Vice President Bush has spent much of the last week as former Lt. George Bush, speaking as a man who has seen war from the front lines. He has traveled from veterans gatherings to military bases to a Teamsters meeting, promoting President Reagan's weapons buildup as the surest path to peace.

The military symbolism was most evident at the Norfolk Naval Base Sunday as the Navy noted the 40th anniversary of the day when former Navy flier Bush was shot down by the Japanese in World War II. As a Navy band played martial music, Bush reviewed the sailors, climbed into the cockpit of a vintage Navy bomber plane, chatted with war buddies and was praised by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. for "courage . . . the virtue that makes all other virtues possible."

"Being in combat heightens your concern about war and peace matters," Bush said as he shook hands with a crowd of well-wishers.

The festivities were part of an intensifying focus being placed by the GOP on Bush's military career and foreign policy experience. Just as his counterpart, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro, has taken on war-and-peace issues from her particular perspective, Bush is using his very different personal experience to stake them out for the Republicans.

While Bush and his staff say they are simply playing to his strengths, Democrats have accused him of "epaulet flexing," as Democratic National Committee political director Ann Lewis put it, insisting that Bush is using his war record to put down Ferraro, who as a woman has no comparable experience.

"It certainly is not lost on us that the vice president has wide experience that Geraldine Ferraro does not have," said John Buckley, spokesman for the Reagan-Bush campaign. "To the extent that we can focus attention on his having spent many years involved in all aspects of foreign policy, it's a good thing, but I don't think there will be an overreliance on his war record."

Buckley flatly denied that the GOP is using Bush's war record to raise questions about Ferraro as a leader. But Dean Spratlin, who joined in Sunday's festivities as the former commander of the submarine that rescued Bush 40 years ago, said he believes Bush's war experience "better prepares him to face up to emergencies" than Ferraro.

"Various candidates bring various strengths," said Bush's press secretary, Peter Teeley. "When Mrs. Ferraro goes shopping an event that has received wide media coverage , does she exercise her expertise in consumer affairs? It cuts both ways."

At the Republican National Convention last month, the Reagan-Bush campaign showcased Bush's diplomatic background by organizing a foreign policy news conference, featuring Bush as former CIA director, former U.N. ambassador, former head of liaison to China and globe-trotting vice president.

The campaign also has made much of his war record, showing a film clip of his rescue just before he addressed the delegates.

And Bush has made repeated references to it Sunday, saying, "You have to go up there against the enemy all alone," to understand the reasons for a large defense budget.

After Ferraro's charge that Reagan has led the country closer to war with his blunt approach to weapons talks with the Soviet Union, Bush has suggested that Democrats do not understand the need for a strong defense and are too "hot" for an arms control agreement.

Similarly, if there is a Bush-Ferraro debate, GOP strategists have said Bush should try to keep it focused on foreign policy rather than domestic issues, on which her congressional experience and feisty personality make her a favorite. Ferraro and her staff have acknowledged that defense is her weakest area.

While the GOP has played up Bush's diplomatic successes, Ferraro has concentrated on perhaps his most embarrassing overseas exploit -- a champagne toast in 1981 to Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in which Bush said: "We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic processes."

Bush and his staff have said the remark was taken out of context and was in fact directed at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), rather than Marcos.