A military solution or a political solution?

On both sides there are people committed to one or another sort of military solution. The junta counts on steadily increasing the competence and civility of the armed forces, even as the peasants are gradually drawn out of their current fearful detachment by an election sequence beginning on March 28 and by the progress of reforms. This is at once the official line and the psychological life raft of the establishment and of those of the lower classes--how many?--who have hitched up to it.

"We are winning," the chief of the National Guard assures me: the "subversives" can only hit and run. They lost their "final offensive." They cannot keep peasants from farming. They cannot enforce a general strike. They cannot stop "the election of the valiant." They . . .

Later I interview a line of people acquiring the identity document they need in order to vote--an act for which the guerrillas promise, among other things, death. It takes great faith to believe that this self-appointed junta and its presumably elected successor government can prevail over the guerrillas. But at the different levels of Salvadoran society, there are many people with great faith.

By a mildly devious route, I meet, for a beer in the afternoon, two guerrillas of the related FAPU-FARN groups--earnest and amiable men in their early 30s who boast discreetly of their security by sitting at ease for almost two hours with their backs to a downtown street. "FAPU," a lawyer, is a clandestine union organizer who is "mobilizing the masses." "It is hard to be a Marxist but I try. We are patriots." "FARN," a worker, engages in unspecified "military actions." Their vagueness is disappointing since generally the guerrillas are marvelous, far better than the government, at feeding the foreign press, to the point, it is said, of reminding forgetful TV reporters of "bird" schedules. Yet their bravery and determination to overcome are evident.

The guerrillas seem to have recruited heavily from the awakened and unemployed graduates of Salvador's hastily expanded universities--the FAPU man is in this category. Tellingly, peasant mothers are beginning to abandon their newborn children, a knowledgeable obstetrician reports. Desperation has produced a "way of death" in the countryside, says a leading intellectual. At the different levels of Salvadoran society, that is to say, there are many people with no faith in the system at all.

Even in the government, not to speak of the American Embassy, cool observers respect the guerrillas' military prowess. They are hitting more outposts, holding villages longer, beginning to stand up and dare the army to fight in one place. Often they show they have people inside the army. Only once last year did the army catch guerrillas unsuspecting in their camp. The guerrillas used the years of army complacency and the American aid cutoff (ended by lame duck Jimmy Carter) to build their forces. By most accounts, they usually treat the peasants less harshly than the official forces do.

Some of their arms and, by now as important, their ammunition come from Nicaragua by burro, truck and boat. Corrupt civilians and army people sell weapons to them, as to the extreme right. They also capture weapons and, it is reported, truck some in from the United States.

A guess about the military balance indicates that each side has the means and the morale, and the feeling that if it loses it loses all, to fight on indefinitely. This will further devastate a country that has a taste for inflicting violence, and a readiness to suffer violence, beyond the American ken.

An important assumption is buried here-- that neither side will succeed in its large political effort to throttle the supplies the other gets from the outside, the junta almost exclusively from the United States and the guerrillas partially through the Nicaraguan funnel.

Of the American aspect, I will note here only that the guerrillas appear to assign an extraordinary potency to the likes of Rep. Tom Harkin. In his recent visit, Salvadorans report, he dared President Duarte to drop in unannounced on a military headquarters and a public place, which Duarte did, demanded to see a pre-mapped "torture" chamber, which turned out to be innocent, and then called for the end of American military aid.

The aspect of the Nicaraguan funnel I will set aside until I inquire in Managua.

Though their civilian middle-class comrades of the "front" conduct an energetic international public diplomacy, it seems foolish to take these civilians as spokesmen for the hard-core Marxist guerrilla command. There is good reason to question the weight of the politicians on the junta side; ditto on the guerrilla side. Or double ditto. Most of the guerrilla commanders are little known--junta spokesmen sometimes misspell their names-- and they seem to be in a typical combat-mystique stage in which they cultivate personal obscurity and reject a "civilizing" public interaction with the outside world.

The guerrillas show, nonetheless, a strategy of no mean sophistication. It is to conduct a military campaign just beneath the level at which they calculate an enraged Ronald Reagan might send in the Marines, and meanwhile to offer to negotiate.

Duarte and other officials insisted to me that the guerrilla offer is impossibly one-sided, is designed to dupe international opinion, and would produce a communist El Salvador in fairly short order. No more Vietnams, the junta and its American supporters say, meaning the Vietnam pattern of drawn-out negotiations, continued military pressure, formal agreement, violation, confusion as to who is doing what and American loss of heart to stay the course.

So no negotiations? Not even if the junta is strengthened by the elections, by new military increments, by more economic aid, by further support from the Latin democracies?

The surprise of my week's visit is to find beating, not far beneath the official surface, an irregular but strong pulse of readiness to seek a bridge between the junta's formula of elections without negotiations and the guerrillas' formula of negotiations without elections. Military people do not say this, but civilians do--civilians as wary of their own armed forces as of the guerrillas. The common theme is, as one man put it, "I do not believe the Socialists (of the opposition) are married to the Communists or the Christian Democrats (Duarte's party) to the army."

It is hard to believe that the civilians of both sides lack channels of communication. Salvador is a small country. They were each other's best friends once; they married each other's kin. As recently as November 1980, when the armed forces massacred an above- ground group of them a few blocks from the American Embassy, open exchange was still going on. If it were up to the civilians, something could conceivably start happening.

It is not up to them. It is up to the military people on both sides. Can the guerrilla command accept a process that means less than total victory and, then, less than total power? A realist, judging the kind of people the guerrillas seem to be, must be terribly suspicious.

But a realist, judging the kind of tragedy that has overtaken El Salvador, cannot allow himself to be tyrannized by suspicion. A very great test, beyond courage in battle, faces the armed forces. I talked with the military leadership for hours, sensed its struggle to find a role suitable not only for its own institutional interests but for the country's deeper needs, and came away, I confess, unsure.

President Reagan, too, faces his own tests. They are these: to avoid the temptation, sure to be presented to him by some Salvadorans and some Americans, too, to go for a quick military victory; to set a tone and course that will bre oing a jittery American opinion along with him over the long haul; to be faithful not so much to the side, with all its internal failings, to which two presidents have been committed in Salvador, as to the cause of democratic reform so long as its flag still flies; to encourage, unmistakably, those variant and sensitive forces of the junta and the society that understand the desperation animating their counterparts on the other side and who ache to reach out to them.