The War Story That Changed Journalism
The exuberant and ageless John Sack was the only American journalist to witness combat in every American war from Korea in the early fifties to Afghanistan in 2002. The “embed” arrangement—which attached a journalist to a particular military unit—was virtually invented for Sack.
While he was covering the Korean War for Stars & Stripes, his status as a correspondent ended after he stowed away overnight aboard an American landing ship to interview Chinese prisoners of war and was arrested by the American military police when the ship docked in Pusan, South Korea. Facing court-martial charges, Sack was reassigned to a mail room in Tokyo. A month later, he was ordered back to Korea as an infantryman, the Army being unable to charge him with a specific violation.
He helped create both New Journalism, utilizing the techniques of literature in topical reporting, and modern writing about war. It was in Korea that he began to lose faith in traditional reporting methods. Sack recalled covering a press conference in Seoul in which a government official denied rumors of an ammunition shortage. “I was sitting there thinking, Bullshit. Of course there’s an ammunition shortage. I know there’s an ammunition shortage.” A week earlier, he had been in a battle during which an American tank crew had run out of shells and was told at the ammunition dump, “Sorry, we’re all out; we don’t have anymore.”
Despite his firsthand knowledge, Sack was compelled to print the denial, which he considered a moral outrage. And so he began a long career of seeing things for himself and simply telling the truth. His honesty and brilliant writing changed journalism.
Sack wrote for Esquire for more than forty years; he died at age seventy-four in 2004, less than two years after writing his last war story from Afghanistan.
His epic three-part series on Lieutenant William Calley, the only soldier court-martialed for the massacre of civilians at My Lai, led to him being indicted for refusing to turn over his reporting materials to assist in Calley’s prosecution. In defense of his position, he said, “I am a journalist, not an agent of the government.“
But it was his 1966 masterpiece, “M,” in which he intimately covered the experience of one Army platoon from basic training to combat in Vietnam, for which he is best remembered. Perhaps the greatest single piece of war reportage ever published, it was also—at thirty-three thousand words—the longest story ever published in the magazine:
Then it was that the incident happened. A cavalryman, seeing a sort of bunker place, a hut above, hole below, and hearing some voices inside it, told Demirgian to throw a grenade in. Dermirgian hesitating, —–, a soldier we have met before, though not by name, jumped from his APC and flipped in a hand grenade himself. It rolled through the door hitting a sort of earthen baffle before it exploded, and —– gasped as ten or a dozen women and children came shrieking out in their crinkled pajamas: no blood, no apparent injuries, though, and —– got onto his carrier again, it continued on. The next APC in the column, with Yoshioka aboard, drove up to this hovel, and a Negro specialist four, his black rifle in his hands, warily extended his head in, peering through the darkness one or two seconds before he cried, “Oh my god!”
“What’s the matter?” said a second specialist, a boy on whose machine gun Yoshioka was assistant.
“They hit a little girl”and in his muscular black arms the first specialist carried out a seven-year-old, long black hair and little earrings, staring eyes—eyes, her eyes are what froze themselves onto M’s memory, it seemed there was no white to those eyes, nothing but black ellipses like black goldfish. The child’s nose was bleeding—there was a hole in the back of her skull.
Twenty-five years later, during the first Gulf War, Sack was the sole journalist allowed in an armored vehicle during what is still described as the largest tank battle in history. Without Sack’s report, the world would never have known the true chaos of that battle. “C Company,” December 1991:
“Watch what you’re shooting at!” Burns cried on the radio, for he couldn’t see the Iraqi. “Be careful!” Burns cried, and tatata! the Iraqi exploded in so many parts that a boy who was watching thought, Why are they shooting that rag? “God damn it! Get under control! I told you to ask permission first,” said Burns, who still couldn’t see the supposed rag and was practically singed as the rounds went by. “Explain to me: What the f*** are you doing?”
“I covered your back door!” the boy in back of Burns radioed.
“I have told you to ask permission!” said Burns. “Now that is the last f***ing time!”
In the gloom below him sat Anderson, thinking, My God! We’d have eaten a rocket before you’d have told him, “Fire.” Anderson wanted to shout to Burns, “Do you know what you sounded like? A f***ing blooming idiot, and the whole company heard you!” But discretion prevailed, and Anderson didn’t shout, and Burns didn’t grasp that a lot of C, tuning in, was totally appalled and was thinking seriously of Gizmo, the plan to bump him off.
Originally published on esquire.com