The Defense Department, in obtaining permission to give experimental drugs to American troops in the Persian Gulf, is about to violate the Nuremberg Code, one of the primary moral documents to emerge from World War II.

At its request, the Pentagon has been given a special Food and Drug Administration (FDA) waiver it sought to require the troops to take experimental drugs and vaccines during combat or if there is a "threat of combat."Since Nuremberg no government has officially attempted to justify research on competent adults without their informed consent - that is, not until our government said exceptions would be permitted so that specific unapproved drugs and vaccines could be administered to the troops without their consent.

One unapproved vaccine troops might be required to take would theoretically protect them against botulism, a fatal bacteria toxin Iraqi forces might use.

The Pentagon's rationale for radically altering the standard procedure in military life was that it was "not feasible" to get informed consent from combat troops.

The Nuremberg code was enunciated by a U.S. tribunal that sat in judgment on Nazi doctors who conducted brutal non-therapeutic experimentation on concentration-camp prisoners.

Promulgated under the Army's authority, and intended to be universal, the code was based on "moral, ethical and legal constructs." Its first principle holds that no experimentation can be done on humans without their competent, voluntary, informed consent.

Since World War II, informed consent has almost universally been recognized as a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for ethical research, both therapeutic and non-therapeutic, on competent adults.

Military personnel, unlike civilians, have no constitutional right to refuse standard medical treatment that could return them to active duty. But no rule has ever permitted military superiors to allow their troops to be guinea pigs for what amounts to medical experimentation or research without informed consent.

It may now be legal - but it remains unethical - for military physicians to administer experimental agents to soldiers without their informed consent. "Obeying orders" is no justification for such conduct.

Should we care? Aren't the dangers to troops worth the hypothetical risks of unapproved drugs and vaccines if FDA and Pentagon officials think so?

In combat, under emergency situations, with no medical alternatives available, limited exceptions might be appropriate.

But a blanket exception for a war that does not involve U.S. national survival - and where there is no evidence that a significant number of troops would reject drugs or vaccines to the extent that military efficiency or discipline would be disrupted - is an unnecessary overreaction.

Under the new regulation, whatever experimental drug or vaccine military commanders and the FDA think is in the soldiers' best interest becomes obligatory "treatment."

Research is research because we don't know the consequences, risks and benefits of intervention.

Blurring the distinction between experimentation and treatment obliterates one of the few basic human rights soldiers maintain. They should continue to possess the moral and legal right to decide whether to take the risks of experimental interventions. The rule should be rescinded.