Almost unnoticed amid all of the publicity given to the recent exodus from Cuba has been another almost invisible mass movement: the grand exodus from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines of professional personnel. Hundreds of thousands of skilled members of the peacetime armed forces have come to believe that America is asking them and their families to sacrifice too much for too little in return.
"Who Will Fight for America?" (NBC, Friday, 10-11 p.m), written and reported by Marvin Kalb, is an incisive look at the realities of the situation in which members of the armed forces find themselves. These include long tours of overseas duty; long separation from families (or if families join them, not enough salary to pay expenses, so wives must do menial chores to make ends meet); long work shifts; compensation so low that soldiers often qualify for food stamps.
Loading their documentary like a sharpshooter's rifle with on-target interviews, Mr. Kalb and producer-director Robert Rogers make an almost unaswerable case for major changes in the structure of the armed forces. In many technical areas, the forces train men, then lose them to private industry, which offers them more than twice as much as they can get in the service.
Over and over again, the question of conscience arises in the minds of the interviewee, the interviewer, the viewer: How much sacrifice can the nation rightfully demand of its armed forces? Should they remain in place merely as a patriotic gesture when so many civilians go about their moneymaking businesses?
As America's arsenal grows, as our international commitment expands, the number of trained technicians to run the complicated weapons of war drops at an alarming rate. To replace trained personnel, we seem to be getting inexperienced, uneducated youngsters and unemployables as volunteers.
Mr. Kalb refers to the exodus as "a kind of middle-class dropout of major proportions as trained technicians and leaders leave the watch on the Rhine for the most part to poorly trained and educated GIs. The US Army has quantity. What it lacks is quality."
The documentary investigates all of the alternatives -- mainly reinstituting the draft and increasing the compensation for service. Even Gen. Lew Allen Jr., chief of staff of the Air Force, although insisting that the Air Force can meet its recruiting objectives without conscription, believes compulsory service may be necessary to impress upon the nation the equality of the obligation to serve, making clear the commitment that all Americans feel to provide a service to their country.
Says Gen. Edward C. Meyer, the Army chief of staff: "I believe that it is as essential that we have a linkage between the nation and its soldiers. Today there is no sense of responsibility for service on the part of the entire nation."
Some politicians believe that the time is right for the Reagan administration to introduce legislation for a national conscription, while the nation is still in the throes of patriotic fervor fired by the return of the hostages. Candidate Reagan, however, campaigned against the draft, and it may be too early , according to Kalb, to ask him to do such a radical about-face in policy.
But Reagan's new secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, told Kalb: "I would like to avoid a draft as long as possible . . . but we don't want to wait too long . . . we must keep in mind that a universal draft for a cause that isn't understood can have a very damaging effect on the country as a whole."
Concludes Marvin Kalb in this electrifying and frightening documentary: "We are weaker than we have been led to believe. There is a disquieting gap between America's armed forces -- its drive and capabilities -- and American society -- its goals, traditions, commitments. The gap must be bridged. The choice seems clear -- either accept the mounting cost of continued global commitment or begin the process of abandoning those commitments."
Mr. Kalb believes that the US must be proud enough of its armed forces to sustain a much higher degree of sacrifice and a military machine motivated to defend the values of its society. He admits that is a tall order, "perhaps requiring a national calamity" to achieve.
One hopes that will not prove to be the case. In any event it is informative , public-service programs such as this which can help alert the country and perhaps even contrib ute to a solution.