There is a dichotomy between the honor code taught to the cadets at West Point and life as it is lived by the officer corps of the Army.

The cadet who lies, cheats or steals, or who fails duct, is dismissed. Possibly as early as the age of 17, his or her life is blighted by a stain that may never be completely removed.

Yet the captain, the lieutenant colonel or the general who reports a command ready to perform its mission when it is not is more likely to be promoted than removed.

At the center of this dichotomy is the Army's readiness reporting system. That system is built around a subjective judgment by the commander. In short, the commander at each echelon must certify at specified intervals that his command can or can't do its job. It goes against the grain of the American psyche to say, "No, sir. I cannot do that job." The longer one is in command, the greater the pressures to report that the command is better off today than it was when the reporting officer arrived, even though the opposite may be the case. The result is a continuous round of deception and self-deception that has reached dangerous proportions not only for the individuals concerned but for the Army and the nation as a whole.

There is, for one thing, an accumulating body of evidence that the M1 "Abrams" tank is not the preferred choice of many, possibly most, experienced Armor leaders. Over and over again as a member of the Army War College faculty and since then as a military journalist, I have heard the opinion expressed by combat arms colonels that we should have bought the German Leopard II "off the shelf" and saved millions if not billions of dollars in research, development and acquisition costs. Recent General Accounting Office reports raise serious questions about the M1 in contrast to the generally excellent performance of the Leopard series tanks from their inception. Yet the leadership of the Army has sought to give the country an entirely different impression. What, then, do you suppose will be the subjective judgment of the first unit commander to be re-equipped with the M1?

We are told constantly that the principal problems of the volunteer Army have been solved and that the quality of its members is increasing steadily. Yet an infantry general has told me within recent weeks that a tour of duty in one of our prime NATO-reinforcing divisions convinces him that manuals rewritten to the fourth-grade level still are beyond the comprehension of many of the soldiers and that the professional leadership of the divisions--officer and non-commissioned--lacks confidence in the equipment. The M1 tank and the almost equally complicated and expensive infantry fighting vehicle were singled out. Considering the enormous bureaucratic investment the Army has made in those vehicles, any senior officer who wrote such an assessment into his unit's readiness report would be signing his professional death warrant.

The newly commissioned officer who confronts this system has three choices: lie and cheat as necessary to get by, leave or dodge command assignments.

The impression I get is that most of the "best and the brightest" leave, or seek out some safe berth in the nooks and crannies of the Army bureaucracy. The immediate result is to make field service nothing more than a stopping off place to "better" things. The more serious long-term result is an inversion of values so that the methods by which those goals are sought are now largely indistinguishable from those of the marketplace and the country club. Indeed, the research department of the Army War College publishes an annual announcement to the effect that applications are not desired from anyone whose primary interest is in the field army.

There are no quick fixes. The Navy and the Air Force are no beacons of moral virtue either. But they both have a discipline imposed by their respective operating environments, an influence that affects the Army only in wartime. If a ship is not sound it sinks, or at least stops. Dishonest reporting of aircraft status leads to quick, spectacular disaster. Recognizing that, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay imposed on the Air Force a performance test called an Operational Readiness Inspection and made the ORI the basis of the Air Force readiness reporting system. A testing team descends on a unit and, in effect, orders it into action. The results are graded. Within reasonable allowances, the commander whose unit fails is relieved, at least under the original LeMay rules. The same teams that test Regular Air Force units test the units of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve under identical criteria--and that goes a long way toward explaining why the Air Force has the only effective guard and reserve forces in the entire defense system.

The ORI forced the Air Force to make training its first priority, with administration and logistics important, but secondary considerations. Exactly the opposite situation prevails in the Army.

The time has come to make the ORI standard throughout the defense readiness reporting system. It will not make liars into honest men, but it will tell the graduate who truly wants to live by the West Point honor code that there is a place for him or her in the only part of the Army that really matters.