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Dear John

Interviews with American Writers
by Eric James Schroeder
1992 by Eric James Schroeder

John Sack

Schroeder: One of the most controversial of the New Journalistic techniques is point of view. Tom Wolfe talks about the need for the author to keep out of the narrative and, in fact, does this in most of his work. Others like Mailer and Thompson, though, are often at the center of their narratives.

Sack: ...When I wrote the story on Lt. Calley I could have very easily said, "Calley and I sat down; he ordered a gin and tonic and as he was sipping it he recollected that"- - I hate that stuff. But after I interviewed him I realized that everything I knew about Calley that I wanted to say could be said in Calley's own words, if I just arranged them right. So I started writing it as just Calley's words, but vaguely in the back of my mind I wondered how I'd ever get a byline here. The byline actually became a problem with Viking, but the material dictated that it had to be written in Calley's own voice.

I don't really like this book. I stuck to Calley's words and just cut and cut and cut, and finally the text was cut down to the point where it doesn't read like a human voice.

Schroeder: How did you come to feel about Calley?

Sack: [pause] Well, remember that I'd already written that piece in Esquire about Sgt. Condron, who did exactly the same thing. He was a lovely guy who went and killed some people and was court-martialed and sent to Leavenworth. It was written very sympathetically from his point of view, not because it's OK to kill Vietnamese, which of course it isn't, but because I wanted to show how logical it seemed to the soldiers to kill Vietnamese. So the Calley book was a repeat of the Condron story, but people knew Calley whereas they didn't know Condron. When I first met Calley it was important for me to establish whether the guy was a homicidal maniac (in which case I had no interest in writing a book about him because it doesn't prove anything except that occasionally homicidal maniacs get into the Army) or whether he was an average soldier. I was very lucky and astonished to find out that, better than being an average soldier, he was in the upper 3 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam as far as compassion and consideration and love of the Vietnamese went. In fact, after a few months in the field without any idea that he would be tried for My Lai or any idea that My Lai was anything out of the ordinary--because it wasn't--Calley went to the colonel and asked to be transferred to S-5, where he worked passing out food for the farmers and getting feed for the pigs and setting up sewing courses for the nurses. For six months he worked in this job that no other officer had been able to last in for more than a month. He was and is a very considerate, caring person. I liked him, and I had good times with him. So did everyone else who knew him, yet he committed mass murder in Vietnam. That tells us something about the war in Vietnam.

Schroeder: Did you find a difference between the mainstream media's reporting of Vietnam and the kind of writing that you were doing and that Michael Herr was doing? Did you get the sense that there were almost two different wars?

Sack: Yeah, of course. Because the media was following those Galilean rules of objectivity. For instance, here's an example from Lieutenant Calley. This is right after My Lai and the Army wants a body count [reading]:

Medina said, "What is the body count?"

I said to Medina, "I don't know."

"What is your estimate then?"

"I don't know. Go to the village yourself. Or go over there to the ditch. And count 'em."

"Anything off the top of your head-"

"Oh, hell. Thirty. Forty."

"Lieutenant Brooks?" Medina had all the platoon leader there, and asked every one. He then called the Colonel, and he reported fifty for the first platoon, fifty for Brooks's platoon, fifty for the third platoon, fifty for the mortar platoon, fifty for the helicopter units, and fifty for the artillery. And maybe some for the headquarters troops: it appeared as 128 in the New York Times. Front page.

Now where did the Times come up with 128? They get it from the official news briefing--the Five O'Clock Follies--in Saigon. Where did they get 128? God knows. But the New York Times with its objective reporting is forced to print the JUSPAO story even though the reporters are laughing about it and criticizing it. But the New York Times has to tell it, it has to say, "The Army said we killed 128 people." It can't say, "The Army said that and the Army's full of shit." The Times has to put its story on the front page. It's trapped by its own rules.

Homer Bigart, who covered the Calley trial for the New York Times--I respect him, he's a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner--he felt he's doing the right thing, but I intensely disagreed with his method of reportage. He felt that his reportage would be biased, would be hurt, if he ever met Calley. He did not allow himself to meet Calley, or to talk to Calley, or to find out anything about Calley as a person because it might bias his coverage of the facts of the trial. So to me, the press coverage, the Times's coverage, of Calley's trial was insane. Any time I'm involved with a story and know what's going on and then see the press coverage of it, it is utterly insane how wrong they are, and how wrongly they misinterpret it. Objectivity is just impossible.

Read a scene from Lieutenant Calley

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Read about Lieutenant Calley 
in It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, 
But Didn't We Have Fun? 
Esquire in the Sixties
 
by Carol Polsgrove

 

Read about Lieutenant Calley
in Dictionary of Literary Biography

Read about M 
in Vietnam, We've All Been There

  Other books by John Sack