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About John Sack
Dear John

John Sack (Continued)

(24 March 1930 – 27 March 2004)

James Stewart

Nicholls State University

...Though his three earlier books included many of the elements which define New Journalism, Sack came of age as a New Journalist with M (1967). As Carol Polsgrove reports in her 1995 book on Esquire in the sixties, a 1965 Time magazine article on the war in Vietnam which described soldiers leaping from helicopters as "lean, laconic, and looking for a fight" was the impetus for what is perhaps Sack's best known work. After having seen war in Korea, he could not accept that soldiers heading into battle were eager to fight. "Scared shitless was more like it," Sack told Eric Schroeder. "But all the reportage about Vietnam was written in that same gung-ho World War II style, and I knew that's not the way the Army was. No one was writing about the way it really was."

In 1966, as a correspondent for Esquire magazine, Sack followed an infantry company from training at Fort Dix, N.J. to its first battle in Vietnam. Headlined "M," the thirty-three-thousand-word cover story was the longest article in the history of the magazine.  Polsgrove wrote that with Sack's article, the magazine began to cover the war more seriously. "In austere black and white, the 'M' cover was like a formal announcement of a change of heart." The article was also among the first to appear in the mainstream media questioning the war. Sack returned to Vietnam to do a follow-up story on "M" 's main character, Varoujan Demirgian, at the end of his one-year tour in Vietnam. By then Sack had expanded his Esquire material into a book, M (1967).

The influence of Ernie Pyle's World War II reporting can be seen in M, at the end of which Sack includes an alphabetical list of the names, ranks and hometowns of the approximately two hundred soldiers who appear in the story. However, in M, unlike in Pyle's writing or in his own earlier books, Sack adopts a narrative approach found in many novels and short stories, telling the story through the eyes and thoughts of its participants. As Robert N. Sheridan wrote in Library Journal (1 February 1967): "Though he is merely reporting what others tell him about their thoughts and feelings, he gives the impression of having lived in each person’s mind and body." Although some reviewers criticized Sack for overusing stream-of-consciousness writing in M, an examination of the book shows that Sack uses this technique considerably less than some literary journalists.

In M Sack employed the scene-by-scene construction common to the New Journalism style. Sack said that because of his work in television (he had originally planned the project as a television documentary for CBS), the use of scenes was so natural to him that he made no conscious decision to employ it. But while he benefited from the habits developed working in a primarily visual medium, those instincts also caused him to overlook a fundamental component of written storytelling. Upon reading a Michael Herr magazine article, with rich description of sights and even smells, "I immediately thought, 'My God, I've left all that stuff out,' " said Sack, who was still in the process of writing M. In television, there had been no need to describe the scene, because the audience had a picture of it. After reading Herr's article, Sack added description to M. "It wasn't like putting in paragraphs of description. It was like maybe a line, every page or two, to try to capture the scene in just one sentence," Sack said.

While the inclusion of descriptive detail became second nature to Sack, he uses it subtly rather than overpowering the reader with information, choosing the one key phrase which captures the image. He compares those phrases to an icon on a computer screen where "you see a little square on one of the windows and you click on it and it expands to fill the whole screen. I'd like to think that I can give one little particular of description, and the reader will click on it, and that will expand like on a computer to fill the whole screen, and the reader will get a complete picture."

An example of Sack's techniques can be found in his description of a soldier in Vietnam who, as a fire-fight rages around him, cannot see the enemy and attacks a termite instead:


"When silver airplanes started to dive-bomb the trees, Demirgian could only lie behind his dike observing a colony of black termites eating a gray beetle. Taking his insect repellent from his pants pocket, Demirgian directed a fine needle spray at one of those conspicuous enemies of man, a termite who stopped in the midst of its verminous meal to look at Demirgian bug-eyed. Its shower bath continuing, the termite turned and fled to Demirgian's right, oblivious of the super saberjets that now dove in from there to drop their bombs with a spherical boom on the terrified evergreen trees."


M also illustrates Sack's passion for accuracy. His attention to detail cost him half a day in Saigon where he tried unsuccessfully to find the proper name of the "evergreen" trees. His notes (now at the John Sack Collection at Boston University) include a pen-and-ink map of the termite's route.

Esquire lawyers were initially concerned about possible invasion-of-privacy suits when they first read the piece, which at times describes soldiers' thoughts. The magazine asked Sack to get release forms from the story's ten main figures to demonstrate their faith in the reporter should a suit arise. To get releases from two of the men, Sack had to fly to a war zone on the Cambodian border, where there was heavy fighting. Because the Army would not assign air transport to fewer than five journalists, Sack persuaded CBS correspondent Dan Rather, Rather's two-man crew and his own journalist girlfriend to travel with him. As the helicopter touched down at the soldiers' jungle location, a .50 caliber round from an enemy machine gun ripped through a rotor blade. Both soldiers signed the release.

One result of the narrative style Sack uses is that critics sometimes do not realize or acknowledge that he is writing nonfiction. He said that because "other people who write in scenes and write conversation, fictionalize, everyone assumes that I fictionalize." He does not use fictionalization, except for obvious hyperbole. Sack said that while there are times when "one really can get to a higher truth by fictionalizing, I'm trying as best I can to get to a higher truth by sitting there like a piece of furniture, by looking and listening for days, weeks, months, until I know exactly what's going on in people's minds." He added, "I'm absolutely not saying that writers who fictionalize are wrong. I'm only saying they're different from me. I am insanely compulsive about accuracy." He is also convinced that the truth always makes a better story. He finds that when he tells himself " 'boy-o-boy, if only this or that had happened, wouldn't that be great,' it's never as good as when I put in a couple of hours of work and find out what really, really happened. It's always much more amazing than anything I could make up."

Although critics attack New Journalists for using literary devices and for lacking objectivity, Sack said, "I don't believe any other kind of journalism gets to the real truth." He does not believe in traditional notions of objectivity, explaining that efforts to achieve this mythical standard lead to shallow and distorted reporting. As a result, he said, reports of events which appear in the traditional press are "invariably half-wrong," something even journalists who have firsthand knowledge of the event recognize.

Using the literary journalism approach, Sack found the freedom to record the truth he had found lacking as a newspaper and broadcast reporter. "In those days I felt, here I am in possession of the truth and here I am writing stories that don't communicate the truth. Why do so many reporters become alcoholic and cynical in their old age? Because they've spent a lifetime knowing the truth and reporting something else." Sack finds it "bizarre," for example, that reporters do not want to get to know the people they are writing about. He said, "You might lose your so-called objectivity, but you get closer to the truth." Only by forming a personal relationship with someone, by getting past defense mechanisms, he said, can a reporter understand the motives behind the words and deeds. If that is accomplished, he said, it results in a fairer, more accurate story, and subjects will not feel betrayed even when the story reports that they have done something that society disapproves of. "Other reporters think that you get to the truth by asking people questions and by writing down what they say. I think that's madness," Sack stated.

An excellent example of Sack's way of forming personal relationships is seen in his story on Lt. William L. Calley Jr...  More

 

 

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Books by John Sack