"The troule with you Americans," a young activist priest complained, "is that you don't understand -- there is nothing in your political experience that enables you to understand -- the political struggle here."

The priest was referring to the traditional role of the Salvadoran military, an institution that sees itself as the very foundation of the country, which believes its mission is to protect the people not only from international communism, but also from fractious civilian politicians.

For decades, it fulfilled that mission by rigidly defining the limits of civilian opposition and, when necessary, crushing it.

The current Salvadoran conflict, civilians and military leaders pointed out in recent interviews, is not only over ideological differences, but also over whether the Army will continue its traditional monopoly on power and authority. The battle, they say, is not so much about how the country is going to be run, but who is going to run it.

That is why there are few here who believe the fighting and political violence, which have taken more than 10,000 lives in the last year, can be ended through negotiations.

"Power is not negotiable," said a former military leader still influential in the highest ranks. Everything else might be negotiable, but not that."

On that point the guerrillas and the military agree.

"The solution is for [the guerrillas] to drop their guns," a military commander of one of the country's security forces said. "There is nothing to negotiate. If we sit down with [them] what would there be to discuss?"

There is little evidence that the United States, the ruling junta's primary backer, has pressured the military to go to the bargaining table. There is also little evidence that President Jose Napoleon Duarte -- a Christian Democrat whose party runs with the military -- has the power, even if he had the desire, to lead the junta into negotiations with the left.

Conflicts between its civilian and military components have plagued the coalition ever since it came into being in October 1979, when a group of young Army officers overthrew the presidency of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, the last in a string of military presidents unbroken since the early 1930s.

To prove their desire for reforms and a more representative government, those officers -- led by the relatively conservative Col. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez and the more liberal Col. Adolfo Arnoldo Majano -- invited some of El Salvador's most liberal civilians to join them in a new junta.

The junta has changed its components several times since then, with first one, then another group of civilians dropping out to protest what they said was continued military repression. After the most recent shakeup in December, Majano was ousted and Duarte, originially brought into the government a little more than a year ago, emerged as president.

Today, only Gutierrez and the defense minister, Col. Jose Garcia -- whom many consider the most powerful man in the country -- remain of the original junta and its Cabinet.

Duarte was originally elected to the office in 1972, only to be jailed, tortued and eventually exiled by the military with which he now governs. Neither he nor the middle-of-the-road Chrisian Democrats have ever been trusted by the armed forces. The party's participation in the government, arranged under heavy pressure on the military by the U.S. Embassy here, according to one former top military official who opposed Duarte, was a marriage of convenience.

Many party leaders openly talk about their fear of the military. One pointed out that 40 Christian Democratic mayors and local councilmen have been killed in the past year by what the party believes are right-wing assassins allied to the military.

Some members of the party hierarchy worry about what will happen to them if and when the guerrillas are defeated. Some, said party secretary general and Labor Minister Julio Antonio Samayoa Jr., feel "we may all end up in exile in Veneuela or. . . ." He drew an index finger across his throat.

U.S. officials insist that the military needs Duarte to give the government some semblance of domestic political legitimacy and to ensure vital U.S. and international support for the war against the guerrillas.

Duarte uses that U.S. and international support as leverage to push the military into continued reforms. His stated plan is to work with the military to end widespread violence from the right and eventually to induce the officers to stay in their barracks.But in El Salvador, the military has never stayed in the barracks.

Many observers here, including top officials in Duarte's own party, say he has had little if any success in reining in the military.

"The right-wing violence has gotten out of hand, especially in the past 30 days," a leading Christian Democratic official said in an interview earlier this month. "We can't control the Treasury Policy and the National Guard," he said of two of El Salvador's four armed services.

Another party official said Duarte has made some progress in controlling the military. But when asked to cite an example where Duarte had done something over the opposition of Defense Minister Garcia, that leader said he did not think something like that could happen.

Still, party secretary general Samayoa defended Duarte's decision to work with the military.

"We have avoided 200,000 deaths by working with the military," Samayoa said. "We have avoided fullscale civil war."

The biggest crisis between the Christian Democrats and the military occurred in November and December, after six leading opposition civilians, and then three American nuns and a lay worker, were killed with alleged complicity by the security forces and the Christian Democrats threatened to resign.

An agreement, again under heavy pressure from the U.S. Embassy, then headed by Carter administration appointee Robert E. White, was reached under which the military agreed to ease out several high-level officers, including the deputy defense minister, Col. Nicolas Carranza, and Col. Francisco Antonio Moran, head of the widely feared Treasury Police.

Carranza and some field commanders were replaced in January.

"But they promised us that Moran would be out by Feb. 1," one top Christian Democrat complained. "It is Aprill and he is still here and there is no sign that he is leaving."

Early last week, the government, with State Department concurrence, fingered the Treasury Police as those responsible for what it said was a shootout in which 30 civilians were killed in a San Salvador slum. Witnesses on the scene said the dead had been dragged from their homes by police and shot during the night.

Duarte previously had indicated his willingness to negotiate a political solution to the Salvadoran crisis with Guillerno Ungo, head of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the coalition that includes civilian and guerrilla opposition. But Duarte now says elections are the only "vehicle to see what the people want."

Yet numerous informed Salvadorans and Western diplomats pointed out that a negotiated politicall settlement to stop the violence could be worked outl if it were up to Duarte and Ungo alone. Aside from a deep personal animosity between the two men, one top Christian Democrat said, the political differences between Duarte and Ungo, who was his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 elections, are not that great.

"They just disagree on tactics," the Christian Democrat said.

That is, they disagree on how to deal with the military and whether the military will continue in its traditional role as the ultimate political arbiter here. Ungo has bitterly attacked Duarte for being nothing more than a front man for the armed forces.

But the Salvadoran Army has its own differences, tactical and political. Most informed Salvadorans consider Gutierrez and Garcia to be on the moderate side of the military-political equation now that they have eased out most of the more progressive officers, including former junta founder Majano. Althoughl virulently anti-communist, the moderates proudly claim credit for land and economic reforms under the new junta and want to see the programs continue.

Their political opposition comes from military rightists who would at least halt the reforms where they stand, if not reverse them. The moderates are inclined to want to work with civilian politicans, while the right looks to the all-military government of Chile's Pinochet as its model.

Tactically, it is assumed here that the political right wing of the military, aided by paramilitary hit squads that some believe are funded from wealthy Salvadorans waiting out the battle in Guatemala and Miami, has advocated indiscriminate political terror against anyone, moderate or leftist, who in any way might support or sympathize with the guerrillas.

What is not clear is how many of the political moderates in the military also espouse terror as a necessary and useful tactic against the guerrillas.

Many diplomats, Christian Democrats and military officers here see serious problems with Duarte's plan to force the left into elections or, that failing -- which many here predict -- undercut the opposition front's claim that it represents the majority will.

Among the obstacles are the absence of an electoral law, electoral rolls or even, because of the violence, a 1980 national census. At the same time, these analysts say, there is little reason to believe elections can take place at the current level of fighting. Duarte's strategy, they conclude, necessarily presumes that the guerrillas will be effectively contained -- if not exterminated -- with the next year leading up to elections.

That, the young activist priest maintained, is why, despite all the talk about elections and negotiations, "this is for many, a fight to the death."