Military men are often spurred by their knowledge and experience to be prudent proponents of arms control. But sometimes it takes the occasion of their retirement for the public to know about it - as in the farewell exhortations of US Admiral Hyman Rickover earlier this year. Kudos now to a group of retired NATO officers who are trying to get their active-duty colleagues not to wait until retirement before standing forth against the arms race. They ask them to display in this endeavor for peace ''the same courage, willingness to take decisions, and persistence that officers so far have only been asked to prove in hostilities.''
The possibilities are striking. Suppose Admiral Rickover's drive and tenacity in developing America's nuclear submarines had been matched by efforts toward the arms limitations he now calls for. The congressmen listening to his farewell recognized the familiar scrappy determination when he said President Reagan should initiate a disarmament conference and: ''Put me in charge of it, and I'll get you some results.''
Well, negotiators in Geneva are beginning the strategic arms reductions talks that Mr. Reagan initiated. A special session on disarmament is going on at the United Nations. The parleys to curb intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, to achieve mutual conventional force reductions, to outlaw chemical weaponry are at various stages. They need plenty of scrappy determination to get humanity some results.
Admiral Rickover said he would ''hit right close to home'' - the number of nuclear submarines. ''At a certain point you get where it's sufficient. What's the difference whether we have 100 nuclear submarines or 200? . . .You can sink everything on the oceans several times over with the number we have and so can they.''
Now the group of retired NATO officers - calling themselves ''Generals for Peace'' - speak out in a similar general vein. They warn that in a nuclear age an increase in forces and attempts to gain superiority are destabilizing. They proclaim that security can be achieved only through limits on arms. The specific proposals by the Generals for Peace, currently being offered at the UN disarmament session, are subject to debate: withdrawal of Soviet and US troops from Europe, for example, and a freeze by both parties on developing new nuclear weapons. But there can be no argument about the public-spiritedness of these men - from France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Norway, Portugal, the Netherlands, the US - drawing on military lifetimes to confirm the need for controlling the terrible tools of their trade.