SAG HARBOR, NEW YORK — Sag Harbor, New York--THE BIGGEST STORY of 1991 may well be the remaking of the American military. One way or another, for better or worse, the nation and its troops will have a much different relationship in a year than they do now.
Out here, where the patriotism is old-fashioned, the American Legion, VFW and the schools are collecting things to send to our boys and girls in Arabia for Christmas. Soap, toothpaste, razors, small things. There are yellow ribbons on streetlights. There was a party at the American Hotel on Main Street for my dentist, Lt. Col. Todd Granger, U.S. Army Reserve, who was called up -- in the middle of a root canal.
But out on Route 114, they put a giant sign over the Royal Oaks Motel: ''BRING THEM HOME NOW, GEORGE!!'' And college kids coming home for the holidays in our house and others acted as if they were dropping down from another planet. Is this how earthlings do it? Is there really going to be a war? People are willing to die for this?
Not that the students think this has much to do with them. No draft, no sweat. ''If they try to draft anyone,'' an Ivy League senior said, ''there will be riots immediately on every campus in the country.''
Few people, in fact, seem connected to this, if you talk to them for a while. Most of them seem to be reciting dimly remembered lines from the united purpose of World War II or the tearing of the society during the Vietnam war. This is still a spectator sport for us. We have a professional army now.
That is either the worst or the best thing that has happened to the men running the U.S. armed forces. The president, generals and admirals have had an easy time these last few months because few civilians have a blood stake in this adventure. But the Pentagon's biggest problem in the coming decade, win, lose or draw in the desert, will be that alienation from the people its warriors are serving and protecting.
The works of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are being greeted at home with the cautious hope inspired by expansion teams in the National Football League. Who are these guys? Are they any good? You think they might embarrass us?
So, the first question after this is over -- assuming it ends well for us -- is do we really want an all-volunteer army? Hired guns -- for us, or for anyone with the money to pay? That's a very dubious proposition, and it is encouraging to hear voices on the right and left being raised in the name of compulsory national service -- in hospitals or schools or tanks, take your choice.
After we decide who shall serve, we will have to discuss what they are supposed to do. Is this it? Police chief of the world? Bodyguard of the rich anywhere and everywhere?
So far, this has not worked badly for the military and its suppliers and advocates in the national-security complex. No one's talking ''peace dividend'' anymore and the generals and admirals think, not without justification, that they have found a plausible mission now that the Soviets seem less threatening.
Saddam Hussein changed a great deal in the American debate when he decided to hold up Kuwait. The day before, the Pentagon and its suppliers -- including purveyors of ideas, the intellectuals in the national-security complex -- were arguing things on the level of, ''Well, we have to find a new mission for NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], because it would be more complicated and more expensive to bring the troops home than to leave them all over Europe.''
Well, they're out of Europe now. One of the Pentagon's many secrets is how many American soldiers and airmen have been moved from Western Europe to Saudi Arabia. Whatever the number is -- 200,000 maybe -- it would surprise me if they ever went back to Germany and environs or whether the Germans and other Europeans would let them come. We are not the Romans; the occupation of Europe is over.
Will we occupy the Mideast, as we are doing now? I doubt it, but who knows? The military in our country, just as in most others, does not want to fold its tents and go back to the endless and unappreciated drilling that has usually occupied peacetime armies.
By moving U.S. troops into Arabia, the White House accomplished one of its most important 1990 goals, tamping down talk of a peace dividend as the Cold War ended. But there may be a war dividend yet in that massive movement of men, materiel and prestige: a 1991 debate on the role of a different kind of military in a different kind of world.