Buenos Aires — With Britain poised to take the Falklands capital of Port Stanley, the moment of truth for the Argentine Army has come.
As the war intensifies, reports of differences on the wisdom of pursuing the war escalate.
But if there are sharp divisions within the ruling junta and among top military commanders as to how to conduct the war that seems increasingly to have tilted in favor of the advancing British troops, Argentina is giving no public sign of weakening its resolve to fight on.
With strategic Mt. Kent overlooking Port Stanley falling into British hands June 1, Argentina is bracing itself for what the junta believes could be a war of attrition. The Argentine garrison, some 7,000 strong, dug in around Port Stanley, is believed to have a two-month supply of food on hand. Moreover, Argentina is insisting that supplies have been able to penetrate the blockade imposed on the islands by the Royal Navy and that its troops are sufficiently entrenched to offer stiff resistance.
Military sources believe British troops will find the taking of Stanley a costly affair--even though they are less than 10 miles from the capital at this writing--and that this toll would place severe pressures on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to bow to some of the more dovish members of her Cabinet and seek a negotiated settlement with Argentina.
Although reports reaching London allege captured Argentine prisoners are disheartened and underfed, military sources in Buenos Aires appear far from demoralized by events so far.
There is also little doubt here that Lt. Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez, the Argentine military governor of Stanley, is a man of his word and will continue the war regardless of recent British gains on the ground.
''General Menendez would rather commit suicide than surrender without putting up a fight,'' said one military source.
General Menendez is professionally a faithful reflection of his commander in chief, Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri--a tough no-nonsense soldier whose career was molded out of a no-holds-barred war against left-wing guerrillas. The Army's war against the guerrillas was a cruel ''dirty'' one, lacking any lasting popular appeal.
General Menendez has an added incentive spurring him on toward ''heroic resistance.'' Of the three branches of the armed forces, all of which are represented in the ruling junta and which therefore have the political fallout of a possible defeat to consider, the Army remains the one in most urgent need of medals.
The Navy, for instance, won wide public sympathy and military honors as a result of the tragic sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano; the Air Force has also boosted its reputation by leading skillful and courageous attacks on the British task force. But the Army had until recently played a relatively low profile role in the conflict. The British Defense Ministry claimed June 1 that 250 Argentine soldiers were killed during the battle for Goose Green settlement May 28.
Yet these setbacks are apparently not deterring the occupying Argentine forces.
Strategists are insisting that a high-level decision was taken as early as April 8 to concentrate the bulk of Army defense in Port Stanley, and leave only tokens of pocket resistance in other parts of the islands. Argentine troops stationed in Darwin were reinforced by troops from West Falkland, but the request of the local commander for more backup from Stanley was turned down by General Menendez, who insisted on sticking to the original strategy.
Reports of differences within high-ranking military circles on the wisdom of pursuing the war were highlighted by denials of reports appearing in the British media.
Navy sources in Buenos Aires accused the British media of misrepresenting statements made by Adm. Ramon Arosa, a top adviser to the military junta, which suggested that Argentine spirits were flagging in the face of British military successes.
Admiral Arosa is reported to have said that he didn't believe that the Falklands were worth fighting for and, ''by military standards worth that amount of victims or bloodshed.''
But Navy sources insisted that Admiral Arosa has been sharply edited and quoted out of context, and that he had been referring to British troops and not to the Argentines.
Admiral Arosa was interviewed by the British TV program Newsnight of the BBC May 27, before the battle for Darwin, and his statements were subsequently requoted this week by a number of British newspapers, including The Times of London.
''I don't understand this conflict. I don't understand this madness. Many ships, many aircraft, many people have been lost. Of course everyone can replace ships and aircraft, but what can't be replaced are men. And unfortunately many men have died,'' Admiral Arosa told Newsnight.
The admiral added, ''This is an awful part of the conflict. I don't accept that such a price should be paid for a problem like the Malvinas.''
There was no official comment May 31 in Buenos Aires on the reported heavy casualties suffered by Argentine troops during the battle for Darwin. But the military junta did issue a communique reporting on the heavy losses suffered by the British task force so far in the conflict. According to Argentina, the losses include 25 Harrier jets, 22 helicopters, and about 20 war vessels either sunk or seriously damaged. The British limit their own losses to five ships and 15 planes and helicopters.
Argentine military sources meanwhile were continuing to insist June 1 that an Exocet missile had damaged and put out of action a British aircraft carrier May 30, severely limiting the attacking capacity of the oncoming British troops. Britain flatly denies that either of its aircraft carriers had been hit.
Even if the Argentine claim of a hit on HMS Invincible proves inaccurate, Argentine military sources still believe that British troops now taking up positions near Port Stanley will face severe problems of supply and air cover.
The Argentine Air Force is continuing to launch a series of bombing raids on British positions, for the apparent aim of neutralizing the air strip on Goose Green and cutting off the link between San Carlos Bay and Stanley.
Buenos Aires still insists that the Air Force far from being a spent force has enough pilots--an estimated four for every one plane--and enough machines to keep up the pressure. Domestic production of the short-takeoff Pucara plane, which is proving effective in attacking troop concentrations, has been stepped up. ''We might be losing about two every fortnight, but we're producing an average of two a day,'' says one military officer.
Military sources also claim that the British have miscalculated the number of Exocet missiles that Argentina has ready to use on the British task force. Quite apart from third-party military assistance being offered by Arab and Latin American countries, military sources in Buenos Aires are hinting that Argentina may have converted a number of sea-to-sea missiles, normally carried by Argentine war vessels, into air-to-sea missiles for use by Super Entendard planes, has proved so effective in the sinking of the Sheffield.