The nasty specter of justice by rank has been raised in the case of the Navy vice admiral, Joseph Metcalf III, who led the invasion of Grenada in 1983. For bringing back Soviet guns as souvenirs, he was given only a letter of "caution." Meanwhile, lower-ranking Marines and soldiers were court-martialed, fined, imprisoned and drummed out of the service for what looks like the same offense.

The Navy responds by saying it wasn't the same offense: More than 300 Marines who also tried to bring home captured Soviet-made weapons were also not punished, but were, rather, given amnesty for turning the weapons in. Only four Marines, who ignored the amnesty offer and tried to smuggle and sell the captured arms, were charged, the Navy declares.

This defense, however, ignores several considerations. The public is being asked to believe of Adm. Metcalf that he and his staff were unaware of the efforts being made by Marine officers under his command to retrieve captured weapons from their men; that none of them was aware of the military regulations controlling war trophies; and that, furthermore, none of them was aware of the law banning the importation of automatic weapons. This last is important: The weapons seized from the admiral and his staff by U.S. Customs were AK47s -- 24 of them. These are not among the kinds of weapons -- rifles and pistols -- that, after being removed from the Marines and rendered inoperable, were returned to them as permissible "war trophies." The AK47 is an automatic weapon, a machine gun, regarded as especially dangerous and often associated with criminal activity, and it may not be brought into the country except under specific, statutory conditions.

The Navy has announced it is reviewing the sentences handed down to the Marines convicted in the related cases. Some soldiers were also convicted, and we trust the Army is reviewing those cases. That is the least the services can do to lift the corrosive suspicion that Adm. Metcalf's look-ma-no-hands performance, and the Navy's apparent old-boy treatment of him, have created in this case.

It is disappointing and -- within some parts of the Navy, it is reported -- demoralizing that the Navy and Adm. Metcalf should choose to do the least. This is responsibility? This is leadership? This is our Navy?