Washington — It used to be that when Uncle Sam pointed his finger and said he wanted YOU, there was no sense that he had any exceptions in mind. Today, the steely gaze has softened, he's adopted a more relaxed stance, and the legendary recruiter can afford to be a lot more selective.
Things are going so well for the armed forces right now that they're having no trouble exceeding their recruiting goals. Lists are bulging with the names of those waiting months to join. The military is drawing a better-educated class of young men and women than the country as a whole and is able to boot out those not measuring up.
''The only thing the Army has to hide this year is its pride,'' boasts Lt. Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, the Army's personnel chief.
Pentagon officials point to these indicators of exceptional times for military manpower: Total reenlistments (including career personnel and first-termers) continue at levels above 1982; all four services are at or above 100 percent of recruiting goals; the number of new recruits with high school diplomas (89 percent) surpasses 1982's record and the nation as a whole (74 percent); and there are 10 applicants for every ROTC scholarship.
Critics say the nation's economy accounts for much of this. But Lawrence J. Korb, assistant defense secretary for manpower, reserve affairs, and logistics, says, ''We're getting people from areas of relatively low unemployment as well as high unemployment.''
Mr. Korb also notes that according to the Pentagon's Youth Attitude Tracking Survey, ''We find the propensity toward military service is going up.''
How long can all of this last? For the foreseeable future, says Korb, who sees no need to move away from the all-volunteer force toward conscription.
But a recent study by Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies warns that a return to the draft will be necessary if the Army in particular is to fulfill its strategic requirements to the year 2000.
''Buffeted by the triple impacts of improved . . . civilian employment opportunities, the anti-nuclear/anti-draft-registration/peace movements, and the contraction of the prime manpower pool in the mid-1980s, the Army will be unable to adequately man an active all-volunteer force . . . in the mid-to-late 1990s, '' says the report.
And another recent study says the overall issue of military readiness (which includes manpower) is far behind what it should be, even with (and in some ways because of) the Reagan administration's defense buildup.
Robert Foelber, an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, writes that while readiness has been improving, only 51 percent of combat units were given top effectiveness ratings this past year. He asserts that the services are partly at fault because they are emphasizing new weapons over the more mundane stockpiling of spare parts and ammunition and the combat training necessary for improved readiness.
Pentagon officials respond that the services are doing more in this area under the Reagan program, and that this is a prime reason for renewed pride and spirit.
''We've got our bellbottoms back again and some bounce in our step,'' says Adm. James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations. But the Navy chief also lamented the recent capping of military manpower by the Congress, especially at a time when the Navy is increasing the number and complexity of ships at sea.
''We need the manpower authorization to man those ships,'' Admiral Watkins told Pentagon reporters recently. ''It's very unfortunate that manpower, which has no constituency, is hit . . . this is the key to readiness.''
The key to success of the all-volunteer force is likely to be personnel retention, especially in high-skill jobs.
When the military loses skilled service personnel with 8 to 10 years' experience to private industry, it takes four to six new recruits to make up for every one lost from the advancement pipeline at midpoint, says Defense Department manpower chief Korb. ''If you retain the people, then you don't have to bring them in,'' he said.
''The enlisted force still suffers from chronic shortages in some skills,'' Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said in his 1984 Annual Report to Congress. He noted that it will take another five to six years of continued reenlistment successes to fill these needs.
It remains to be seen whether Uncle Sam can count on another five to six years of reenlistment successes before he has to furrow his brow and point his finger again.