This is a year of anniversaries -- in Vietnam, in postwar Europe -- that invite meditation on the collective responsibility of a people for its government's acts. There is no better place to explore this subject just now than Argentina, a country in the throes of deciding how accountable it wishes to be for a huge foreign debt incurred under a now discredited government and one that is also about to put the military leadership of that government on trial for atrocities committed against thousands of Argentines.

Is it fair to make the people pay for the financial follies of a junta that seized power and ruled by force? Is it fair to blame those military leaders for acts of repression they insist were taken in defense of the nation's security? How far down the military chain of command should the calling to account go? And to what extent were these security forces doing their brutal work with the tacit consent of the people? Argentina in the spring (its fall) of 1985 is an arena in which you can see some of the most familiar and painful issues of our times being fought out -- yet again.

In fact, throughout South America, where democratic civilian governments have inherited crippling debts from the military regimes they replaced, you will hear from time to time the complaint that these foreign debts are a result of both corruption and extremely disadvantageous deals made by an "illegitimate" regime whose misjudgments and depredations the country can hardly be held responsible for. In this country there is also a school which holds that the quasi- official Argentine bankers and financiers who arranged the transactions were not even acting as agents of the Argentine people, let alone in their interests.

I am not concerned here with the blame (there is plenty) that rests on the lenders and lender-countries themselves or even with the culpability of the Argentines who made the deals. What interests me is the underlying implication of this particular view. It is that it was someone or something other than the current aggregation of people and institutions we call Argentina that accumulated the debt. This inclination to deny and disown a relatively recent national past is important. Only intermittently expressed in relation to the debt, it is much more in evidence where the period of brutality for which the military are about to be tried is concerned. Whether it prevails or is rejected strikes me as the key to whether or not the Argentine democracy can succeed.

The Alfonsin government is clear on this. It has provided copious open official acknowledgment of the fact that in the 1970s officially sanctioned military-security forces kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands upon thousands of Argentines, many of them adolescent children, without charges ever having been brought, without any chance for physical or legal defense, without any notification ever having been given their families (to this day) as to why they were abducted or what happened to them. A government- initiated report has been issued. The testimony of survivors and kin abounds.

In Buenos Aires, much of the anxiety over the pending trials concerns the threat of civil disorder when relatives of the dead and others who demand a fuller accounting than the government has yet provided clash with supporters of the military who believe that even these proceedings are a travesty -- a betrayal of men who were doing their duty in defense of their country. "War is hell," a retired general instructed a group of us the other day, by way of justifying what he would only concede were perhaps a few repressive "excesses." (This term "excesses," always by large- scale human-rights violators, is worth considering. It strongly and, of course, falsely suggests that decent and reasonable procedures were being followed except for the odd, unauthorized burst of sadistic enthusiasm on the part of a foot soldier or two.)

It is thought that there are many Argentines who support the military in this and will rally to its side in any showdown with President Raul Alfonsin. It is known that there are many, many others who abhor what happened in the '70s and who want the trials to go forward. But to my mind, far and away the most important and interesting members of the society are those of the impassive middle, whose silence then (and now) is variously characterized as discomfort, indifference and/or secret approval of what occurred. These are people who were acquiescent in the past and who would now like the whole thing to go away. To the extent that you encounter them in Argentina they will tell you two things. One is that there were subversives and terrorists that needed to be dealt with and the other is that, under a military dictatorship, there was nothing they could do.

The first of these assertions, though true, does nothing to explain or extenuate the bloody extravaganza of vengeance that was carried out against innocent citizens. The second is not true. More than anything else I have been struck in South America by the dynamic that compelled military governments to yield finally to civilian alternatives without an armed struggle. There was such a thing as public opinion and public pressure under their authoritarian rule. There were public expectations that had to be met. There was a critical force of public disapprobation that they felt they had to avoid or defuse. These societies had ways of resisting short of the Warsaw ghetto model. The Argentine public forced the junta out over the Falklands disgrace and the economic disaster. It could have affected the junta's sense of freedom to carry out its systematic tortures.

This country is famous for its idiosyncratic, factional, escapist brand of politics. That prevented people from coming together to stop the bloodshed then, and many will tell you that it will prevent them from coming together now to take responsibility either for what they previously tolerated or for each other's current fate. They will, this analysis goes, continue to resist that condition of nationhood which demands an acceptance of continuity, interconnection and accountability as a people. Until the Argentines have faced up to this one, their fragile, newborn democracy will be at risk.