ANDREWS Air Force Base, just outside Washington, is a mundane setting for either the ceremonial of tragedy or the celebration of heroism. Beyond the main gate, and the clipped salutes of the Air Force sentries, there is the same cluster of workshops, and storage buildings, the PX, the bowling alley, the neatly clipped lawns, the whitewashed curbs, and the gaunt gray hangars, that exists on any other air base.
Then comes the high-security area, the fences patrolled by guard dogs, and out on the tarmac Air Force One and the other blue-and-white Boeings of the President's flight, gleaming under armed guard night and day.
Half an hour from the White House by car, a matter of minutes by helicopter, this is the home of the President's official air fleet, the point from which the President and his key Cabinet ministers depart on special missions, and to which they return, as well as the arrival place for special visitors. There is a little VIP terminal where they serve coffee and tea in china cups instead of paper ones, and there are paper napkins printed with the Air Force insignia. Many momentous conversations have taken place here as leaders -- American and foreign -- have exchanged secrets and indiscretions between arrivals and departures.
Outside, confined to a metal pen like errant sheep and watched hungrily by the guard dogs, the television crews wait to record history. In recent years, the chronicle has been of too much tragedy at Andrews. The bodies of slain American diplomats have been brought home here from Africa and the Middle East. The flag-draped coffins of marines from Beirut were lined up in long rows here. Last week came the casket of the Navy diver killed by terrorists on TWA Flight 847. And again this weekend, an American President close to tears was on hand to honor four marines killed in El Salvador.
The President's grief was apparent, his frustration understandable. But there should have been no sense of guilt at Andrews last weekend, for the mission of the marines in El Salvador was a worthy one, and the act of those who killed them was one of desperate failure and defeat. The marines were part of the security detachment at the American Embassy in San Salvador, the same standard operation as exists at embassies in London and Nairobi and Jakarta and around the world. Their mission was to protect the embassy and its personnel.
Off-duty at the time of their deaths, they were murdered apparently by some of the left-wing guerrillas who have failed to thwart El Salvador's perilous but increasingly confident progression toward democracy and stability.
The ugly act of terrorist violence in which the innocent marines were ensnared cannot obscure the fact that El Salvador is looking increasingly like a success story -- a success for democracy and those Salvadoreans and Americans who supported it.
The guerillas have made no military gains of significance since their fall offensive of 1983. This may be leading them to a last-gasp series of urban terrorist incidents. They have been unable to thwart the growing emergence of representative rule and the consolidation of democratic power by President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte. Meanwhile, right-wing extremists seem to have been losing ground since setbacks in the elections and a tough message from the United States to eliminate death-squad activity. When Vice-President Bush visited El Salvador in December 1983, he left all factions in little doubt that the US had run out of patience over violations of human rights. Since then there has been a marked improvement.
Nobody pretends that President Duarte faces an easy future. But no apology is needed for the American contribution to Salvadorean stability. The mission the dead marines supported is one of honor.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.