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A REMARKABLE event is quietly taking place behind closed doors in Vienna -- a private seminar of the military chiefs of 35 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union. U.S and Soviet generals have exchanged good-will visits before, but this comprehensive gathering of military minds for three weeks of discussions would have been unthinkable not too long ago.

"Perhaps the most surprising thing is that we're all here at all," the British defense chief said in recognizing the unprecedented nature of the gathering.

The seminar, one of the follow-ups to the 1975 Helsinki conference, is designed as a confidence-building measure, and it features discussions, not negotiations. It includes the 16 members of NATO and the seven members of the rival Warsaw Pact, but the mood at the conference is conciliatory rather than confrontational.

Since the scheduling of the event, it has been given new importance by the fall of Communist governments in Eastern Europe.

Five of the seven Warsaw Pact military chiefs attending the meeting were appointed in just the past month, and they reportedly have stressed the national character of their armed forces and the need for arms cuts.

Some Warsaw Pact members are pressing for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from their countries, but there was no talk at the conference of any withdrawals from the alliance.

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the gathering: "We must educate each other, and we must break down walls and build bridges." He said that "East and West have reached a common conclusion that the era of confrontation must end."

His Soviet counterpart was equally conciliatory, noting Soviet troop cuts and the new Soviet "defensive military doctrine."

It is hard to assess what results might come from the unprecedented conference, but the exchange of views is bound to be constructive. The informal contacts, too, at luncheons, dinners and other occasions over a period of three weeks, will give everyone deeper insights into the military thinking on both sides.

Usually, it is the civilian leaders who establish policy for the military to follow, but the current conference could work the other way, contributing significantly to the complex process of forging new ties between East and West.

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