As the first contingents of 3,200 U.S. troops began coming back from Honduras this week, with all to be home by Friday, it should be clear by now that their 13-day military exercise in Central America was only that -- just an exercise.

During their stay in Honduras, the soldiers had little, if any, real impact on events. They took no part in the fighting between the Contras and Sandinista troops who had briefly crossed into Honduras. In fact, they were deliberately kept far from the fighting.Although some may claim otherwise, it does not appear that the presence of the U.S. military force played much, if any, role in the sudden 60-day truce agreement between the Contras and Sandinistas. Details of that deal are still being argued in face-to-face talks between the opposing sides.

Under the circumstances, the sending of American troops seems to have been just a political gesture, perhaps an attempt to make the Sandinista incursion into Honduras appear more threatening than it was. The Sandinistas had crossed the jungle border many times before without evoking such a response.

The rationale for sending the troops appears to have been a last-ditch effort to push Congress into more military aid for the Contras, but that possibility seems to have vanished when the Contra-Sandinista truce was announced.

Now that the last of the troops are on their way home from a brief and uneventful training session, it makes those people who rushed into the street to protest the airlift appear needlessly nervous if not hysterical.

When American armed forces are dispatched to any area of potential conflict, for whatever reason and however briefly, some people can always be counted on to raise the specter of Vietnam and hold a demonstration.

That kind of automatic over-reaction serves no purpose except to let off steam. When are certain Americans going to learn that the more often they take to the streets with placards and pamphlets, the less attention and impact such protests make? Likewise, when are the protesters going to stop acting as though every time America flexes its muscles, another Vietnam is in the making?

Each situation ought to be judged on the basis of its own, somewhat unique circumstances. The next time U.S. troops are sent abroad and, the world being what it is, there undoubtedly will be a next time it could indeed be serious. Or it could be just another minor flap. While the painful lessons of Vietnam are indelibly etched, let's also remember the lessons taught by the recent U.S. involvement in Honduras and resist the impulse to render hasty, harsh judgements.