June 13, 1988 12:00 PM

Tom Gervasi is a man obsessed with the business of war. From childhood into mid-life, he has commanded battalion upon battalion of tin soldiers—elegant horsemen and sturdy grenadiers and infantrymen armed for battle. In 1963, at age 25, he launched his own Army career—rising, according to one version of his mutable story, to the rank of brigadier general and working in counterintelligence. Like all proper heroes, he was brave enough to change when his dream rang hollow: Apprehensive that the intelligence community was about to intrude into civilian lives, he turned his back on the military in 1970, becoming a relentless critic of the powers he once served. Impelled by the zeal of the born-again, he has produced a series of provocative books dissecting the Pentagon and its dire view of the Soviet threat. His latest and most controversial work, Soviet Military Power: The Pentagon’s Propaganda Document, Annotated and Corrected, is a kind of kamikaze assault on the Defense Department’s favorite shibboleth. Gervasi believes that the Pentagon deliberately overstates Soviet weapons strength and capability in order to support its own spiraling arms expenditures.

Like many obsessions, Gervasi’s has exacted its toll. His critiques are inflammatory, and the Pentagon’s reaction has been predictably imperious: “We’re not going to take the time to comment on it,” a spokesman said recently. By the author’s account, others have responded more vehemently; he says he once received a telephoned bomb threat and that two men in a car fired warning shots at him as he emerged from a New York apartment building in 1981. “I just assumed it was a military contractor, somebody who didn’t like what I said,” he says lightly.

In fact, the cruelest sting has come not from the military but from his toy soldiers. In 1985, he was stricken by a creeping paralysis that slowly rendered him a quadriplegic. When the mysterious syndrome reached the muscles in his diaphragm, he was forced to wear a small respirator mask, and doctors feared for his life. For two years they fought against the paralysis without knowing its cause. Only last March did physicians discover that Gervasi’s enemy was not some obscure microbe but his collection of soldiers; he had used aluminum putty to bond the intricate molded parts of newly minted models, and the fumes and filings had poisoned his bloodstream and central nervous system. Gervasi is still confined to a wheelchair, and it is unclear whether he will recover the full use of his limbs.

Tom Gervasi, 50, lives with Wendy Leah, his 24-year-old third wife, in a turn-of-the-century town house on historic Church Hill in Richmond, Va. He is a driven man, but he has learned to be patient. Writing is physically arduous for him; he can type a bit with the help of two spring-loaded slings in which he rests his arms, but the bulk of his words must be dictated and transcribed. Wendy, a model when he met her in 1981, serves as his secretary-cum-private-duty-nurse. “I don’t have control over much in my life, but thank God she’s here,” he says. “Through her, it works.”

Once a skillful swimmer, fencer and practitioner of martial arts (he has a black belt in karate), Gervasi remains passionate in discussing the lunacy of nuclear confrontation. Cerebral and controlled, his speech unimpaired, he says he has no time for bitterness about his personal plight. “I can’t even pound my fist on the table, so it’s all internalized in some way,” he says. “So far I don’t feel any great load of rage. If there’s really nothing you can do about it, it sort of makes you calm.”

Gervasi has come a long way since the paralysis was at its worst. The attack was slow: It began with a curious weakness in his right thumb; by the end of 1986 he was having trouble walking. But he continued tinkering with the metal soldiers. “It was a wonderful thing for me when I was writing,” he says. “I’d stare at a page, and nothing would be happening, so I’d pick up a soldier and start working on it—putting it together, painting it.”

“I’d come home from work and he’d be sitting here with his magnifying glasses on, hovering over a table of a hundred of those things,” says Wendy. “He’d have putty all over his hands. And of course when it got stuck to his fingers he gnawed it to get it off.”

“I had thought there was some connection between this stuff and my illness,” Gervasi says, “but no doctor seemed to be concerned about it.” After a succession of physicians and an acupuncturist had been consulted, a New York doctor suggested that Gervasi’s blood be tested for metal contaminants. When the aluminum level was found to be abnormally high, the mystery was solved. Treatment included injections of Desferol, a chelating agent that helped draw the metal from his body. “Once the metal’s out of your system, the neuron transmission starts again. It’s slow, but that’s what happens,” says Gervasi. The doctors offer no guarantees, but he and Wendy plan to have children, and he cannot wait to begin painting soldiers again. “In general,” says Gervasi, “there’s every reason to have hope.”

Gervasi’s view of American culture has been informed by long years growing up as a U.S. citizen abroad. Until he was 18, he spent most of his time in Rome, where his father, Frank, was a news agency bureau chief and later, a regional director of the Motion Picture Association of America. “I did feel a bit like an expatriate, [particularly] during the McCarthy era. My parents had a lot of friends in the movie business and a lot of them were affected by it,” he says. The Gervasis lived in an elegant apartment, attended by three servants. Among their friends were Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer and Clare Boothe Luce. An actor and longtime ballet student, Tom considered a dancing career before opting for Harvard and “the life of the mind.”

After immersing himself in English literature and philosophy, young Gervasi decided on a career in the Army. The story of his life in the military raises more questions than he is able to answer. Army personnel records reveal no trace of him, and he recently told a reporter that his entire military experience “consisted of a six-month Army typing course at Fort Dix, N.J., in 1959.” If the truth seems elusive, it may be—as Gervasi claims—because he has been ordered not to discuss his intelligence affiliation or rank in the Army. His father and brother both maintain he was indeed a brigadier general. Moreover, Gervasi hints, the government, for reasons of its own, could have expunged his record. However there remains a possibility that Gervasi at one time decided to invent pieces of his past.

Ultimately Gervasi’s message may be more important than the troubling discrepancies in his employment record. Former CIA director William Colby says, “If the Army says he never served, I think that’s a red flag. But that still does not militate against the validity of some of his points. You look at the point being made, not the fellow who [makes] it.” It’s a view with which Gervasi heartily agrees. As for the sources of his information, he says, well-placed contacts occasionally offer leaks, but the bulk of his work is drawn from the public record. “I’m proud of that,” he says, “and I don’t want people thinking it’s based on [classified information].”

Published in March by Vintage Books, Gervasi’s new work reproduces the Pentagon’s 1987 annual report on Soviet power and picks apart numbers, political assessments and technical information. For instance, to the Pentagon claim that the Soviets have more than 5.8 million men in active military service, Gervasi retorts that the true figure is 3.7 million and the rest are reservists. By most accounts, the bo’ok is not without flaws, but it has sold 15,000 copies and fueled a debate that many Pentagon watchers consider healthy.

While Gervasi decries the lust for weapons of war, he understands their perverse allure. “I’m impressed by the extraordinary genius which produces weapons,” he says. “Yet the whole thing is so uncivilized. That’s a profound contradiction, and it fascinates me. But I’d rather fight the wars with little soldiers than see real bloodshed.”

As Gervasi has learned, even little soldiers have their darker aspect as symbols of the force with which he is obsessed. “There’s an ambivalence in any of us who enjoy pomp and circumstance, military parades and uniforms,” he says. “You admire power and the capability to perform destruction, and you also hate it. It’s the same fascination you get watching a snake rearing up to strike. You know the danger, but there’s something beautiful about it, too.”

—By Michelle Green, with Susan Schindehette in Washington

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