The president, trying to drum up support for keeping the Pentagon budget intact, sought to present a dichotomy between those (like himself) who favor a strong national defense and: Who?

The implication that the rest of us somehow favor a weak national defense is exposed as false the moment you say it.

I think that there is another point to be made by those who refuse to hold military spending as untouchable: the national defense and the Pentagon are not necessarily the same thing.

There may be Americans (though I haven't met any) who doubt the vital importance of defending this country against its actual and potential enemies. But I know a good many people, loyal Americans all, who think it's time for the voracious Pentagon to have its gluttony restrained.

They are neier disloyal nor naive to maintain that, in some major ways the Pentagon seems more concerned about the economic health of defense contractors than about the defense of the country which, it seems fair to say, is under no threat of imminent attack.

Look closely, and you will see an interesting thing about the Pentagon budget. It keeps going up, whether we are at war or at peace.

The Pentagon, you see, is insatiable. There is never enough. Even if we had the best weapons systems money could buy today, tomorrow someone would come up with something new, and the Pentagon would convince itself that we had to have that too. The debate is not over keeping our military well-manned and well-supplied. Virtually everybody accepts that necessity as self-evident. What we argue about is whether funding the latest military toy, or the newest improvement to an existing weapon, really enhances our defense.

Think about it. We developed the atomic bomb in the arly 1940s, and we actually used a couple of them. Since then we have developed hydrogen bombs and cobalt bombs and neutron bombs, and ever more sophisticated systems for delivering them. We conjure with better bombs, ICBMs, MIRVs, submarines, rockets. And none of the stuff we develop ever gets used. It gets replaced because someone somewhere comes up with some marginal improvement.

Does anyone feel safer as a result of all this "progress"? I don't. It seems to me that what we need is not the best system tax-paid scientists can dream up but an adequacy: enough to render it suicidal and absurd for any other country to attack us. We have had that for years, but we cannot bring ourselves to quit and use our tight resources for more humane things.

Right now we're all hot over the Strategic Defense Initiative -- the staggeringly expensive, scientifically questionable "Star Wars."

I know Star Wars is being peddled not as just another gigantic step in the arms race but as a way of rendering atomic war obsolete. Is that true?

Ask yourself a couple of questions posed some months ago by Jeremy Bernstein of the Stevens Institute of Technology. First, even if U.S. scientists were able to overcome the prodigious technological problems of Star Wars, how would anybody ever test it to make sure it would really work to intercept and destroy all incoming missiles? Well, obviously we couldn't test it. And if it couldn't, how could we possibly rely on it? Well, we couldn't.

The Soviets, on the other hand, would have to proceed on the assumption that it would work, that it would neutralize all of their intercontinental missiles. And so they would have to try to invent a system to defeat Star Wars.

That would leave us with two choices: Either continue our present deterrent system or else devise a system to defeat their system, and. . . .

So the strictures of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings notwithstanding, we are once again embarked on a prodigious spending spree.

As with all the Pentagon's spending, it is being done in the name of national security.

You don't have to be against a strong national defense to question whether that sort of spending really does make us more secure.