeals, we have now developed a routine--an international lingo and a set of empty moves and countermoves--with which to busy ourselves during these ugly grabs, a way of huffing and puffing until we lose interest. But it is the terrible, haunting and humbling truth about the Polish event that it stands outside all this claptrap, in fact shames it.

I write at a moment when we all share much concern that the repression will turn worse, in the sense of turning into a tumult of physical violence. Yet this prospective horror is not a good standard by which to judge the seriousness of what is going on. No matter how much blood may yet be shed, we have to suppose that the grim statisticians of disaster, who keep the books, will always be able to point to a Cambodia or a Sahel or an Auschwitz where more lives were disfigured or ended. And, in any case, the gravity of what has happened cannot be and does not need to be measured in volume of physical distress, no matter how huge. It is something other than actual violence that enlarges and intensifies the meaning of this spectacle. Stark, fundamental human values and appetites are in clash. Polish Solidarity believes something, knows something about essential freedom and dignity and has risked everything for it. The power boys, the guys with the guns say no and will kill to stop it.

This reduction of the conflict to its essentials is what began to take place on Dec. 12, and it reduces all that comes in contact with it. Such as, for example, the brave, baloney-filled talk we indulge in from year to year concerning all our various nuclear, non- nuclear and even nonmilitary strategies. These are revealed to be interesting, perhaps, but beside the point. There is "nothing we can do." Ronald Reagan himself has said as much--do you need to hear it from someone else? I guess I should amend that idea of "nothing." It means nothing militarily. My thought is not that it would be nice to start a war, but rather that out of season, when we do not have an Afghanistan or a Prague or a Hungary, we seem to spend most of our time (and much of our money) preparing for contingencies that are unreal.

We do this with a lot of big talk about the human values that are being tromped on now in Poland, but the talk is, or often turns out to be, playful. You can't ask the allies to do this, the reasoning goes, or the farmers to do that or the Olympic athletes to do the other, and we certainly don't want to bust the German banks or derail the arms talks or whatever else it is that might cost money or prove difficult. We will do these things for a while and then stop. The arguments for stopping, for ceasing to resist, will all be very much in the spirit of the epilogue of Shaw's "Saint Joan." That is the place in the play when those involved in her martyrdom return to honor Joan's brave and lovely spirit, and yet, when asked, refuse to make the smallest sacrifice of their personal or institutional interests on her behalf. Their reasons, like ours will be, are very clever, very seductive, but also craven and false.

"Saint Joan" calls to mind orthodoxy, doctrine, dogma as enforced by the authorities in a cynical inversion of their stated principles and values. And that of course brings us to the other side of the Polish nightmare, to the Russians and their Polish hit men who are perpetrating it. The truth is that whatever hypocrisies and pettinesses are revealed in the American political culture by the harsh light the Polish struggle has beamed on international know-it-alls everywhere, these are as nothing to what is revealed--again -- about the Eastern European and Soviet political systems. There we see raw power being exerted brutally in behalf of nothing--nothing--beyond its own perpetuation.

The New York Times's Warsaw bureau chief, John Darnton, had a dispatch printed in The Times that recounted a chilling incident in which a Polish journalist was arrested after he refused to sign a pledge handed him by secret police who barged into his apartment. The pledge was that he would no longer "act in a manner to oppose socialism in Poland." Socialism in Poland--it is a joke. It has failed in Poland, ruined Poland, become as well a pretext for the repression of the Polish people.

Yet inquisitors and the orthodoxies they represent invariably require these pledges and professions of allegiance, acceptance, faith, never mind that the words of the oath have no vitality or meaning beyond that of an enforced cry of "uncle!" when your arm is held behind your back. This, somehow, is the worst of it: raw, greedy force, a desire for mastery, seeking to justify itself with oaths to a dead faith, hoping perhaps--though God knows on the basis of what evidence or encouragement -- to convince someone, somewhere that what is being done is being done for the cause of economic justice.

Sometimes, when we do not have an event like this one before us, between times when we are just engaging in our usual theoretical debate, you hear it said that we in this country should not make such a much of political or individual human freedom since 1) we are far from perfect in providing it or allying ourselves with others who do, and 2) there is a sense in which freedom is a luxury that poor or reforming nations cannot afford as it can be an impediment to their achievement of material well-being. These are the excuses of tin- pot twentieth-century tyrants and their apologists. Look at Poland and ask yourself whether freedom is a frill and whether it is an impediment to material well-being. Ask yourself why those people are fighting. And be humble.