Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday he is annoyed by criticism that blacks would take heavy casualties in a Persian Gulf war because they are disproportionately represented in the military.

"If one out of four, roughly one out of five is black, if the whole force accepts casualties, what would you wish me to do?" he said in an interview. "Move the blacks from the positions they're in so that they will have a lower percentage of casualties? Every part of the force, whether it's Hispanic Americans, Pacific Americans or lower-income white soldiers, will probably sustain casualties in relationship to the percentage that they represent in the overall force.

"What you keep wanting me to say is that this is disproportionate or wrong. I don't think it's disproportionate or wrong. I think it's a choice the American people made when they said have a volunteer Army and allow those who want to serve to serve."

"This is not a question to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," said Powell. "This is a question to the American people."

In a nation that is about 13 percent black, blacks constitute 20 percent of the military and 30 percent of the Army. Of the Army personnel who had been sent to the gulf as of mid-November, nearly 29 percent were black, according to Powell's office.

While some blacks view these numbers with alarm, Powell, who is black, said he is "proud of the fact that African Americans have seen fit to volunteer to join the armed forces even if it is a higher percentage in the armed forces than their general representation" in the population.

Blacks and other recruits sign up for service for the same reasons Powell did as a youth, the general said. "They come in for education. They come in for adventure. They come in to better themselves. They come in to serve a period of time and then get out and use the benefits we have provided them to go to college or get some kind of vocational training."

Powell noted that earlier this year, before Iraq invaded Kuwait and Operation Desert Shield was born, he was under pressure from blacks who were concerned that the then-planned restructuring and downsizing of the military would squeeze out opportunities for blacks. Now the military is being criticized for having so high a representation of blacks.

"Is it unfair to allow Americans who wish to join the Army or the Navy, the Air Force or Marine Corps, because that's their choice?"

"If it were unfair -- and I don't accept that -- the only way to correct that unfairness would be for somebody to instruct me to set a limit -- I won't say quota -- on the number of blacks allowed to enlist."

"The armed forces have always provided opportunities for blacks which blacks have found attractive and have gone after and I see no reason to change that now," Powell said.

Powell speculated that of the troops now in the desert in Saudi Arabia -- black or white -- "maybe they didn't want to go to Desert Shield. Nobody wanted to go to Desert Shield and maybe they were hoping that in the time of their service they would not be called . . . But disappointed as they may be that the prospect {of combat} is here, they understand their obligation. An army exists fundamentally to fight.

"Do they want to come home? You betcha. Do I want to bring them home? You betcha. But there's a job to do right now, and that's what the American people have paid for: a force to be used if necessary, not to just sit around and eat up the taxpayer's dollar."