During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan confided to a visiting dignitary that he knew precisely how to get American hostages out of Iran: He would fly American paratroopers to the holy city of Qom, have them seize the Ayatollah Khomeini himself and hold him hostage until the Americans were released. Maybe you've seen that movie.

The diplomat was diplomatic. Chagrined as he was, he said nothing. He did not ask how a bunch of Americans could find the ayatollah in a strange city, how they would get out once they got there, and how Reagan was sure that the Americans being held would not be killed on the spot. There were, to say the least, some problems with the Reagan rescue plan.

In the end, of course, Jimmy Carter tried something along those lines. Soldiers were flown to Iran in an attempt to rescue the hostages. The result was the debacle in the desert, the loss of eight Americans and the humiliation of seeing one of the lesser ayatollahs display the charred bodies of Americans to the TV cameras. For the United States, it was an ignominious moment. It seems hardly to matter to most people that all 52 of the hostages came home alive.

Both President Reagan and Vice President Bush have made much of the Iranian situation in the presidential campaign. They invoke it as emblematic of the Carter administration -- four years of impotence, culminating in the humiliation of a proud and mighty nation by a Third-World power. What they do not say is what they would have done instead. Assuming that Reagan would have attempted his own plan, the result would probably have been far worse.

Neither Reagan nor Bush acknowledges that he has been as unable to deal with terrorism in Lebanon as Carter was in Iran. Instead, they hold up the Grenada invasion as the shining example of their decisiveness and daring-do. This administration takes no guff. It stands tall. It does not, however, come clean.

In the first place, Grenada is a lot closer to the United States than Iran, and it was defended by some 700 Cubans (mostly construction workers) and 1,500 members of the island's People's Revolutionary Army. Against them were arrayed 5,000 American combat troops and a vast amount of firepower. Even so, the invasion was marred by confusion and accidents. As the Long Island newspaper Newsday has pointed out, half of the 20 American casualties were caused by "accidents and mishaps." In fact, accidents claimed the lives of three Army Rangers and four Navy Seals, the very commando-like units the administration likes to extol.

Accidents and mishaps are the stuff of war. They are precisely what crippled the attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages, and they have to be taken into account in any military operation. What made Grenada different from Iran was its size, its proximity and the amount of force used. As one analyst told Newsday, "I think the South Pasadena fire department could have taken Grenada."

Even in a presidential campaign, facts and truth have their place. The Grenada invasion is not America's shining moment, but a small, not particularly clean operation that wouldn't even have been noticed in a larger war. It's not an example of what can be done in other circumstances -- Lebanon, Iran. It's merely what it was -- a mismatch, a wipe -- and yet additional evidence that war in reality is different from war in the movies.

Jimmy Carter understood that. But from everything Reagan and Bush say they do not. They want Carter to take responsibility for Iran, but they duck it when it comes to Lebanon. They will not concede that terrorism is terrorism and there's simply a limit to what can be done. Sometimes you can send in the Marines and sometimes you can't -- and sometimes when you do, 241 of them get blown up. That's life or that's war -- pick your clich,e. But when Reagan-Bush criticize Carter for doing what they would have done, there's only one clich,e that comes to mind: it's a cheap shot.