THAT WAS a disturbing incident in West Germany last Friday when an American Pershing II rocket motor ignited into a flash fire while it was being lifted by a crane out its shipping container at a U.S. military base. The missile was unarmed, there was no nuclear aspect to the mishap, and the danger to the civilian population was reported to be nonexistent. Still, three American soldiers died and 16 were injured in the blaze, and the instant reaction of many people was that it was a good thing it wasn't worse. Any accident having anything at all to do with a nuclear missile has a broad emotional fallout, and this one was no exception.

The Pershing that exploded was one of 108 such missiles, along with 464 ground-launched cruise missiles, which the United States began deploying in Western Europe a litle more than a year ago, at NATO's behest, to counter the SS20 missiles that Moscow had begun deploying against Western Europe more than four years earlier; half of the agreed Pershings are now in place. Everything about these American deployments remains of high political sensitivity, including the response to the latest accident.

The governing German coalition lead by Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl, which resolutely supported the American deployments, avoided comment on the Pershing fire. This had the unfortunate effect of giving the field to political elements which had opposed the deployments in the first place. The Social Democrats said the fire raised the question of whether the Pershings are "technically up to scratch" and called for a German parliamentary probe. The Greens, naturally, went further, saying the fire provided "further reason" for the immediate withdrawal of all the missiles. The opposition is unlikely to do more with these calls than make political hay. Still, would it not have been better if the Kohl government had immediately accepted a responsibility to see to it that the new missiles pose no unacceptable hazards to the German population? There has never, in the West, been an accidental nuclear explosion. There appears to be no reason to have feared an explosion in this instance. But nuclear anxieties are understandably keen for many Western citizens of all political persuasions and these anxieties need to be treated and respected by Western governments whenever the occasion arises.

The U.S. Army is conducting no fewer than three investigations, one by the local commander and the other two by commands based in the United States. Its alertness in responding to this embarrassment is welcome. If, as seems probable, there is an innocent and simple explanation, then it will help to have it provided promptly and publicly. Yet there is a nagging question: Why three investigations? The number suggests a certain confusion about where the responsibility for these missiles actually lies. This has been a recurrent problem, or one to which the public has been exposed recurrently, in recent years. Notwithstanding the supposed clarity promised by the concept of a military chain of command, there never seems to be a straight line of responsibility, at least when things go wrong.