THE Gulf war brought the American people "up close and personal" with their military. And the people liked what they saw. A multiracial force working together. Women doing equal work for equal pay. Young people using sophisticated electronic equipment. No alcohol or drug problems, no AIDS, no poverty, no crime. At times the effect was like a Super Bowl half-time show - a well-armed "Up With People" extravaganza in desert camouflage. The United States military has often served as the "point man" for social change. Like a typical soldier, it has complained a lot. But like good soldiers always do, it has focused on accomplishing its missions. The results have been impressive. Fifty years ago it was unthinkable that black and white Americans would go into combat side-by-side. There was debate as to whether blacks should go into combat, period. The idea that black officers might issue orders to white enlisted men was so alien it was never discussed. The argument justifying this is still used often: "Maybe some of them can make it, but who knows outside of actual combat. We can't risk our nation's defense on a social experiment." And this is inevitably 100 percent wrong. Integra te combat units? Admit women to West Point? End the draft with a volunteer army? And take a chance with our nation's freedom? The republic has survived so far, and it will survive the issue of "women in combat." The old tired cliches are being added into the sum of all fears. Women can't hack it (some can't; many can - the same with men). America won't stand for "motherhood dead on the battlefield" (check out the casualty lists from Saudi). They'd have to register for the draft (nobody wants a draft, least of all the military; if it is ever needed, the demographics of post-Baby Boom America will require women be drafted). Men w on't obey them (they have since 1942). They'll get men killed in combat (not if they're well-trained). HE real issue of women in combat is not male/female, but the typical military problem of officer/enlisted soldier. A professional in the military aspires to promotion, and promotion to high rank favors officers with combat experience. In the Air Force, combat has become virtually an "officers-only" activity. Few combat aircraft have enlisted crew members. There are plenty of female Air Force officers ready to volunteer to fly planes that go fast and wreak havoc. On the other hand, an Army infantry battalion engaged in ground combat has very few officers. The vast majority of the unit (93 percent) is made up of enlisted soldiers. And while there are some female Army officers who would like to transfer to the infantry (with a less than 1 percent chance of making general 20 years hence), there are virtually no female enlisted soldiers who want to carry machine-guns and be grunts. There is no easy answer for the Army (or Navy; consider submarine duty). Women are going to be in the combat arms. They'll need to be tough because their training will be tough. The US military trains soldiers for the awesome responsibility of leading their fellow Americans into combat. The best advice is the old leadership axiom, "Be tough and be fair." The military is not always a reluctant participant in social change. For example, the "Miranda" rights warning and court-appointed attorneys are based on precedents from the Manual for Courts Martial. The military in many ways is now ahead of the curve on social changes; it has been "saying no" to drugs for a decade with mandatory testing and zero tolerance. Alcohol abuse is no longer winked at; a drunk driving conviction is "career-ending" for an officer or noncommissioned officer. Health considerations have made AIDS testing routine for all military personnel, not just doctors and nurses. The end of the Gulf war provides the opportunity for an "azimuth check" on the direction our military is heading. In many areas, it's not just walking point. It's breaking trail and leading the way. The view in 1991 is one of a military comfortable with its role in society, and of an America justifiably proud of the role its military plays in that society.