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Former US admiral challenges basis of military thinking

In the environs of Washington, D.C., there are probably more admirals and generals per square mile then anywhere else on earth. The weight of brass here is really extraordinary, especially when those who retire to nearby Virginia farms or join consulting firms around the Capital Beltway are added to their active-duty brethren at the Pentagon.

Among these past and present senior military officers crowded in and around the Capital of the Free World, few are more controversial than Gene La Rocque.

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A retired United States Navy rear admiral with 31 years of active duty, Admiral La Rocque for 13 years has been firing salvos of criticism and broadsides of pointed analysis at the defense establishment.

With a small group of like-minded former senior military officers and dedicated staff, backed up by foundation grants and some well-known public supporters (including Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward), he is an iconoclast with a world vision not usually found among those who spend most of their lives in uniform. He's a man who once scheduled 20 minutes for a visit from the late futurist Buckminster Fuller and ended up spending three hours discussing global power grids.

The group he founded and heads - the Center for Defense Information - issues regular lengthy reports on defense matters and foreign policy, frequently rebutting the assertions of the Defense Department on such subjects as relative US-Soviet military strength, the utility of weapons in space, and nuclear weapons testing. CDI has 30,000 contributing members, and its regular publication - The Defense Monitor - is read in 50 countries.

''We have four points of focus,'' he said in a recent interview. ''The first is to prevent a nuclear war. The second is to avoid buying weapons we don't need and paying too much for those we do buy. The third is to maintain and strengthen civilian control of the military. And the fourth is to maintain a strong national defense posture.''

''You may not like our conclusions,'' he added, ''but nobody has successfully challenged our facts.''

Admiral La Rocque has testified before Congress and the United Nations special sessions on disarmament and traveled to 86 countries to speak and meet with military and political leaders. During the Carter administration, he was frequently called upon to advise the White House on subjects such as US troop levels in South Korea, arms control, and the Panama Canal Treaty.

Since 1981 and the political turnover, such invitations have waned, although La Rocque still addresses the war colleges and keeps in touch with US military and diplomatic officials. And the military establishment in general doesn't think much of this gadfly admiral, whom one former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has publicly called a ''dupe.'' Other fellow ex-admirals privately disparage his career in service and ask why he never earned more than two stars.

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Such criticisms may not be surprising, since he challenges some of the most fundamental ideas about the US military: the notions that the US has vital military interests around the world; that US forces should be used to ''exercise power''; and that there can be anything honorable about war. He is particularly troubled by the ''nuclearization'' of US military forces (80 percent of all US warships routinely carry nuclear weapons, he says) and the increased preparations for acting quickly - he would say unthinkingly - with a military response to world troubles.

''I think we should not have a rapid-deployment force, but a slow-deployment force,'' he asserts. ''We should be sending them in very slowly and carefully and thinking about why we're going there and what it is we want to achieve.''

Such thinking is just the opposite of most current expert opinion on how the United States should be developing its military might, but La Rocque does speak from considerable personal experience.

Commissioned just before World War II, he was aboard a destroyer in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He spent the whole war on fighting ships in the Pacific and participated in 13 major naval battles. He remembers feeling great relief when the submarine he detected and ordered sunk in fact turned out to be Japanese and not American, even though he knew the boat's crew had perished. His ship had not gotten a good navigation fix in two days, and the crew wasn't exactly sure where it was.

''I loved the sea. I loved ships. I loved command,'' he recalls. ''I had my first command (it was of a destroyer escort) when I was 27.'' Later he commanded a cruiser armed with nuclear weapons, a destroyer division, and an aircraft-carrier task group. He spent 16 years at sea.

La Rocque also spent three tours of duty at the Pentagon, totaling seven years, all of it in joint strategic planning. Here plans were made for how to support and fight a conventional or nuclear war. And here La Rocque was struck by the interservice rivalry that undercut broader concerns about national interest as well as by the frightening nature of formulating strategy with worldwide ramifications, often based on what he saw as faulty assumptions.

''I worked with the chief of naval operations and the Joint Chiefs as a young commander just out of the fleet,'' he recalls. ''I was impressed with the fact that these people were just ordinary mortals struggling with the problems. They didn't know a heck of a lot more than anybody else.''

Later, La Rocque was picked by then-Navy Secretary Paul Nitze (in 1968) to head up a group of senior officers ordered to study the conduct of the Vietnam war. ''We went to Vietnam. We had the whole Pentagon at our disposal. I briefed (Defense Secretary Robert) McNamara,'' he says. ''After nine months of study, we became absolutely convinced that there was no way we could win that war in Vietnam, absolutely none.'' He says he argued with the US force commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, but lost the argument.

When, after more than three decades in the Navy, he took off his uniform for the last time, he had already rented space for his new organization and begun hiring people. He was pretty much by himself for a few years - ''that crazy admiral out there'' - but today La Rocque has another retired rear admiral as his deputy director and two major generals, a colonel, and a Navy captain as full-time associate directors.

He says he believes the best way to avert nuclear war is to freeze new weapons testing. Eventually, he says, existing warheads and missiles will start to leak and rust, and neither superpower could feel confident about being able to launch a first strike.

''When we had them all, we could just threaten to use them and get our way in the world,'' he says, recalling his days at the Pentagon during the Cuban missile crisis. ''But those days are gone. There's no more bluffing. Now each side can destroy each other, and there is nothing either side can do to prevent destruction.''

La Rocque says he doesn't think it is possible to ''disinvent'' nuclear weapons entirely. In fact, he adds, there may be too much focus on the weapons themselves and how to control them. Instead, he insists, more attention should be placed on reducing the tensions that lead to bigger and more-destructive arsenals.

He has a new idea that's just beginning to develop. ''Project 2000,'' he calls it, a plan to get the West Europeans to act as a bridge between superpowers by having all three work on such relatively benign but important mutual problems as forestry, agronomy, and mining. So far, he's gotten several Europeans interested (including former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim). And, says La Rocque, a first secretary from the Soviet Embassy said ''he thought we could expect a favorable response.''

That may make him a ''dupe'' in the minds of some. But he believes the most frightening alternative - the ''utter insanity'' of nuclear war - makes the effort worthwhile.

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