Author Researches War
Stories from the Front Line
FORT RILEY, Kan.--John Sack's military odyssey began as a Harvard-educated private turned reporter in the Korean War and culminated in the front seat of a Humvee watching Iraqi tanks burn in the Persian Gulf War.
His nine books include a first-hand account of an infantry unit in combat in Vietnam and Lt. William Calley's first-person account of the My Lai massacre.
His latest book is Company C: The Real War in Iraq. Expanded from Esquire magazine articles, the 241-page book (William Morrow & Company, $23) chronicles the Gulf War exploits of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, a tank company in the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley.
Sack's account of the chaos of combat in a unit where soldiers talked of killing their commander, a sergeant refused to fire his tank's main gun and officers argued over whether they were going east or west hardly accords with the popular vision of a clean and easy high-tech rout.
"Some Army guys read the Esquire articles and said (the company) was an ill-disciplined rabble," said Col. Greg Fontenot, battalion commander of 2-34 Armor during the war. "I don't think that's true nor fair. "
Sack, 64, was unique in the access he had to a unit at the fighting edge of the Gulf War. Few reporters in the Gulf War had the opportunity--or the inclination, Sack says--to spend much time with front-line combat troops.
"I don't know of other reporters doing that," he said recently while at Fort Riley for a book signing. "Every other reporter wants to write about generals or commanders, or about machines or technology. No one wants to write about GIs anymore," he said.
Sack enlisted in the Army Reserves after graduating from Harvard in 1951. He went on active duty the following year and, as a private, was a reporter for the military's Stars and Stripes newspaper covering the war in Korea.
He later wrote a book--M--about soldiers he followed from infantry training in 1966 at Fort Dix, N.J., to their assignment to Vietnam and into combat with the 1st Infantry Division.
When the 1st Division, the "Big Red One," was alerted for service in the Persian Gulf War, Sack decided to write a similar book following one small unit through the course of the war.
He sent a copy of M to Gen. Schwarzkopf, the commander of US forces in the Gulf, who first approved his request, Sack said.
Sack was put with C Company, a unit of fewer than 100 soldiers whom Sack accompanied--tape recorder in hand--through their final training exercises and their final trip through the bars of Junction City before deploying to the Middle East.
Sack's reporting style was simply to hang around the soldiers, listen to them, and record what they said and did. From the book: "One more beer! It was Friday, Thank God Day, the night of This Bud's for Me, and soon the hootin' hollerin boys at this beer hall, pool hall, girlie-girl hall in Kansas would whirl off to Saudi Arabia, to life or sudden death in Iraq, well, bartender, fill 'em up!"
When C Company flew to the Gulf, Sack followed. After three weeks, he was able to get a slot in the press pool that covered the ground troops, from which he made his way back to 2-34 Armor.
"I told the commanders that to do this right I had to trust him," Fontenot said. "He lived with us. He knew our (combat) plan and he knew it generally as soon as I knew it."
When C Company's commander was in his tank in combat, Sack rode close behind in the commander’s Humvee utility vehicle, where he recorded conversations on the battalion’s radio net.
"C was still rolling, rolling. It was bone-tired, its drivers were falling asleep, meandering, almost colliding, its rattled commanders were crying, "Go left!" and "Go right!" and waking the wayward drivers up," he wrote.
Sack guesses--there was no way to know for sure--that he was usually about a half-mile to a mile behind C Company's tanks when they were moving to contact and in combat with the Iraqis.
"I saw a tank turret that turned red hot and blew up and went flying off in the air," he said. "We were passing live Iraqi tanks at one point. I found that out later."
Sack's account of combat is a far cry from the techno-thrillers of writers like Tom Clancy. Sack focuses on the thoughts, emotions and fears of men at war as he saw them and in the words--frequently graphic--of the soldiers themselves.
From the book: "What happened, happened in two seconds flat: an Iraqi stood up and stared at Burns as if telling him, 'We been waitin' for you.' The driver of Burns's tank gasped, and the gunner said, "Hey! There's a guy there!' and put his fingers on his red triggers, waiting for Burn's command of ‘Fire.’ But fate was frowning tonight, for C was going southeast and a half-mile past the Iraqi was Company B, the ultimate destination of any hot bullets from C, and Burns addressed his driver not gunner and said, ‘Run him over.' The driver was glad to do it."
Sack's book isn't a conventional military history, Fontenot said.
"I think the great tragedy of Desert Storm is that it has been made to appear easy," Fontenot said. "If you want to understand what people feel like under extreme pressure and tension, this is a good book."