The notion of a nice little limited war in the South Atlantic is fast dissolving. The British repudiated it by sinking an Argentine cruiser in an action that left hundreds of men missing--a Anumber that seemed to many so out of proportion to the generally assumed scale of the conflict that it threatened to cost Britain a good part of the moral advantage it has so far enjoyed. Quite soon, however, the enraged Argentines responded somewhat in kind, sinking a British destroyer and downing one or more British jets with, again, perhaps hundreds of lives put at risk, though apparently smaller losses..

So first blood--first major blood--and then some has been drawn by both sides. Is it not exactly the moment for the two of them to pause and to contemplate the further damage they might inflict upon each other and to look harder for ways to back out of this still hard-to-believe war?

Mrs. Thatcher's government, it turns out, is finding that some of its European allies and some of its own citizens are turning away from the spectacle of what they regard as excessive violence and bellicosity. The generals in Argentina are collecting a certain amount of Latin tea and sympathy for being engaged in a conflict with a European power, but it is not at all clear how this can translate into the kind of support that will enable Buenos Aires to stand up under hardening military and, perhaps even more important, economic pressure.

It is more essential than ever to keep in mind that there is no great dispute over the ultimate possession of the land for which lives are now being lost. The argument is simply over the manner--aggression--in which Argentina took that land a month ago. Crazy as it seems, it remains not just possible but likely that, when all this is over, Argentina's craving for sovereignty over the islands will be satisfied. For years the British have not wanted sovereignty, just fair treatment--true, sometimes favored treatment--for the people of British stock who happened to live there.

The casualties should not be allowed to inflame passions and obscure the basis on which mediation of the Argentine-British dispute remains possible. What is required, after all, is not the further humiliation of Argentina, or a demonstration of more martial determination by the British, and certainly not the loss of further lives. What is required is that the two of them, helped by their friends, stop the shooting and resume talking and end this war.