The handwriting on the crumpled letter is childish. The words are simple:

"Dear Brother and Sister-in-Law: It is very cold. They sent us to dig a trench for a cannon. I'm on top of a hill. It is a pretty place. You can see the whole sea, the town, the coast. It's all very beautiful, but not when you're here like this, sleeping in a cave underground and eating only when the mess truck comes around.

"They told us today that the English would come between the 24th and the 28th and the fighting would start, but I don't believe a word of it, because the news on the radio says the negotiations are still going . . . .

"Don't worry about me, the only bad thing is the wind and the cold . . . . I love you very much and I miss you. Guillermo."

In a small square house in this faraway village on the pampas, Jorge Duverni, 27, reads and rereads his brother's last letter. Until three weeks, ago, Guillermo, 18, a private in the Argentine Army, wrote his family every day from the Falkland Islands, known here only as the Malvinas.

"But we've heard no news since April 27," said Duverni, a coach at the local technical school. "We've sent three prepaid telegrams--you get 11 words, no charge--just so he could tell us he's fine. But nothing. Every day I'm scared they're going to tell me he's dead."

In Carlos Casares, a dusty little town in a cornfield five hours' drive from Buenos Aires, they call it la situacion, or el problema.

More than a thousand miles southeast of here, in the middle of the ocean, men are dying. But it is a situation, a problem. No one wants to call it a war.

Duverni and his neighbors sit glued to their transistors. But the government-controlled radio does not talk about dead Argentine boys. The chatter is of victory and downed English planes and how the British landing has been "controlled."

"One day we woke up and we heard that we had invaded the Malvinas Islands," said Mabel Gutierrez, a doctor's wife here. "It is a struggle we were not ready for. We don't want to believe that we are a country at war. We don't think about where this might take us . . . maybe to a third world war."

For the time being, the doubters are few. No one knows how many have died, so the cost of the April 2 "recuperation" of the islands--seized by Britain 149 years ago--is unclear. The hearts of most Argentines are still swelled with pride that finally, as they have been taught since nursery school, "the Malvinas are Argentina's."

"My brother wanted to go," said Duverni. "We are fighting for Argentine territory. We must defend what is ours. Yes, many mothers are suffering. But if we have to go, we have to go."

Winter is coming to the pampas. This morning, a thin coat of frost spread across the flat field of gold and green. Windmills turned slowly. White egrets took refuge among the Black Angus in the shadows of eucalyptus trees. The stillness stretched out to the horizon.

In the village, which serves a population of about 20,000, bicycles darted among shiny Ford pickups and a few horse-drawn carts. In little coffee shops, farmers with silk scarves tied around their throats and bombachas, the cossack-like pantaloons of the countryside, drank the strong mate' tea.

This is the breadbasket of Argentina, a vast plain where some of the rich topsoil is 12 feet deep and the settlers, mostly Italian and Spanish immigrants, have prospered, raising grass-grown beef and exporting grain, most recently to the Soviet Union. El Rotary Club and Club de Leones flourish. Businesses shut down from noon to three so everyone can go home for their bife, akin to a T-bone, and a siesta.

"In America and Great Britain, they think we're 300 years behind," said Carlos Staffolani, private secretary to the town administrator. "But we're not as weak as they suppose. I pray this will end in peace. But if we have to fight, we will fight."

The town has done its bit. More than a dozen local youths are serving in the military down south. The volunteer firemen have collected door-to-door for the Patriotic Fund, the government's money-raising effort for the war. The television station here held a 10-hour telethon where people donated wedding rings and religious medals to the cause. The farm bureau is holding an auction next week, and all local farmers are expected to contribute cows and grain.

At the General San Martin High School, principal Jorge O. Quintana proudly displayed a flowered notebook full of names, a list the school has compiled of blood donors in case they are needed. Students have sent packages of food, letters and hand-knit scarves to the front, he said.

"I am a Christian Democrat," said Quintana, who wore a tiny Argentine flag of the lapel of his tweed jacket. "I oppose the military government. But today, no matter what our politics, I don't know anyone who disagrees with what we've done. If anyone asked me to replace a boy on the Malvinas, I'd go."

Quintana's only son will turn 18 in September and enter the military service. What if he dies? "I don't want to think about it," Quintana said.

As he spoke, a loudspeaker blasted music from the courtyard, where 200 children in white frocks and blue blazers sang "The Malvinas March."

"Although you are absent, you are conquered,

Under a foreign flag,

No ground is more beloved

Than our fatherland in its extension . . .

The lost austral pearl."

Jorge Abate, 47, in a modest home adjoining his bicycle repair shop, is more confused than inspired. His son, Roberto, 19, is a sailor on the aircraft carrier 25th of May. Abate wrings his grease-smeared hands. "Why are the English so cruel?" he asks. "They are killing a lot of people today."

On television the other night, President Leopoldo Galtieri suggested that Argentina might have to sacrifice 40,000 soldiers. "I don't like that," Abate said. "Before one boy dies--whether he be English or Argentine--we should sit down and divide up the islands."

Abate's neighbors, he said, want to fight the British "but they don't want their own sons to be touched."

Mabel Gutierrez, the doctor's wife, knows what it is to lose a son. Her youngest boy, Alejandro Enrique, was abducted by security police on July 24, 1978, one of five desaparecidos from Carlos Casares. Like many of the estimated 10,000 who "disappeared" during the government's antiterrorist war, Alejandro was a Marxist, but his only crime, she said, was to distribute inflammatory leaflets.

"This government was desperate," Gutierrez said. "Two million people were out of work. The disappeared are a big political problem for the military. They invaded the Malvinas so they could pull a curtain across the internal problems of the country."

But Gutierrez is something of an outcast in a village where fervent patriotism is the norm.

"Liberty is not easy. Didn't John Kennedy say that?" asked Ruben D. Diaz, a local veterinarian. "We say sovereignty isn't easy either."

Reflecting widespread resentment of the United States, Diaz said the British would never have invaded without the use of the American-leased base on Ascension Island. "The U.S. is traitor to the cause of America," he said. "It is no longer the older brother who defends us."

Across town at his prosperous grain dealership, Adolfo Grobocopatel chats with a client. "Corn is at 123," he said. "Bad, very bad. It should be at 140. It's the problem, the situation. The situation is going to destroy the economy. I can't see why the diplomats can't arrange things."