RECENT months have been heady ones for American troops on the international humanitarian stage. They have won deserved praise for saving countless lives among the Kurds, thanks to quick action by 12,295 soldiers in airdropping more than 7,000 tons of relief supplies into northern Iraq in Operation Provide Comfort.In Operation Sea Angel, 7,726 American troops subsequently provided Bangladesh with 6,000 tons of cyclone relief. In less publicized efforts, they have also supplied post-volcano aid to the Philippines and assisted in the Horn of Africa. Such activities have led to talk at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill of institutionalizing a humanitarian mission for the Department of Defense in the emerging post-cold war order. The argument has a certain appeal. Among the cold war's legacies are an oversized US military and worldwide unmet human need of staggering dimensions. What better way to beat swords into plowshares than for the military to ease the suffering among some 16 million refugees, 20 million persons displaced within their own countries, and 500 million malnourished people? Victims of future natural disasters and of growing regional conflicts could swell the ranks. Before Congress deputizes US troops as standing global humanitarians, however, fundamental conceptual and practical issues require attention. There is an inherent contradiction in having the same institution wage war and provide humanitarian aid. International law specifies that people are to receive assistance because they are in need, not as an expression of political or military agendas. Mixing the prosecution of war and the easing of suffering, as in South Vietnam, can create schizophrenia among US troops and havoc among local populations. Humanitarian aid is also strengthened by being multilateral in character and civilian in management. Multilateral activities acknowledge a responsibility shared by all and minimize problems associated with direct US action. No longer the world's policeman, the US should now share global humanitarian chores more widely as well. Civilian management of humanitarian aid is also critical to its integrity. Important on the aid-giving side, it also strengthens civil institutions on the receiving end. Civic action, low-intensity conflict, and other Pentagon efforts to win hearts and minds have, as intended, bolstered third-world militaries during the cold war. The task now is to enhance the capacities of civilian institutions seeking in those same nations to build democratic societies, resolve internal tensions, and protect human righ ts. American troops can play a useful, if short-term and last-resort, role in providing human aid. But they serve the US government, which has multiple objectives and priorities, only some of which are humanitarian. Agencies that exist specifically to provide aid - United Nations organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, private relief groups - are able with greater single-mindedness and consistency to respond to human need. Practical issues also point to carefully delimited roles for US troops. Aid professionals welcomed their logistic support in Iraq but noted gaps in their familiarity with humanitarian law and standard aid practices. Since the most difficult aid challenges often are not logistics but interactions with local people and institutions, Pentagon help may be more appropriate behind the scenes than on the front lines. Repeated troop use in relief operations could also prove expensive. Some in the military itself believe it could detract from the Pentagon's major mission, particularly at a time of budget cuts. There were, of course, practical reasons for using US troops for aid missions in Iraq, including the US's ability to respond quickly and massively. However, new interest is being expressed - most recently by heads of state at the economic summit earlier this month - in strengthening the world organization. One idea would be to create civilian humanitarian assistance teams, modeled on US peacekeeping forces and perhaps backed by deterrent force, utilizing on-call military personnel provided by member gove rnments. In historical perspective, the recent flurry of aid activity by the military may prove less a harbinger of the future than an historical anomaly. Each of the four relief initiatives noted earlier hinged upon the presence of US troops in the Gulf and the availability of excess inventories after a shorter-than-expected Gulf war, for which allies helped pick up the tab. Other nations in which cold war memories linger may be less receptive to US troops bearing gifts. Caution is thus in order in assigning expanded post-cold war duties to US troops. As the world moves from a period that elevated ideology above humanity to an era committed to protecting and nurturing human life, no assets should remain untapped. Central to the integrity and effectiveness of any new approach, however, will be carefully circumscribed roles for the US military.