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Dear John

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

John Sack

Schroeder: Vietnam wasn't your first experience covering a war, was it? Didn't your career as a journalist actually begin when you were a soldier in the Korean war?

Sack: I was on the Crimson at Harvard, and after college I wasn't drafted. I volunteered for the Army to avoid being drafted, and I volunteered for Korea because I had a specialty as a public information writer. I got onto Stars and Stripes, and I was in a safe position to volunteer for the front. I say safe. In fact the death rate for war correspondents, both in Korea and Vietnam, was higher than the death rate for soldiers. But I covered the western front in Korea for Stars and Stripes for about half a year. What I liked about writing was being out in the field, being out in the cold, driving a jeep, going back and forth on the road from Seoul to the front, jumping into shellholes and foxholes and bunkers, and 10 percent of the time sitting down at the typewriter and knocking off the story.

Schroeder: Were you conscious of this as a traditional American role? In other words, the tradition of Hemingway, the war reporter?

Sack: I never thought of Hemingway as a war correspondent or a foreign correspondent. I do remember that Hitchcock movie Foreign Correspondent that featured that foreign correspondent in his trench coat. Perhaps such associations made it seem like an exciting job. But I'm not sure that if there weren't a war, I would have chosen to be a foreign correspondent. I don't know. But as long as I was going to be in the Army, God knows I couldn't imagine anything else in the Army that could be any fun. If you're going to be in the Army for two years, being a war correspondent offered a wonderful chance to be able to see a war and to leave it whenever you want. It wasn't so much the glamor of it because there wasn't anybody whom I could impress with the glamor. I couldn't go visit my girlfriend in Seoul. There weren't too many people that I was writing to back in the States. There was just really something exciting about the job, about waking up at odd hours and driving the jeep north to Panmunjom, getting the stories, getting the scoops. I was twenty-two or twenty-three years old and really liked being outdoors, the adventure, the camaraderie with the other guys on Stars and Stripes.

And of course when I got back to the U.S. everyone said, "You're a writer; you're supposed to sit home all day at a typewriter, writing." That's what writing turned out to be most of the time, and it's not what I wanted. The part that was always fun for me was being in the field and then, only second, organizing the experience and making some sense out of it.

Schroeder: Was writing that difficult, then, back in the States after an experience like that?

Sack: Oh, it's terrible for me to have to create something out of my own head. In the late fifties, I was writing humor for the New Yorker; it all came out of my head. I would be home all day long just trying to think of funny things to say. I'd much rather have an experience and feel that it had to be expressed, had to be explained, and then sit down and organize it.

I can't remember what we would be laughing about in Korea; I just remember that it was a wonderful, wonderful time. Mike Herr makes a similar point in Dispatches about Vietnam--how much fun it is to be a war correspondent, that war can be fun. It's really true. Understand that I was against the war in Vietnam. In the end, I spoke against it at eighty colleges from Seattle to Florida, from UCLA to Maine. I spoke for the Mobilization, Moratorium, and Resistance. I testified to Congress. But that doesn't mean that being a war correspondent in Vietnam wasn't fun.

In Korea it was wonderful fun on Stars and Stripes. I just remember the nights of sitting there and laughing and laughing all night long with the other correspondents. One night we were sitting there, all typing our stories, and an air raid alarm sounded. We were used to Bedcheck Charlie (one Chinese plane used to come over Seoul and drop a few bombs), but this was the first time we'd ever heard an air raid siren. We all looked at each other. No one had told us what to do during an air raid. What were we supposed to do? Was there an air raid shelter around? We remembered something out back that looked like an air raid shelter, or maybe it was a potato bin. We didn't know. So we just sat there laughing. The Army hadn't told us what to do. We tacked some blankets over the windows and sat there laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing.

Schroeder: As an Army correspondent was your experience that different than that of the infantrymen? For instance, wouldn't the rest of the infantrymen have known what to do in case of an air attack?

Sack: Oh, I doubt it. I went through the same training as they had. I went through sixteen weeks of basic training. The first time I was at the front in Korea, Second Division, a guy from the PIO Office took me up to the top of a hill, and he pointed out the Chinese lines and a tank that was abandoned in no-man's-land. All of a sudden I heard this whistle, and we both dived under another tank. As mortars started falling around, I began laughing, because I had just had sixteen weeks of basic training and no one had ever mentioned that if you hear a whistling sound, that's incoming artillery and you should dive into a hole or under a tank. The reason I knew this was from seeing movies. Finally, we went running down the hill while things fell all around us. We got into a bunker and the guy who's with me asks this other guy what's happening. "Oh, the Chinese always mortar us at three o'clock every afternoon." "Well, why didn't you tell us when you saw us going up the hill?" "Yeah, I wondered what you were doing."

No, the infantry didn't know any more than we did. I was in a funny position: I was a PFC, but because I was a correspondent, I had the acting rank of full colonel. So I could bump captains off planes; I could eat, if I wanted to, at the field officers' mess; I could even sleep in the VIP billet. (And, of course, what I chose to do was to sleep in the VIP billet and eat at the enlisted men's mess because it was free.) I think I felt closer to the enlisted men than to the officers. Certainly when I was out in the evening I wanted to be with the enlisted men. My friends were mostly the people on Stars and Stripes and the other reporters.

Schroeder: How did you get the idea to do M?

Sack: I was with CBS News, and my first awareness that something was happening in Vietnam was when I was in Spain as bureau chief in Madrid. I began thinking that it might be interesting to go there. When I came back to the U.S. in September 1965, there really wasn't much to do at CBS. I was just drifting around there, doing dumb little projects and reading about the war. And then there was a very specific moment: I was reading Time magazine at CBS on West Fifty-seventh Street in New York, and Time was gung-ho about the war; it wrote of some soldiers jumping out of a helicopter and described them as "lean, mean, and looking for a fight." At that point I rebelled immediately. I'd been in Korea and I'd never seen a soldier who was lean, mean, and looking for a fight. Scared shitless was more like it. But all the reportage about the war in Vietnam was written in that same gung-ho World War II style, and I knew that that's not the way the Army was. No one was writing about it the way it really was. The first images that came to me were the eggshells in the scrambled eggs, shit on a shingle, KP, and people grousing, goldbricking, getting the wrong bullets in the rifles, shooting each other--everybody screwing up: all the stuff that was in See Here, Private Hargrove. In World War II you could write books like See Here, Private Hargrove and C/O Postmaster. Because our cause was so noble, you could have civilian soldiers with two left feet going into battle. But in Vietnam our cause was ignominious, and the press couldn't have dunderheads going into an ignominious war; it had to play up how gung-ho the men were.

I remember--this must have been a few days later--waking up at four in the morning and thinking it seemed obvious that the way to write about this would be to follow a basic training company to Vietnam. Everybody told me later that was a brilliant idea. At the time it seemed utterly, utterly obvious to me; to write about an event you must start with the people before they're in the event: establish their characters, carry them into the event, and then see what happens to them as the event affects them. You don't pick them up in the middle of the war: then they're already soldiers, and if they die, it's because they're supposed to. But if you pick them up as civilians back home, then they're people being swept up into something unknown. Any important book about war starts in the United States--The Naked and the Dead, Catch22. You've got to establish character at the outset. It's just obvious.

Anyway, the next thing I did was call the Pentagon to find out if it would be possible to go to basic training for a month or two. Tom Wolfe makes it sound as if I wangled the Pentagon into letting me do it. Not at all. Anybody could have done it. Obviously a newspaper reporter who wants to write about basic training can call the Pentagon and then Fort Dix and at both places the answer will be, "Yeah, come on." He'll then spend two hours there, interviewing people and taking notes. All I was asking was to spend a month there instead of two hours. And to the Army there's no difference: that's my right as a reporter. I wasn't joining the company or re-enlisting--I was still a civilian--but I was spending so much time with the company that a few little changes had to be made. They gave me some fatigues and something on my arm to identify me as a correspondent (they made me a black armband with a "C" on it that the soldiers thought meant complaints or chaplain, so they came to me with all their stories). But the Pentagon had said, "Sure," and when I asked, "What about going to Vietnam?" the answer was the same, "No problem." To be a correspondent in Vietnam was incredibly simple.

Schroeder: Robert Stone has said much the same thing, and in fact writes about a similar situation in Dog Soldiers.

Sack: Oh, you don't even have to tell anyone that you're coming! You just get on a plane and go. When you arrive you go to JUSPAO[Joint United States Public Affairs Office], show them a letter from your bureau or editor, and you're accredited. That's all there is to it. The only thing that the military said I couldn't do, of course, was to fly on the same plane with them across the Pacific. Other than that, it was all open.

So I wrote Harold Hayes at Esquire that they're not "lean, mean, and looking for a fight," but that the Army is a place where eggshells get in the scrambled eggs. I said that I wanted to write a humorous article about soldiers going to Vietnam. In some ways it would be like the World War II books, like See Here, Private Hargrove, but because of the nature of the war it wouldn't be simply straight humor but would become black humor. Well, Harold bought it, and I took a leave of absence from CBS.

I wanted to go to a camp that I thought would represent a cross-section of the Army population; I thought that I would have to go to a camp in the South. But the Pentagon said, "They're all cross-sections, and Fort Dix is as much of a cross-section as any." I even went down to the Pentagon to assure myself of this. And, in fact, in order to maintain this feeling of generality, I never mention Fort Dix in the book, nor do I mention the name of the division or the battalion or where they are in Vietnam.

When I arrived they put me up in the guest house--I didn't sleep in the barracks--and I had breakfast every day at the officers' mess. I would get over to the barracks around six or seven in the morning. And then I would stay with the soldiers all day. But I wasn't going through training. Some reporters did actually do this--they would be going through the training and doing the pushups and everything. But I didn't need to do that; the soldiers' job was to do the pushups and my job was to take notes.

I had a rented car and checked out various things around the camp when what they were doing wasn't of any interest to me. Once I even said that I was going to be at Headquarters checking on something, and instead I drove to Newark Airport and flew down to Washington. I went to the Pentagon to see the process by which the members of the company were chosen to go or not to go to Vietnam. I came back that evening knowing who was going to go to Vietnam and who wasn't, but never told them, of course, that I knew it.

Schroeder: During your time at Fort Dix did you feel conspicuous?

Sack: I felt very awkward. I felt like a little boy and was hoping desperately that I wouldn't be the absolute last one chosen for the baseball team.

Schroeder: Did the fact you'd been through it yourself as a soldier help?

Sack: Oh, it helped tremendously in terms of intuiting what was going on in their minds. I identified with them. I absolutely saw everything as they would. That helped me tremendously all the way through because what I was feeling, I was almost sure, was what they were feeling. Of course I couldn't come out and say, "This is what they were feeling" merely because I was feeling it, but I could go to them and ask and they would usually confirm, "Yeah, that's how I felt." An example of this is when the colonel at battalion headquarters in Vietnam is briefing them and saying something like, "You're not going to help your buddy if you get V.D." Immediately my first thought was "You can get V.D. here? Where can you get V.D.?" And immediately I turned to look at Sullivan, who's the big cocksman there. I could see his eyes looking around. I went over to him afterwards and asked, "When the colonel said that, what were you thinking?" And he said, "Where do you get V.D.?"

While I was with them at Fort Dix they were just so happy to have me there. Nobody cared about them. The sergeants didn't care about them; the civilians didn't care about them; Washington didn't care about them. They were just pushed around and hassled. All of a sudden here comes this man of his own free will and volition who's going to sit there and listen to their problems. They took me into their confidence. And so because of that I was able to identify with them probably more than I was able to identify with the soldiers in Korea.

Schroeder: The differences between soldiers in Vietnam and in previous wars were significant; were the correspondents in Vietnam different than the correspondents in previous wars?

Sack: Well there was nobody in Vietnam like Ernie Pyle from World War II or Jim Lukas from Korea. I can't imagine anybody in his forties or fifties doing the type of journalism that I was doing or that Mike Herr was doing. Michael did a brilliant thing that occurred to no other person. Perhaps it should have occurred to me, but my defense mechanism--self-protection--stopped it from occurring to me until I had read Michael's book and realized what he had done (and that's why I think that his book is by far the best Vietnam book of the ones I've read). As a journalist I was trying to feel what the soldiers were feeling by going through basic training with them, being on the operation with them, and imagining what was going on in their minds. But there comes a point when you've been out with them in the field for a week, and you realize that it's beginning to affect your own performance. And you think that because you're a writer and must stay relatively clearheaded, you'd better get out of the war zone for a few days and get some rest. It never occurs to you that this experience of going nutty, of being exhausted, of losing track of things, is the very experience of being in Vietnam that you should be writing about. Now Michael realized this and allowed himself to live it. I once read in a review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas how noble it was for Hunter Thompson to donate his sanity to the cause of journalism. But of course Hunter exaggerates a lot. Michael was really the one who donated his sanity to the cause of reportage; he had a hard time for several years afterwards. Dispatches came out years after it was supposed to. And that was because he lived that experience and survived enough to be able to write the book. But the rest of us, certainly, when we felt that this thing was getting to us, when we felt shaky, scared, and confused, we went back to Saigon to clean out the tubes. We did what the soldiers couldn't do.

But getting back to your question, anybody in his forties or fifties would have been interpreting things so much from the point of view of his recollections of World War II that he would not have been able to grasp what was going on over there. An example of this can be seen in Bill Styron's review of Lieutenant Calley in the New York Times Book Review, where Styron could not assimilate the fact that American soldiers were going around Vietnam killing civilians. Styron was a Marine captain in World War II. And in spite of all the evidence in the book, he kept insisting that when Calley said something good about himself he was lying and that when Calley said something bad about himself Sack was trying to undercut Calley.

So basically, I guess I could write as well as other people who were thirty six, but as far as my feelings went, I was twenty-two and a soldier again. I completely identified.

Schroeder: How would you then describe the point of view in M? It certainly doesn't seem to be that of a twenty-two year-old soldier.

Sack: I'm playing a diabolical trick on the reader of M...  More 

Read the first scene-and-a-half

Buy an autographed paperback
from the Authors Guild

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

 Read about M
in Dictionary of Literary Biography

Read more of this interview,
about Lieutenant Calley

Other books by John Sack