Buenos Aires — Stung by its bitter defeat in the Falkland Islands, the Argentine military at week's end was struggling to put a new face on its six-year hold on power here.
The first to go -- the obvious scapegoat for the Falklands fiasco - is Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri. Many of the country's top military men now wish he had gone long ago.
At time of writing, the best the ruling military could come up with was a temporary arrangement, replacing General Galtieri in his two roles as President and commander in chief of the Army with two generals:
* Gen. Alfredo Oscar Saint Jean, interior minister for the last six months, becomes interim President.
* Gen. Cristino Nicolaides, commander of the Army's I Corps in Buenos Aires, takes over as commander in chief of the Army.
The first announcements of the change late Thursday stressed the temporary nature of it all. There is still a great deal of fluidity in the top power structure with other names likely to surface as the Army, Navy, and Air Force huddled in almost continuous sessions to work out a new leadership for this nation that has been so badly humiliatated in the Falklands war.
But generals Saint Jean and Nicolaides, having taken over in a temporary role , do have an advantage over other candidates in that they are in place.
Moreover, General Saint Jean as interior minister has shown himself to be a very able politician. He kept a steady hand on the domestic political tiller throughout the Falklands conflict and is well liked by the military. He also has developed friendships with many civilian politicians.
But at the same time he is tainted by being too close to General Galtieri over the past six months. General Nicolaides has commanded Army units in Corrintes and Cordoba provinces and in Argentina's south, a situation that has given him plenty of contact with different elements in the Army. He is well liked among top officers.
General Galtieri, who tried desperately to hold onto power was told at midday Thursday that he was out. The messenger was Maj. Gen. Jose Antonio Vaquero, the Army chief of staff, who is understood to have turned down both posts for himself.
General Vaquero, however, continues to play a role in the discussions about the new leadership. He has stressed the temporary nature of the new setup.
In this vein, the big question then centers on General Galtieri's ultimate successor. So far, there is no agreement. If neither General Saint Jean or Nicolaides succeed in making the temporary arrangement more permanent then it is likely that another Army general will emerge since this would follow normal tradition here.
However, there are those in the military who want to throw tradition to the winds.
Lights at the headquarters burned late Wednesday as generals, colonels, and majors discussed the succession. General Galtieri must have known his days as head of Argentina were numbered. But he appeared at first determined to hold on.
''He will have to be pushed,'' one top colonel stated Thursday. ''He won't go quietly.''
The big question was who would succeed General Galtieri. On that matter it was hard to find agreement.
Many Argentines would have liked to see a civilian tapped for the job. But, once again, the military insisted on hanging grimly onto the reins of government. And, once again, tradition was followed in the military's choice of an Army general.
Some military officers - and their number is growing - would have been content to throw tradition to the winds. Had that happened, the most likely choice would have been a government headed by Air Brig. (Gen.) Basilio Ignacio Lami Dozo, who among top officers connected with the Falklands adventure distinguished himself as no one else.
Without Brigadier Lami Dozo's Air Force, the battle for the Falklands would probably have been won by the British even sooner. The Air Force scored the biggest Argentine war victories.
It was not just the Air Force feats that propelled Brigadier Lami Dozo into the top rank of potential successors to Galtieri. Officers from all the services respect him for his intelligence, integrity, and coolness under fire. Moreover, he is a team player; he did not seek the Falklands campaign, but once it was set , he threw himself into it.
But the Lami Dozo candidacy had one major problem: He is an Air Force officer , representing the junior of the three services.
It would have taken the swallowing of considerable military pride for Army and Navy officers to turn to Lami Dozo. Ironically, he alone among the names that were advanced for the top position would certainly have had more public support than any other military man on the horizon. Even now, he may yet take the eventual leadership.
In addition to the Army candidates there were naval possibilities. Vice-Adm. Juan Jose Lombardo, who headed Navy field operations in the Falkland war, was perhaps the top naval possibility. He kept the Navy in port during much of the war rather than sending it out to be wasted against the superior British naval fleet. He argued it was better to preserve the Navy for an eventual war with Chile.
That sort of reasoning appeals to officers, many of whom say Argentina will someday go to war with Chile ''to teach those upstarts a lesson,'' as one Army officer phrased it.