Argentina may court-martial war generals

The Argentine military junta that took this nation into war with Britain over the Falkland Islands is on the verge of being court-martialed. As a special military commission winds up its nine-month investigation of the Argentine war defeat, the brunt of responsibility will apparently be heaped on the three-member junta, led by Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, that governed at that time, and the Army commander and Falkland governor, Brig. Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez.

But two civilians are also targeted in the commission's findings - former Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez and former Economy Minister Roberto Teodoro Alemann. Civil trials for the two men are recommended.

The commission, headed by Lt. Gen. Benjamin Rattanbach (Ret.), takes the view that the war was essentially a shortsighted venture, given Argentina's troubling domestic problems. The junta is specifically blamed for ''failing to comprehend'' this issue.

The commission's findings have yet to be made public - and indeed may not be issued for some months due to the current presidential election campaign, which is expected to return the government to civilian hands after eight years of military rule.

But sources close to the commission say the findings will be particularly critical of Generals Galtieri and Menendez. Menendez is taken to task for concentrating the defense of the islands around the capital, Port Stanley, and not responding quickly enough to the early British landings on the islands.

It is clear that the commission views the war as a mistake. Commission members, like most Argentines, think that the Falklands, which Argentina calls the Malvinas, have been held illegally by Britain for 150 years. But to wage a war for the islands at a time of acute domestic political and economic crisis was ''sheer folly,'' in the words of one source.

Moreover, the junta is accused by the commission of lacking coherent defensive strategy, being unprepared for the war, having no concrete plans, and being ''disorganized.''

The war began April 2 when Argentine forces invaded the islands, ousted a small British garrison, and gave the capital, Port Stanley, a new name, Puerto Argentino. Subsequently, Britain mobilized an armada of ships and sent it to the south Atlantic to retake the islands. That task was not easy - given the long supply line linking the British fleet with its home bases. But the British eventually gained a toehold on the islands and by June 14 had closed in on Port Stanley and forced Argentine troops to hoist white flags.

It was in many ways a disastrous and costly war for both nations - but the Argentine commission is only concerned with the Argentine situation. More than 650 Argentines lost their lives, with a heavy loss of airplanes and one naval cruiser.

Although the commission's investigation is now virtually concluded, General Rattanbach and Argentina's current military leaders face a problem of when to release the findings and when to move ahead with prosecution of those accused in the commission report.

To release the report now might well have an impact on national elections, scheduled for Oct. 30. But to release them after the new government takes power could prove embarrassing for that government. There is some speculation that the report might be released between election day and the inauguration. But that, too, could prove difficult for both the outgoing military and the incoming civilians.

Two further complications exist:

* The civilians mentioned in the findings, Mr. Costa Mendez and Mr. Alemann, are expected to argue that the military commission has no authority to dictate terms in the civilian arena. They may try to drag proceedings on for years, which could have consequences for any military court-martial.

* An amnesty law - which would exonerate the Argentine military from responsibility for any alleged crimes committed during military rule - is expected to be issued soon. Such a law apparently may absolve the military of responsibility for human rights violations during its rule.

It is not clear yet how such an amnesty law would affect the prosecution of the military for its conduct of Falklands war.

However, it is understood that Galtieri, Menendez, Costa Mendez, Alemann, as well as the Navy and Air Force leaders during the war - Adm. Jorge Isaac Anaya and Brig. Gen. Basilio Ignacio Lami Dozo - have begun talking with lawyers in preparation for possible trials.

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