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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Arnheiter affair by Neil Sheehan | LibraryThing

The Arnheiter affair by Neil Sheehan | LibraryThing:

In 1966 Commander Arnheiter was removed from his command of the Vance a radar picket ship, then off the coast of Vietnam. In a scandal that consumed more attention than had the sinking of the Thresher just three years earlier, Vance charged the Navy with a conspiracy that included charges of false rumors and innuendo from his junior officers. He insisted what had happened was nothing less than a mutiny.

Arnheiter was a forty-two-year-old graduate of the Naval Academy (not a good student, he was particularly weak in engineering.) He commanded the Vance for a brief ninety-nine days. The controversy raised issues of subordinate loyalty, the role of a commander at sea and the integrity of the Navy itself.

The captain of a ship, no matter the size, has unequaled power and how that power is demonstrated and used determines the success of the mission and the running of the vessel. Generally, that sense of omnipotence and the loneliness of command can often exaggerate personality characteristics. Arnheiter was very weak at ship handling, mechanics, and management but strong at PR and spit-and-polish. Unfortunately engineering, especially in an old ship like the Vance with its two archaic diesels, required more engineering than polish. The previous skipper and the engineering officer had an understanding of that important role and the Vance had developed a reputation for having a well-managed plant. So when Arnheiter completely tuned out the engineering officer during his first briefing, it was worrisome.

Once they arrived off Vietnam, the situation deteriorated with Arnheiter sending false position reports so he could wangle his way into attacking shore positions. Shades of the Gulf of Tonkin he invented fire on his ship, had used the crew's entertainment fund to buy a speedboat, and acted in a manner that had the crew wondering about his fitness if not sanity. What really got the ball rolling was the concern of Catholics on board who resented being forced to participate in religious activities each Sunday that clearly had a Protestant flavor and was against Navy regulations. 

Arnheiter's case is fascinating. He pushed back very hard against his removal and was adept at manipulating the media (which didn't have a clue as to all the details -- even Sheehan admits he and his colleagues should have interviewed more than just Arnheiter for their initial stories,) the Navy brass and Congressmen.

Sheehan does not spare his own profession. 

I and the other reporters who covered the Resnick hear¬ing that May of 1968 were equally guilty of perpetuating the fraud. None of us thought to telephone any of the men who had sailed under Amheiter. We were all too preoccupied with getting into print Arnheiter’s charges that Admiral Semmes was a liar and that his former subordinates were mutineers. Since the Navy had nothing to say, we settled for silence from the other side. I too, without a qualm, wrote stories citing Generous as “the alleged ringleader of the conspiracy . . .” The "alleged” did not make Generous’ guilt any less real to the readers. and The nation’s newspapers suffer from the same hardening of the arteries. The techniques of the government propagandist and the public relations man, which Arnheiter utilized so cleverly, long ago outraced a tired community of hemmed-in reporters, editors who ask the wrong questions and publishers who are more interested in profits than in the quality and accuracy of the information they print. The time-honored newspaper technique of scribbling a few details in a notebook, hustling them into something readable on a typewriter, casting the words into a column, and then rushing on to another story the next day, was appropriate to police-beat reporting in Chicago in the 1920’s. It is an anachronism today. Those of us in the trade know that the consequence of the cycle is the daily publication of falsehood and bias in favor of those who know best how to exploit its weakness. Systematic deception has become a sanctioned practice of government and industry, a reality of modern life that the established newspapers have, for the most part, found convenient to ignore. The question I might ask is whether things are better today than in 1970.

It's a very fast read and hard to put down. I loved Sheehan's other work, particularly A Bright and Shining Lie. Normally, I would have given this 5 stars, but it's clearly an early work and doesn't show the polished writing his later books do.

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