On the opposite page today, Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Hanoi for eight years, writes a stunning critique of the way this country -- its institutions and its individuals -- plays into the hands of those who hold its citizens captive. He believes, among other things, that our efforts to win partial concessions and provide little mercies actually work to make things worse for the captives and/or to prolong their captivity. In the same space last week, Israel's Moshe Dayan, no stranger to these affairs, also argued for a more clear-cut, direct and forceful American stand in any future such episodes, suggesting that stealthy, dark of night "apologetic" attempts at Entebbe-like action were inappropriate to this country's power and circumstances. To us both men's positions have an authenticity that proceeds not just from their special qualification to speak, but equally from the logic of what they say.

Even as the returning American hostages must still be unaccustomed to their freedom and obliged to remind themselves from time to time that it's okay to say what they please, so too the American public, restrained until now by concern for the hostages' safety, will probably need some time to understand that it can also speak freely at last and without inhibition. And in a general way it no doubt will need some reminding that all complaint and criticism of past policy is not, repeat not, the forbidden and legendary "nightmare of recrimination" against which the more voluble among us are continually being warned.

Perhap because we in this country have had a few truly raw experiences with after-the-fact blaming and purging and scapegoating when our foreign relations went wrong, we are almost neurotic in our anxiety to avoid any disagreeable arguments concerning our overseas failures now. "Let's look to the future," we are admonished, "not dwell on the past . . . There's blame enough for everybody . . . It's easy to say what was wrong in hindsight . . . Let's not turn this into a 'Who Lost China' debate . . ." and so forth. But there is a huge difference between merely nasty, politically motivated charges concerning a defeat or setback abroad and the rigorous, unsentimental inspection of how and where we went wrong that is essential to recovering from it -- and to preventing a repetition of our mistakes next time around.

Only a fool would claim that there exists somewhere in the realm of objective fact a collection of all-purpose rules for dealing with these terror situations -- and one that is accessible to anyone who is willing to think rationally about the subject. No number of well-intended inquiries is going to provide us with a set of perfect guidelines to haul down from the shelf and follow the next time the unthinkable happens. But there is plenty in the case of the embassy hostages that needs to be reviewed and subjected to the toughest and most unprotected srutiny for the sake of doing things better in the future: the role of the media, the appropriateness of negotiations, the attitude toward the use of force, the attitude toward the well-being of the hostages and the way in which their well-being is a part of more comprehensive national interests.

With the exception of the hostages themselves, we don't think anyone will come out of such an inquiry looking awfully prescient or good. But that is not a reason to avoid such inquiry. On the contrary, it suggests precisely why such an inquiry must be undertaken.