The colonel, attached to the Spanish Army general staff headquarters here, was finishing his after-lunch coffee and cognac. "The coup attempt, even though it failed, was positive," he said. "That's what the military thinks." He said it with the reasonable tone of a man speaking a self-evident truth.

The colonel listed what he viewed as the positive aspects of the failed putsch of February, 1981: "It shook the politicians, the separatists and the terrorists when they needed shaking. In the past year, things have gotten better. Anybody can see that."

Two miles from the military's country club where the luncheon took place, 32 officers are being tried in a four-month-old court-martial for the attempt to overthrow parliamentary government here. Final arguments have been made in the trial, and the sentencing has been set for June 3.

The sentences will be a key measure of the health of Spain's young democracy. Most civilians, apart from a right-wing fringe, appear to hope for stiff prison terms to signal to the world and to Spaniards themselves that democracy has taken root here. Anything else, according to this line of thinking, augurs ill for the future of representative government.

Army officers, however, say they are hoping for lenient treatment of the accused. In interviews about the trial, neither the colonel at the country club nor a major working at the Defense Ministry suggested that the coup attempt was in any way reprehensible. Instead, they were impressed by the loyalty that the plotters demonstrated to each other during the abortive putsch.

The different reactions to the trial underline the separateness of the Army from the rest of Spanish society. The Army seems to be groping for an identity in the post-Franco era, as democracy and economic progress have eroded much of its old prestige.

"Under Franco, we were proper citizens," the major explained. "We all lived in Franco's reflected glory, and people were proud to be officers. That had all changed by the mid-60s, when Spain started booming economically and became materialistic."

"With democracy, the discrimination started," the major continued. "People started joining political parties and labor unions and writing freely in the press. We weren't allowed to. We were just told to shut up, to keep quiet, not to make our presence felt."

While the Army's reputation was fading before, the trial has tarnished it further. With public interest at a high level and detailed coverage in the press, the defendants have given the impression of trying to escape responsibility by pleading innocence or arguing that they were "just following orders." They have contradicted each other's testimony and, on occasion, nearly come to blows.

Criticizing the defendants' behavior at a dinner party, a sociology professor who teaches at Madrid's university said, "When a coup fails, the tradition is that a Spanish officer refuses a blindfold when he faces the firing squad, and, if allowed, he himself gives the order to fire." His fellow guests agreed.

For this reason, some Spaniards see the trial as a watershed. The coup not only failed, but its protagonists also failed to make any political capital. Coups from now on, they say, will be read about in history books and not beamed to the world by Madrid television as was the February 1981 attack on the Spanish parliament.

Others, less sanguine, see some truth in the colonel's view: the coup did have an impact. Terrorism, though still a problem, has slackened. There is less heady talk about privileges for the disparate regions that make up Spain and an attempt by major parties to slow the drift toward decentralization that marked the first days of democracy.

The prosecutor is seeking 30-year sentences for the two star defendents: Civil Guard Col. Antonio Tejero, who led the seizure of the Congress of Deputies, and Gen. Jaime Milans del Bosch, who imposed martial law in the eastern Valencia region he commanded and urged fellow regional commanders to do the same. Others, like Maj. Ricardo Pardo Zancada, who joined Tejero in the Congress building, face 15 years for military rebellion, and a number of captains who followed Tejero and Pardo Zancada face six.

Any sentence above 12 years means that the officer is automatically stripped of his rank and decorations in what amounts to a dishonorable discharge.

"Milans can't get more than 12 years," said the colonel. "It's not possible to throw his service sheet into the wastepaper basket and pretend it never existed."

Milans is something of a Patton-type figure in the Spanish Army and the possessor of virtually every medal available.

Any sentence from three to 12 years means that the officer is discharged from the Army but retains his rank and pension rights.

"Leniency means that from major downward, they should all get under three years and stay in the Army," said the colonel. "Ricardo Pardo Zancada should not be discharged."

Pardo Zancada has emerged as new myth-material during the hearings for joining the coup after it had demonstrably failed.

"I hoped that by my personal sacrifice, I could move the conscience in the future of my fellow officers who criticize the command chain while having a drink in the bar but do not have the courage to act," he said during the trial.

Such determination impressed the colonel, who lauded the plotters' discipline.

"The coup people behaved impeccably," the colonel said. "The most a congressman can claim is that Tejero or one of his men looked at him in a threatening manner. That's natural. They just felt contempt for the politicians."

The colonel also exulted in Milans' ease in slapping down martial law in the Valencia region.

"No one stepped out of line; not one said he wasn't going along. If Milans had not bowed down and pulled out his troops, other divisions would have had to take on the Valencia people from the outside. Would other generals have fought Milans? Who knows what would have happened?"

The colonel's claims may be only bravado. In the end, Milans obeyed King Juan Carlos' order to lift martial law. In addition, only four Madrid tank captains under the command of Pardo Zancada heeded the Valencian general's call to action after the monarch threatened that a rebellion against the constitution would be "over my dead body."

Furthermore, a middle-ranking artillery officer and Army oddity--he is a convinced democrat of left-leaning views--had an opposite story: "I know of officers in Valencia who were sent home or were not alerted on the day of the coup because Milans' men did not trust them, and the same is true of Madrid. I was in Barcelona at the time, and if the captain general had ordered us onto the streets, I and others would have refused to obey."

The artillery officer confirmed the extreme conservatism and pro-Franco mentality of his colleagues but denied that they were geared for action: "Even if a coup was backed by the king himself, 40 percent of officers wouldn't want to go along if hostilities were involved. The typical reaction is: 'My father was killed in 1936 the Spanish Civil War and for what? Do I go through a rebellion again so that the bankers and the politicians come out on top as before? I don't want to be played around with again.' "

According to all three officers interviewed, the odds at present are that stiff sentences will be handed down. But the military is also actively discussing a scenario in which the 17 generals acting as judges would hand down severe prison terms but add a plea to the government to exercise clemency and substantially reduce the sentences.

Such a scenario would effectively toss the responsibility onto the civilians and test to a more extreme degree the mutual distrust among civilians and the military.

"The truth is that the generals presiding over the court-martial would like deep down to let off everyone if they could," said the pro-democratic middle-ranking officer. "When they were young, they all rebelled against the legally constituted Republican government."