John Sack

Like many others, I thought of Mylai when I heard that an American soldier in Afghanistan had been accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. And I thought, too, of journalist John Sack, who interviewed the man blamed for the Mylai massacre and published what he learned in a book, Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story. I, in turn, interviewed John Sack for my book on Esquire in the Sixties, It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun? Following is an excerpt from my account of why and how John Sack wrote Calley’s story. – Carol Polsgrove, March 2012

In the spring of 1970, Esquire editor Harold Hayes offered John Sack a story he had already offered to three other writers, so far without any success. Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., the soldier facing trial for killing more than a hundred villagers at Mylai, was willing to sell Esquire exclusive rights to his story, if Hayes could just find a writer. It was a big story – the Mylai massacre had become a symbol for many of what the war had done to Vietnam and America. Yet writer after writer turned Hayes down. He tried John Hersey and William Styron. He tried Garry Wills – really gave him a hard sell: told him it could count as two of the three stories due that year by his contract, but Wills held firm. He wasn’t going to describe a killer, he told Hayes. It was the only time there were hard feelings between them. Then John Sack came along –stopped by the office to pay a call – and Hayes asked him to take Calley on.

Sack had read the New York Times front-page story reporting the charges and had sworn in disgust – not at Calley but at the press for being so slow to catch on to what was happening in Vietnam. Sack had seen soldiers feeling like they wanted to kill Vietnamese – any Vietnamese. In “When Demirgian Comes Marching Home Again” he had told the story of how Demirgian’s sergeant came back to his station in Vietnam from a trip to Bangkok, and found two Vietnamese laundry boys sitting and looking at pictures of people having sex – and laughing. The sergeant got angry and picked up his rifle and killed them both. Sack did not approve of killing laundry boys, but he understood how it could happen.

Even though he was in the middle of writing another book, Sack was tempted to take up Calley’s story. Was Calley the sicko all America thought he was? If he was, Sack would pass. But maybe he was a perfectly sane person, even a nice guy, who had found himself in the course of the war killing 109 people. If that was his story, then it was the quintessential story of Vietnam – nice, normal American guy killing Vietnamese civilians.

Hayes told Calley’s agent, R. Smith Kiliper, that Sack wanted to meet Calley, and one evening Kiliper showed up at Sack’s New York apartment with his client. Calley and Sack were mixing drinks in the kitchen while Kiliper was on the phone in the living room. As they talked, Sack found himself more and more astonished: Calley, the man accused of murdering more than one hundred villagers in a hamlet in Vietnam, was coming across as the most considerate, the most compassionate, the most caring soldier of any he had met in Vietnam. He didn’t believe Calley was just trying to impress him. After a drink or two – in vino veritas – Calley was talking from the heart.

“Do you know what I think the American army is like?” Calley asked Sack.

“No,” said Sack.

“It’s like Dr. Frankenstein – the Frankenstein monster.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sack.

“There’s Dr. Frankenstein, and he decided that he was going to help humanity ­– he was a good guy, and he was going to create this creature, that was going to just go out and do good, and help people, and so he worked in his laboratory, and he worked day after day, year after year, and he finally put it together, this great creature that was going to help mankind. Then this thing gets up from the table and goes clomp clomp clomp across the land, killing peasants, destroying people. That’s the American army. We all formed this to do something good, in the hope of doing something good, and all it’s done is it clomps across Vietnam – ”

Sack was stunned. He had never heard a soldier talk like that. The next day Sack called three friends, an editor and two reporters, and he asked them if he should take on the assignment Hayes had offered him – to write Calley’s story for Esquire and then turn it into a book. The first two advisers he talked to (one was David Halberstam) said he shouldn’t, the last one said he should. Sack didn’t need that last vote in favor to make up his mind. When the first two said no, don’t do it, he had thought, Oh my God, these intelligent people, they don’t understand. They still don’t understand what’s going on in the war.

Sack went down to Alabama to start interviewing Calley. Calley was living at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Sack stayed at a motel across the river in Phoenix City, Alabama. They decided to retreat to a cabin out at Lake Opelika to start the interviews. The tape recorder running, Calley began his story like a briefing officer, explaining the military situation – where Mylai was situated, what the Communist defenses were, what you had to do to take it. This was all wrong, Sack thought, for Calley to come on like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was not the man who made United States policy. He was the man who was supposed to carry it out.

After about five minutes, Sack said, “Rusty, stop, don’t tell me. When did you learn this? When were you told this military situation?”

They started over.

They talked for a while, then Calley told Sack he felt nervous at the lake, and they went back to Fort Benning and Calley called his girlfriend, and Sack called a girlfriend, and the four of them went back out and stayed for several days. They would tape in the morning, tape in the afternoon, and go water skiing and slalom skiing and ski jumping in between. Later, Sack did more interviews at Calley’s house and at the motel. Once when they were both at the motel pool drinking, Calley tried to teach Sack how to dive. They alternated interviews and diving lessons and drinks until, between diving lessons, Calley paused – and it was a moment Sack would always remember – Calley paused, reflecting, thinking hard, and said, almost in a whisper, “I sometimes think – Did I really do that? Did I do what they said? Is that me, did I do it?”

The interviews went on for weeks, with Sack making trips down from New York and Calley coming up to New York. Always, the story stopped short of the events at Mylai: Calley’s lawyer had put them off-limits until after the trial. Sack pushed to get the Mylai part of the story so that he could release the book right after the trial, but the lawyer wouldn’t budge. So Sack took what he had – about twenty-five hours of interviews – and began work on Calley’s story.

Nobody, certainly not Hayes, had told him to write the story literally as Calley’s story, with Calley speaking in the first person. The idea was for John Sack to write a story on Lieutenant Calley. Looking over his notes, Sack found Calley himself had said everything that needed to be said. Calley had seemed to him honest and forthcoming. Sack decided the natural way to tell the story was to let Calley tell it. When he made that decision, he didn’t worry about what would happen to his byline or his reputation for writing an as-told-to book, making him into Calley’s spokesman – a lower form of journalism. He didn’t think about whether “Calley’s confessions” would make a splashier story for Esquire than Sack writing on Calley. He just thought letting Calley tell his own story – the transcripts cut, shaped, and slimmed by John Sack – was the artistic way to do it.

He had to work fast – Hayes wanted the piece right away. So instead of writing his first draft out by longhand, as he usually did, he spoke it into a tape recorder, drawing sections from different parts of the transcripts, rearranging their order, making cuts. He added words here and there, too, to strengthen the impression that Calley was just talking. When Calley would replay conversations, Sack put in “he said” and “I said,” because that’s the way he thought people usually described conversations. And because he thought the reader would want to know whom Calley was talking to, every once in a while he’d have Calley drop in the word “John.”

When he was done, Sack thought he had produced a marvelous piece of work. He gave it to Hayes, and, after a decent interval, called Hayes from Kiliper’s office to hear Hayes tell him how good it was.

“I read the piece, can you come in and talk about it?” Hayes said.

“Oh, there’s no need to talk about it,” said Sack. “Any problems tell me now.”

“I’d really rather talk to you about it,” replied Hayes.

“Harold,” said Sack, “that’s silly. I’m on the other side of town. It’s okay–”

“John,” said Hayes, “we really should talk about it.”

Sack was getting annoyed but he trekked over to Hayes’s office and sat down to talk. It did not take him long to realize that Hayes did not think the piece was as marvelous as he did. Patiently, Hayes went over and over the manuscript–for two hours, at least – encouraging Sack, telling him the same thing over and over, pointing out the problem places in the manuscript, until finally, finally, Sack stopped seeing with his own eyes, the eyes he had used to write the piece, and started seeing with Hayes’s eyes.

Some of the problems were minor – Sack needed to make small cuts throughout the manuscript to clean it up. And Sack did not need to remind readers of his own presence; Calley should just speak to the reader, not to John Sack. But there was a bigger problem, too: Sack had taken too long to get into the story, to set the wheels of the plot turning the charges leveled against Calley.

Sack liked to think he would have seen the problems if he could have put the article aside for a week and come back to it. As it was, it took Hayes going over it, never implying, as Sack recalled later, “I’ve got a crazy author here, he doesn’t get what I’m saying, how can I drive this into this numbskull’s head.” No, nothing like that. While Sack protested, thinking about Hayes, “Why can’t this idiot see it, it’s clearly beautiful,” trying to explain what he was doing, Hayes just patiently, genially, talked on until Sack saw.

Sack took the manuscript home and reorganized it in a few days. By the second paragraph of the new draft, Calley was being recalled from Vietnam to face charges on Mylai. Then Sack showed the manuscript to Calley. The story would appear with a joint byline – “by First Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., interviewed by John Sack” – so Calley had a right to object to the form it took. He balked at the first line: “I liked it in South Vietnam.” It wasn’t true, Calley protested. True, there was a time when he did like South Vietnam, at the end, just before he was called back to the States to face charges. But he didn’t like it all the time. Sack knew Calley was right, in a way: the reader might think that statement meant he had liked South Vietnam the whole time he was there, including, presumably, the time when he was killing people. But the story had to start somewhere, and it had to catch the reader’s attention. And after putting the piece through one major revision, Sack wasn’t excited about plunging back in. Sack, Calley, and Hayes gathered in Hayes’s office to argue it out, and Sack and Hayes convinced Calley to let it stand.

For the rest of this excerpt from It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?, see John Sack’s website, where you can also find information about Sack’s other books, including Company C: The Real War in Iraq. John Sack served as a war correspondent in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. He died in 2004.