UNTIL RECENTLY the concept of "the good guerrilla" has been almost exclusively a myth of the left. The Nicaraguan contras changed all that. They are anti-communist and they are pro-American, so they must be the guys wearing the white hats.

Unfortunately, few see the contras as guerrillas, good or bad, and it upsets those people who are their image-makers. Last October, when I was in Cartagena for a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association, an exiled Nicaraguan journalist who seems to be some kind of press agent of the contras cornered me and asked me why the media do not thrill to the war drums of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN).

"We don't rob banks, we don't hijack planes, we don't kidnap people. We don't wear masks. We show our faces. We are good guerrillas. We really are freedom fighters."

In this book, Christopher Dickey, who covered the continuing civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and reported from the neighboring Central American republics for The Washington Post, underlines the contradiction between what the contras are supposed to be and what they are with two quotations which preface the book. The first is from a March 1, 1985, speech by President Ronald Reagan:

"They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help. . . . They are the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance. We cannot turn away from them. For the struggle is not right versus left, but right versus wrong."

The second appears in the Central Intelligence Agency's manual Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare:

"An armed guerrilla force always carries with it implicit terror because the population, without saying it out loud, fears the arms can be turned against them."

The guerrilla manual was put together by a CIA agent known as John Kirkpatrick. Dickey describes him as "affable, if a little strange. An older man, he dressed entirely in black. He told some of the Nicaraguan exiles he worked with that it was to inspire a cult of death among the fighting men, but Laura (the wife of the man who ran the contras' radio station) used to tease him . . . and ask him if he wore black underwear too."

He shows genuine sympathy for the man who wrote the notorious manual, which a year later aroused a storm of controversy, and, as Dickey says, "epitomized in the eyes of Congress the crazy clumsiness and dubious morality of the covert program . . . (and) led directly to a freeze of funding in the fall of 1984." Dickey writes: "Kirkpatrick, like a mourner, had a right to wear black. He wasa veteran of ugly, unheard-of battles where a lot of people died and few cared. His business was to convince the fighters that what they did was noble and their causes were worthwhile." I

T IS ONE of Dickey's strengths that

he is just, honest and respectful about

almost all the characters who appear

in his testimony of what it was like to be in the middle of a nightmare. Dickey's tale is almost phantasmagorical although he has done his best to be an objective reporter. But perhaps because the material is so incredible, he has woven a book of nonfiction as if it were a novel.

His true story, narrated rather like the tales that ancient mariners used to tell, opens in the O. Henry Bar of the Tegucigalpa Holiday Inn, where Dickey is talking to "the Nicaraguan" who tells him, "In this war there are so many passions, people are turned into beasts." He is identified in the notes, which the reader may refer to in order to be assured that he is indeed reading about factual events and real people. The Nicaraguan is Edgar Chamorro, a contra leader -- a former Jesuit priest and former advertising man -- who has become disaffected (disgusted might be a better word). He muses, speaking about the field commanders of the contras who do the killing: "They have, like, double personalities. Very tender very cruel. . . . You know there are people who learn to kill and who love it."

The book also ends with Chamorro, this time in The Rusty Pelican, looking out on Biscayne Bay in Miami. His conversation is a commentary on what has gone before. He is described as thinking to himself: "It seemed that so much had gone wrong. So much had been wasted. Thousands of peasants were dead, tens of thousands homeless. In the FDN hospitals they lay without the land they worked, and without the arm or leg they used to use to work it. No one was any closer than before to overthrowing the Sandinista Front. No one was going to get the land back for them. Edgar had found himself called a leader, but he knew he was just a tool. He was part of a package. 'We were being used, like nice guys, to convince Congress.' Now he found, in this comfortable bar . . . that 'we have killed people -- not only that, we have sent people to kill our own people.'

"'This is like a Kafka world,' he thought later. 'You can manipulate people to the extreme, but there is no truth or reality around you. Or reality is irrelevant. Someone to whom you have no access makes the decisions, unseen.'

"It was getting hard to see the difference between the Sandinistas' values and those of the people who fought them."

In between the observations of this "easygoing Miami exile thrust into the fore of the Central Intelligence Agency's campaign as the kind of moderate whom Washington wanted to see leading the fight against communism in Nicaragua," the reader is plunged into a world as real and as unreal as anything by Gabriel Garc,ia M,arquez.

There is Suicida, around whom the book revolves -- the semi-literate sergeant of Somoza's National Guard who becomes a famous contra leader, mixing Veuve Clicquot with Coca-Cola and rum and caviar with tortillas. His story, and that of his woman La Negra, ends in a welter of bloodshed. There are the Argentine dirty warriors, who began the secret war -- an extension of their 'Third World War' against communism -- to curry favor with the United States. There is Eden Pastora, Commander Zero, the heroic Sandinista, discredited and finally disowned by the CIA. There are the CIA agents, themselves, some commanding Dickey's and the reader's respect, others behaving like clowns out of place in a tragedy. There are moments of stark personal horror. Dickey finds himself becoming the escort for The Wall Street Journal reporter, Lynda Shuster, in the recovery of the body of her husband, Dial Torgerson, veteran Los Angeles Times correspondent, who was blown up in a car on the road near the Nicaraguan-Honduran border: "The cabin of the Saber 60 smells of rose scent and the rubber of the body bag. . . . So Dial lies behind our seats now, blocking the way to the lavatory, in a green rubberized bag that might hold a set of golf clubs or a surfboard, but holds him. The people who put him on board threw the little designer pillows from the seats and my blazer and Lynda's jacket over the bag. But Lynda couldn't help but notice . . . that the body inside the bag was smaller than the man she loved.

"The body it seems, has no legs."

Dickey, the reporter, also becomes a character when, on a mission with Krill, one of Suicida's band of the doomed, he is nearly killed by the Sandinistas. Krill, a pathological killer, saves Dickey's life.

The book is a tale of ambiguity, wrapped in ambivalence, inside duality and smothered in misinformation. And the media are important protagonists. Edgar believed that Somoza lost because his guardias killed ABC correspondent Bill Stewart: "It doesn't matter how many of us die. What it will take for the Sandinistas to lose will be the first American journalist that dies -- that gets killed by them."

The war, no longer secret, has a momentum all its own. Dickey notes on his concluding page that the contras, despite their predilection for killing each other and destroying their image as "good guerrillas," have grown in strength and by 1985 "taking into account the agency's and their own exaggeration, certainly exceeded ten thousand combatants."

I discovered that myself. Between my first visit to Nicaragua in April 1983 and my last visit in May last year, the contras had become popular -- not because they were good but because the Sandinistas government was so bad.

In one of the few hopeful passages in this black book, a simple farmer complains to the contra group that Dickey joined for his chilling foray across the Honduran border, "I saw seven people with their throats cut in La Fragua and they said it was done by the contra. They were (Sandinista militia) that were killed, maybe, but it was bad. I saw them with my own eyes, and I can tell you this is ugly work . . . "

But the farmer goes on, "We're secret democrats now. We've got to be. But if we are going to win this fight we have to be real democrats. With that kind of screw-up we can wind up with nothing, we can lose everything. And another thing, you have to respect the country people."

Dickey comments: "Where he got his ideas of democracy, I don't know. The word seemed to be religious for him. It meant, I think, that nobody messed with him; perhaps nothing more, nothing less."

That, perhaps, is the message of this book, although you could also say that it is the story of how the United States tried to create "good guerrillas." Dickey would probably deny any message. He is certainly a good reporter. The comments he allows himself are not out of place.