I DIDN'T KNOW I was going to start a war out here," Cmdr. John "Market" Burch would tell me later. I watched as he, the pilot, and Lt. John "Fozzie" Miller, his radar intercept officer in the back seat, prepared their fighter plane for the mission that would trigger a chain of events that would kill one of the most popular fliers on our carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, lead to the capture of another and spotlight incompetence in the high command of the American military.

I knew the mission Burch and Miller were supposed to fly this sunny morning of Dec. 3, 1983. They were to fly fast and low over the Beirut International Airport on the coast where U.S. marines were penned up while providing an American "presence" in Lebanon. The camera slung under the belly of their F14 would take hundreds of closeup pictures of everything on the ground in their swath as they raced across the Lebanese sky.

As soon as they crossed over the coast, they looked down at the brown hills and cream buildings under their speeding jet. They saw the bright winks of antiaircraft guns shooting up at them. This did not alarm them. They had been shot at before with those guns on earlier reconnaissance runs. Suddenly, however, they saw a sequence of smoke corkscrews rising from the ground. This sight did alarm them. The corkscrews were the signatures of SA7 heat-seeking missiles.

The two F14s, Burch's and another to protect him, flashed in and out of Lebanon without getting hit, but the sight of the corkscrews of smoke had released surges of adrenalin inside the fliers of both planes. The fliers were promptly debriefed about the missile firings when they returned to the Kennedy. Their accounts formed the basis of a report by the on-scene commander, Rear Adm. Jerry O. Tuttle, which was sent on up the chain of command toward President Reagan in the White House 7,000 miles away. Washington might regard the missile firings as an escalation by Syria and choose to retaliate.

The big question that formed in the minds of military officers reading the top-secret teletype messages about the missile firings was whether President Reagan this time would order retaliatory action. The Joint Chiefs of Staff met at the Pentagon in Washington to discuss whether to recommend a military response, and, if so, what kind. They agreed to recommend that planes on the aircraft carriers Kennedy and USS Independence be sent into Lebanon to bomb antiaircraft sites manned by Syrians. This would be tit-for-tat response -- the kind civilian leaders forced on the military during the Vietnam War. Your guns hit our planes; our planes will hit your guns. Neat. Tit for tat. Not a big escalation by Reagan, who had said he was trying to bring peace to Lebanon.

Because Washington was seven hours behind Beirut on the clock, it was still morning in Washington when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer (his boss, Caspar W. Weinberger, was out of town) and Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs, brought their recommendation to Reagan. The president, according to White House officials, at first asked why the 16-inch guns of the battleship USS New Jersey, which was standing off Lebanon, should not be used. He heard an explanation and then approved the chiefs' recommendation for a bombing strike.

Out in the Mediterranean, Tuttle was drafting a blueprint for how he would bomb targets in Lebanon if the president asked him to do so. As the afternoon of Dec. 3 wore on, Tuttle was receiving messages from up the chain indicating a bombing strike would really go this time. He gathered his planners to make detailed preparations for a strike. The planners included Cmdr. John J. Mazach, commander of the Kennedy air wing, and Cmdr. Ed "Honiak" Andrews, commander of the Independence air wing.

After negotiations between Tuttle and his superiors, the targets were selected. Pictures, maps and teletype information in three previously prepared folders -- named RS (for Ready Strike) 7, 8 and 16 -- were spread out on the table. The air wing commanders immediately saw they had a problem with the targets in folders RS 7 and RS 8. The targets were so small that they would not reflect radar beams or radiate heat sufficiently to activate the precision bombing gear in the A6E bombers. The fliers would have to find with their naked eyes the tiny antiaircraft guns and missiles hidden in the folds of the brown hills of Lebanon, no easy job while roaring along at 400 miles an hour. Folder RS 16, in contrast, contained an ideal target for bombers. It showed a big white building housing Syria's electronic junction for the links connecting the network of antiaircraft guns and missiles in Lebanon.

Tuttle planned to launch the bombers from the carriers about 11 a.m. the next morning, giving the ordnance men time to break out the cluster bombs from lockers deep in the carriers. These bombs would be best for destroying the antiaircraft guns and missile emplacements scattered on the hills on the westward and southward sloping ridges east of Beirut because they exploded over a wide area. The late morning launch would also have the advantage of having the sun high in the sky. If the pilots were launched at first light, they would have the sun in their eyes as they flew east toward the targets. But with a high sun, they would not be looking into it as they flew and there would be a minimum of shadows to hide the targets.

At 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 4, Lt. Bill "Catfish" Davis went from bunk to bunk to shake six of seven roommates awake. Catfish had been told by his squadron that they were going on a bombing raid. He had heard this so many times before he did not take it seriously.

The seven aviators clomped into the Kennedy's intelligence center for the briefing on this latest drill. Cmdr. Mazach looked rumpled, tired and deadly serious. He obviously had been up a long time. "You've only got a few minutes to go over this stuff," he warned, "because your target time for launch is 0720."

Cmdr. Jim Kidd, a tall, dedicated former A7 bomber pilot in charge of Strike Operations for the Kennedy's Air Wing Three, had been told at 4:05 a.m. to make sure his mix of bombs was loaded on the planes in time to make an 11 a.m. launch. He told me afterward that his reaction was that this would be tight but doable.

With the help of a computer in his office, Kidd figured how many of what type of bomb should be hung on each of the attacking bombers to destroy its assigned target. He immediately determined that the widely scattered antiaircraft sites in the hills of Lebanon would be most vulnerable to bombs that send out showers of shrapnel over acres of ground when they exploded. He planned to put 10 Rockeye cluster bombs on each A6 bomber. This would be a lethal load but not so heavy that the pilots would find their planes too heavy to jink -- zig and zag -- to dodge missiles.

Kidd received a second call at 5:40 a.m. "Your birds have to be loaded up in time to launch at 0630 so they can be over the beach by 0730," the caller said.

"No way!" Kidd exploded. From that moment on, Kidd felt he was engaged in a half-assed bombing mission in which men would be sent off without either the right number or right type of bombs for the targets they were risking their lives to destroy. He grieved about it, telling me in a voice heavy with fatigue and sadness: "Someone somewhere doesn't understand the problem. This is the worst I've ever seen. The guy who is going in harm's way should have the right to decide how we should do it." Washington, not the commander on the scene, had decided to attack at first light.

Catfish, bombardier, and Lt. Tom Corey, pilot, walked up to the flight deck to find their assigned A6 bomber, triple nickel, or number 555 -- a lucky number so far. The loading was way behind schedule, holding up assignments of planes. "Damn, don't call it off here," Catfish said to himself as he checked out number 555 with Corey. They both looked at each other aghast. There were no bombs on their plane. Yet they were supposed to launch in a few minutes. The ordies had not had time to get enough Rockeyes, the assigned cluster bombs, broken out and loaded on the bombers waiting to go. Everything was in a mad flail of effort on the flight deck because of the earlier than anticipated launch time.

"Throw some bombs on there," Corey ordered one of the ordies from his squadron. Corey had seen some iron bombs stacked up on the flight deck near the plane. The hell with waiting for the Rockeyes. Going with something was better than missing the launch altogether or going to Lebanon completely naked of bombs.

Lts. Mark Lange, pilot, and Bobby Goodman, bombardier, grew impatient as they sat in the ready room waiting for a plane to be carried up to the flight deck. Lange went up to "the roof" to help preflight other planes while Goodman waited in the ready room.

Goodman later joined Lange on the flight deck, hunted around, and spotted A6 number 556. He asked his roommate, Lt. Mark McNally, what munitions were loaded on it. McNally told him the bomber was the only that had been fully loaded. It held six Mark-83 1,000-pound bombs.

"Our target is for 83s," Goodman said. "We'll take it."

They were catapulted off the carrier, raced to catch up to the other bombers and once over Lebanon found themselves staring down at the corkscrew smoke from missiles fired up at their plane. They were hit.

If they got too close to the ground before ejecting, their parachutes would not have time to open. Lange and Goodman independently pulled the yellow-and-black ejection loops under their seats. The rockets under the seats went off, shooting them up and through the canopy, which disintegrated in a shower of plastic bits -- the way it is supposed to do. The high backed seats, not the fliers' helmeted heads, smashed the roof off the cockpit. In the F14, the canopy flies off before the fliers are rocketed out of the cockpit.

Lange was hurled out of the cockpit and through the air at 200 to 300 miles an hour. His parachute opened at almost the last second needed to break his fall to the ground. He glided down to earth and hit the ground hard. Something, perhaps his metal seat pan, severed his left leg on impact. Kennedy doctors who examined Lange's body afterward theorized that Lange bled to death for want of a tourniquet. The Syrian gunners might have saved his life if they had applied one quickly.

Goodman landed hard, broke some ribs, separated his left shoulder and tore up his left knee. He was immediately captured by Syrian gunners, who roughed him up but did not seriously hurt him. They summoned news photographers in Beirut to the crash site to take Goodman's picture, along with wreckage of the plane, to show the world what the United States had done. The six 1,000-pounders on Lange's plane were in the wreckage. The only heavily loaded bomber never reached its target. Goodman was taken to Damascus along with Lange's body.

I felt as if I were at a wake rather than a celebration as I made the rounds of the ship right after the last plane had returned from the raid over Lebanon. I found rage, bitterness, sadness, rationalization and protest.

Of the 10 A6 bombers that had taken off from the Kennedy, only Lange's had carried a respectable load of bombs, and his plane was shot down. Mazach's bombs had become hung up and did not drop. The eight remaining bombers dropped in total such a light load of munitions that one A6 could have carried it all: four Mark 83 1,000-pound bombs and 14 cluster bombs.

A veteran bombardier-navigator who had narrowly escaped death in the raid spoke with me softly but feelingly as we sat together in the back of his ready room. He had been sitting all alone back there since coming in from the flight deck. He had been trying to figure out how, after all the fastidious planning of the raids that did not go, his Navy could launch the real one with almost no planning or briefings or bombs. "We need to surprise the enemy more and ourselves less. It was ridiculous the way we did it. We need time to plan our targets and ordance so a strike is executed the way it is planned. We had been planning for almost a month before this strike to go to ---------. We had been single-minded about it. We briefed every other night -- when we were the 'go' carrier for hitting ---------. We loaded the ordnance for it. Hitting --------- was our whole focus.

"Then we get up in the morning and find out that something entirely new had been designed. That strike was completely foreign to us. We had to shift gears.

"If we had had the time, we would have done a much better job. Mark's death could have been prevented if we had had the proper time to plan and execute. We just weren't allowed that option. I feel really depressed."

After talking extensively with everyone on the Kennedy who flew on the Dec. 4 raid as well as most of those who planned it, I concluded that the fundamental error was not giving those involved the time they needed to prepare the mission for minimum risk and maximum effectiveness. The targets were not going anywhere. They could have been bombed the next day or the next week. President Reagan wanted to deliver a political message, not win a battle or start a war. So there was no compelling reason for launching the bombers at first light before their crews or their planes were ready to go.

After leaving the Kennedy, I interviewed most of the top people involved with planning the Dec. 4 raid. Nothing I learned changed my mind that admirals and generals who were not on the scene let their men down. These officers, who made some of the vital decisions about the raid, said they had not been informed by the on-scene commander that he could not make the "first light" launch without endangering the mission. Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, conceded there was inadequate communications "both ways."

The bombing mission was steered by the Joint Chiefs, but they distanced themselves from it afterward. Either the chiefs should be all the way in or all the way out for such military operations. If they are going to tell the on-scene commander what to do and when, the chiefs should be placed in the chain of command to take responsibility for their decisions. If the chiefs are not going to see a mission through to the end, then they should leave it to the on-scene commander to make the tactical decisions, such as the best time to launch bombers.

The chain of command did not work. Was it the system or the people? If it was the system, the system should be repaired beyond the changes Congress already has made. If it was the people, they should be held accountable.

George Wilson covers defense issues for The Post. He lived aboard the USS Kennedy for seven months while writing, "Super Carrier," which is being published this month. This article is adapted from the book.