Meet Domingo. He used to live in a "Christian community," one adopted by socially minded priests who are anathema to the oligarchy. He lived there until his family was routed by ORDEN, a right-wing paramilitary organization since, ostensibly, disbanded. Now he lives with his mother behind locked gates at one of 10 teeming church-run refugee camps around the capital. His father and three brothers were killed in the attack on their village. Across his arms, neck and face are immense, crudely stitched welts made by the machete that nearly dismembered him. He is smallish and brown, his cheeks still soft, and when he is asked whether he is angry at what happened to him two years ago, he pauses long and says, barely audibly, "Yes." He is now 13.

There is the war in a form that shocks a first-time foreign observer. But one learns quickly that there are few shocked Salvadorans left in this sad, sad country, conditioned as it is by decades, if not centuries, of experience similar to this direct personal exaction of "justice" and vengeance. "How can this happen?" I asked the priest, who had escorted me to a camp of 1,000 such victims of right-wing terror--a priest who, by the way, is regarded as something of an apologist for official violence by some of his liberal fellow churchmen in the United States. "I--I don't know." He has already said to me, "You Americans love the law. We play with it."

The violence--not the war but the violence, lavish and uncontrolled like the bougainvillea that spills over the barricaded walls of San Salvador--is the central fact with which we Americans have yet to come fully to terms. There is such a fantastic amount of misperception and cant in our collective contemlation of it. It is laid bare, I think, by two questions.

1)How do you think Domingo is going to respond to a suggestion from, say, an American churchman or legislator or president or even a journalist to put aside his sense of personal grievance and bereavement when he grows up--if he did not grow up instantly as the machete swung--and to accept a responsibility to build a new Salvadoran society, a society of law?

2)But which of these people--the churchman, the legislator, etc.--is actually going to make such a suggestion?

The "evidence" telling who is committing the violence against civilians in El Salvador-- 30,000-plus have died in the last two years-- is essentially uncollectable, circumstantial and fragmentary, hearsay and surmise. The United States, infinitely better equipped to cope with errant soldiers, found it so in Vietnam.

There is no comfort in the assertion, true as it literally is, that "both sides do it." That passes over the responsibility--let us say the 100 percent responsibility--of the traditional oligarchy and the political extreme right in starting the violence. This is no chicken-and- egg situation. Domingo and his family and his class did not start it. ORDEN and the class it represents--the class it represents perhaps without realizing it does so--started it. Force was used to consolidate injustice. It is as simple as that.

The Communist Party stirred here first in the 1920s. Why so late? one might ask. El Salvador was then, and largely still is today, a Marxist's dream, a place to make dogma look supple. In a way, it is a great pity that a Marxist solution was not applied decades ago, before the real question arose of the international connections and implications of a contemporary Marxist solution. There is no defense of an order that keeps peasants in line with machetes.

I was told here of a socially conscious woman, very liberal by local standards, who did 4-H work with rural kids. On her small coffee plantation, one of the hands started to "cause trouble" and was found bound and dead in a ditch the morning after the police had paid a call. A "subversive," she shrugged. Remember: she is a liberal.

I happen to think the current military- civilian junta has a genuine and strong reform impulse, and if it were allowed the requisite time and political space, it could do a great deal for the country. In that sense, one could argue that the guerrillas have "won": they have forced the necessity of change upon most of the elite. To hear President Jos,e Napoleon Duarte and the other deeply committed officials of his government spelling out their hopes for their country is to be convinced, almost, that the process of modernization is under way.

>Almost: it matters next to nothing that foreigners or even the good civilians in the establishment may feel reform is the wave of the future. Distrust is the undertow. Official violence is generating it, and it goes on.

>I met three of the top military people and talked with them for a total of five hours-- the minister of defense who is acknowledged to be the country's strongman, and the heads of the city and rural police, both comers. Now that the violence of their organizations has become central to the debate over the terms of American aid, they have been coaxed to come out of their traditional barracks cocoon and to receive representative Americans. This stuns savvy Salvadoran civilians. When I visited one of the generals, a ministerial official happened to be dropping by for his first call. He was with the general's secretary, not the general, and he was shaking.

I liked the three officers. They are not, to the eye, killers. One, the minister of defense, is a Buddha, smiling reassurances, calm. The head of the city police (National Police), a lawyer as well as an academy graduate, was smart, well spoken and efficient. The head of the rural police (National Guard), also an engineer, had an impressive analytical dimension. The latter two were surprisingly forthcoming with certain bookkeeper-type information on malfeasance in the ranks (murder of civilians, etc.) and on the discipline (civilian trial, expulsion, etc.) meted out as a result. Keeping order for the oligarchs is one thing. But the atrocities incident to a guerrilla war are something else. I caught myself thinking--unfairly?--that the armed forces may be pursuing the latter more vigorously than we ever did in Vietnam. Given their caste tradition, it must be painful and humiliating for them. Do you ever get angry at the American nagging? I asked the minister of defense. Buddha smiled: "No."

How many of the National Police have died in the line of duty since Oct. 15, 1979, the date of this junta's coup and the date its bookkeeping commenced? "151." How many people have the police killed? "We don't count--no more than 10." >No more than 10?>> --in a country littered by an average of 40 to 50 often torn, sometimes headless corpses every day for the last two years-->no more than 10?>>

Tell that to Domingo.

On the basis of my interviews, I would say that the United States has the full attention of the Salvadoran military command on the violence. The >threat>> of an aid cutoff is a useful tool for those in the command who are prepared, no doubt for reasons of their own, to stand up to the hard fascist right. The American military advisers, the second and third American-trained battalion soon to come on line, the 500 American-trained officers: these will help some, though not enough to spare many future Domingos. We are pushing uphill against the culture.

I asked many people what would happen if the United States, unable to stomach the violence, cut Salvador off. The most credible answer, representing a consensus, came from Dr. Jorge Bustamante, the heroic 59-year-old doctor who is setting up the elections of March 28. The right wing would immediately seize power and kill 300,000 people, he said, and then Salvador would become a left-wing totalitarian state, an outcome accompanied by its own fearful slaughter.

It seems to me absurd to suggest that cutting off aid is the humane solution, let the politics go hang. The melancholy reality is that we are riding a tiger. We got on for good reason--to support what seemed like the best bet available for centrist reform. If we get off, we do more than abandon what scant hope exists of a breakthrough--of this, more in a subsequent column. We abandon a country for which, by our intervention, we have accepted no small responsibility. We abandon it to a depth of savagery not known at this point even to pitiful El Salvador.