The Arnheiter Affair

by Neil Sheehan '58 304 pages. Illustrated. Random House $7.95

MARCUS AURELIUS Arnheiter, a retired Lieut, Comdr. in the United States Navy, field a $5 million libel suite in San Francisco Federal District Court last Friday against Cornelius Mahoney Sheehan '58, by-line Neil Sheehan, novice author and a reporter for The New York Times. The suit taps all the usuals--"breach of contract, fraud and deceit, conspiracy, breach of confidence, libel and slander"--in connection with Sheehan's first book. The Arnheiter Affair, published last month. Yet the foundation of Arnheiter's suit is shallow, for Sheehan has--through two years of pain-staking interviews and research--come up with a tight, cleverly-written and fascinating account of the 99 days Arnheiter commanded the U.S.S. Vance off the Vietnam coast in early 1966.

Sheehan's chief notoriety, stems from his authorship of the Time's series last June detailing the secret Pentagon Papers, but The Arnheiter Affair is a bizarre little tale in its own right and is much closer to Sheehan's heart. The book is a good example of how a talented reporter can take a new story all the way to its logical, exhaustive conclusion without becoming tedious. Indeed, The Arnheiter Affair evolved from an assignment cover a Congressional hearing into Navy's decision to relieve Arnheiter of his command two years earlier. Sheehan, whose first instinct was that Arnheiter had clearly been wronged by the Navy, went on to write an in-depth piece for The Times Sunday Magazine in August 1968; it was, at the time, the longest article ever run by the magazine.

Thus began an arduous series of taped interviews with the entire cast of what Arnheiter liked to refer to as "the Vance Mutiny," after Herman Wouk's famous fictional "mutiny" on board the Caine. As evidence accumulated before Sheehan, it became increasingly apparent that Arnheiter was, in fact, a bit wacky, and the book took on the surreal character of a modern-day parody of Wouk's classic. Indiosyncracies built on idiosyncracies; unbalanced decisions by Arnheiter made other equally unbalanced ones seem more so. The men who had served under Arnheiter unhesitatingly sketched the picture of a self-possessed, unstable commander. And while Arnheiter insisted that he was the victim of a mutiny that the Navy, realizing its own mistake, was trying to cover up, he refused to authorize Sheehan to view his Navy dossier which include routine condition reports on him by senior officers.

When Sheehan finally got down to writing the book he was faced with reams of tapes and notes, and some new conclusions about Arnheiter. He chose to stick with the style he knew best--a newspaper format chocked full of "he said"s and "however"s; in light of Arnheiter's suit, had retained his first draft. But happily for the reader, Sheehan decided to scrap the 120,000 word manuscript which resulted from his first efforts, adopting instead straight dialogue and third person narrative. The end product is a spry and carefully-woven chronicle of the career of one of the Navy's most public lunatics.

When Comdr. Arnheiter first arrives on board the Vance in January 1966, he is met by an uncertain crew that held no love for its previous commander but respected his judgment. Arnheiter seems harmless enough, but then he embarks on a series of inexplicable move which gradually convince the crew--and slowly convert the officers to a similar view--that he is really quite mad. Arnheiter spends $950 of the crew's recreation fund to buy a speedboat which, he says, will help to engage Vietcong gunboats by serving as a decoy. He has shark's teeth painted on the bow of the speedboat to give it fighting spirit. He institutes a code of moral behavior, cleanliness and shore-like routine that includes a required Protestant religious service each Sunday on the aft deck. In addition, he places himself above the crew; on one occasion he avails himself of three showers a day during a fresh water shortage (created by a blunder on his part), while the 149-man crew is limited to a two-hour daily shower period.

But the most worrisome actions by Arnheiter derive from his uncontrollable desire to join in the fight, even when the Vance is assigned to back-up patrol duty. He disobeys command headquarters and rushes headlong into the line of fire of the destroyers he is supposed to be guarding from rear attack; once in the action, Arnheiter pounds with vehemence non-existent Vietcong "nests" inland. Later, he files battle reports claiming a savior's laurels, and he recommends his crew for medals of bravery. He releases press statements detailing dangerous engagements with the enemy, when in fact all he has done is interfere with battle operations while swooping down on deserted peninsular huts.

Perhaps the most incredible episode comes when, after dragging three crewmen behind the Vance in the speedboat at 15 knots--very nearly drowning all three--Arnheiter leaves them in the Gulf of Siam to surveil a Vietnamese junk he suspects is spotting for a Chinese submarine reported to be in the area. Set adrift, the men try to raise the Vance on the radio; but Arnheiter has sailed out of range. Suddenly they spot a plane, an American plane. It drops down for a look at the junk and finds also a 16-foot speedboat with shark's teeth painted on the bow. The pilot turns and starts in for a strafing run, averted only by the frantic waving of the three by five foot American flag Arnheiter had placed aboard the speedboat to help ensnare communists. "Please God," prays one of the crewmen aloud, "please don't let them open up with those miniguns. They'll grease us right out of the water with 6000 rounds a minute or whatever they shoot."

SO THE STORY grows, ridiculous incident after ridiculous incident. Finally Arnheiter goes too far, though, by forcing his executive officer to procure signatures of other officers on a false combat report recommending him for a Silver Star. With that report, two junior officers file a second report outlining Arnheiter's three-month reign on the Vance; after several days of intense study, the Pacific fleet commander relieves Arnheiter pending on investigation. After dismissal at a Navy hearing. Arnheiter takes his appeal to Washington, where Sheehan first encounters him. Here is where Sheehan begins his book, subtly tying each new detail into a larger pattern which leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Navy did only what it had to do. The psychological pressures which shape the crew's conduct are expertly drawn by Sheehan; the final result is that the reader is believing the unbelievable. Within the web of Arnheiter's madness, events assume truly unrealistic proportions--it is to Sheehan's credit that he is able to return the reader to the realization that all this really happened without destroying the book's continuity.

Perhaps The Arnheiter Affair's only weak point is the clear break in style between the prologue and epilogue and the body of the book. In the first and last sections. Sheehan employs a first-person narrative to tell how he dug out the details of the story; but also, this technique enables him to contribute some valuable commentary. He notes how the press is manipulated by government, regardless of attempts at detachment and objectivity; he shows the human side of human nature, and he sees that an event such as the Arnheiter case cannot be capsuled as a symbolic clash of ideology; and he takes a well-aimed shot at the Navy for its lack of an independent judiciary to review internal disputes. So even this stylistic break is forgiveable: It is justified by the thoughtful conclusions which Sheehan draws. Evidently, those conclusions depart sharply from those Arnheiter reached in his retirement world of San Rafael, Calif.