Sack, John 1930-2004

views updated

SACK, John 1930-2004

PERSONAL: Born March 24, 1930, in New York, NY; died of prostate cancer, March 27, 2004, in San Francisco, CA; son of John Jacob (a clerk) and Tracy Rose (Levy) Sack. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1951; Columbia University, New York, NY, graduate study, 1963–64.

CAREER: Writer and journalist. United Press, correspondent in Peru, 1950, Japan and Korea, 1953–54, and Albany, NY, 1954–55; Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS News, documentary writer and producer in New York, NY, and Paris, 1961–66; Esquire, New York, correspondent in Vietnam, 1966–67, contributing editor, 1967–78, correspondent in the Persian Gulf, 1991; Playboy, Chicago, IL, contributing editor in Los Angeles, CA, beginning 1978; KCBS-TV, Los Angeles, news writer and producer, 1982–84. Military service: U.S. Army, 1951–53; served in Korea; war correspondent, Pacific Stars and Stripes, 1952–55.


The Butcher: The Ascent of Yerupaja, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1952 (published in England as The Ascent of Yerupaja, Jenkins [Lancaster, England], 1954).

From Here to Shimbashi, Harper (New York, NY), 1955.

Report from Practically Nowhere, Harper (New York, NY), 1959.

M, New American Library (New York, NY), 1967.

Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story, Viking (New York, NY), 1971 (published in England as Body Count: Lieutenant Calley's Story, Hutchinson [London, England], 1971).

The Man-Eating Machine, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1973.

Fingerprint, Random House (New York, NY), 1983.

An Eye for an Eye, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Company C: The Real War in Iraq, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1995.

The Dragonhead: A True Story of the Godfather of Chinese Crime—His Rise and Fall, Crown (New York, NY), 2001.

Author of television documentaries. Contributor to magazines, including Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, Holiday, Town and Country, Playboy, Eros, and New Yorker.

The John Sack Collection at Boston University includes manuscript drafts, notes, audiotapes, videotapes, and correspondence related to Sack's career.

Lieutenant Calley has been translated into German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Finnish.

SIDELIGHTS: "John Sack's devotion to accuracy and fairness places his writings among the best examples of the ability of literary journalism to capture truth," declared James Stewart in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Working within a school of reporting often criticized for its use of literary license, Sack, one of New Journalism's pioneers, has built a career on accuracy. His stories are as vivid and compelling as those of others using that style, and yet, despite the assumptions of some critics, he has made it his practice not to fictionalize."

Sack's reporting career began when he was just fifteen years old and took a job as a stringer for the Mamaroneck Daily Times, a Long Island newspaper. By the time he was in college, he was a stringer for the United Press and for the Boston Globe. Working as a correspondent in Peru for the United Press, he accompanied an expedition up Yerupaja, which was then the highest unclimbed mountain in the Americas. Out of this experience came his first book, The Butcher: The Ascent of Yerupaja. His next, From Here to Shimbashi, records his years in the Army, including his service in the Korean War.

Sack once told CA that his "best or best-known book" is "M, which was excerpted in 1966 as the cover story in Esquire, the longest article in Esquire's history." M is the story of "M" Company of the 1st Advanced Infantry Training Brigade. "John Sack followed the company from the inanity of a training inspection at Fort Dix to the senseless killing of a seven-year-old girl in Vietnam," wrote Stewart Kampel in the New York Times. "He has produced a gripping, honest account, compassionate and rich, colorful and blackly comic, but with that concerned objectivity that makes for great reportage." Writing in Book Week, Dan Wake-field praised M as "one of the finest, most perceptive books of reportage in recent years. One must go back to Orwell for appropriate comparisons of journalistic excellence." Robert Kirsch in the Los Angeles Times named M as "the whole story, one of the most compelling ever told about men in war. This is the way it is." Sack's Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story is the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. In a letter to CA, the author noted that it is his "most infamous book … in the course of writing which the federal government arrested and indicted me but never prosecuted me."

The 1983 book Fingerprint has been compared by reviewers to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Like that classic, wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, Fingerprint "begins with the events leading up to the author's conception and birth, and it similarly boasts a narrative positively crammed with digressions and asides." Kakutani continued: "Gifted with an eye for physical detail and a canny ear for dialogue, Mr. Sack is at his best when he sticks closely to the facts of his own life…. It is when he attempts to pontificate on the large evils of society that he becomes trite and moralistic." Reviewing Fingerprint in the Washington Post Book World, Joseph McLellan noted that the author "does write well and there is a germ of truth in what he has to say…. In an age when we are teaching computers to become more and more" user-friendly, "we may hope to see better days ahead—speeded, perhaps, by amorphous howls such as Fingerprint."

"Sack has hung about since the '50s, participating in the kinks and enthusiasms of the succeeding times while writing about them critically but on the whole amiably," noted Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "He is a sunny man, or a sunny writer, at least: Fingerprint, though a concentrated denunciation of what he sees as the central fallacy of our civilization, draws its originality not so much from the fierceness or cogency of the denunciation as from its exuberance."

In 1993 Sack became the center of controversy again with the publication of An Eye for an Eye, a story of abuse in the internment camps set up by the postwar Communist Polish government to hold ethnic Germans and Poles suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. Some of the commandants of these camps were Polish Communist Jews—including people who had themselves been held in concentration camps during World War II—who took out their resentments on their German prisoners. In a series of interviews with some of these commandants, Sack presented a drastic picture of anti-German brutality that, according to some reviewers, distorted historical truth. In addition, historians complained that Sack's free, journalistic style and the unorthodoxy of his documentation made it difficult or impossible to check his sources.

Basic Books, Sack's publisher, attracted criticism for its sensational marketing of the book and its hurried publication. Sack's book was very nearly never published; according to the author, reported Jon Wiener in the Nation, "no one else but Basic Books would publish the book: It was rejected by something like a dozen publishers, until Steve Fraser of Basic Books signed it up." One of the reasons that Basic Books accepted An Eye for an Eye so quickly was because 60 Minutes was doing a piece on one of Sack's interviewees. The book was rushed through publication within two months, about one-fourth of the time normally taken.

A number of critics agreed that the events Sack describes in An Eye for an Eye did happen—that some Communist Polish Jews who had been held by the Nazis in concentration camps during World War II were appointed by the Communist government of Poland in 1945 to command camps interning ethnic Germans and suspected German collaborators, and that some of these Polish Jews took their frustrations out on their prisoners. However, they questioned his conclusions and implications as well as his methods. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, an assistant professor at Harvard University's school of government and one of Sack's earliest and harshest critics, declared in his review for the New Republic that Eye for an Eye "strings together facts and pseudo-facts about individual Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust with the effect of creating a sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle indictment of Jews in general." "The book fails disgracefully in much of what it does present—misshapen stories and wild innuendo—and in all of what it does not present, namely a serious consideration of the context and the meaning of the events that it describes," Goldhagen concluded, "and the analytical and moral concepts that it employs." "There's one more problem with Sack's claim that the Jews in his book 'became like Nazis'—they didn't," asserted Wiener. "The Holocaust was not just sadistic SS men whipping and killing Jews; it was bureaucratic, scientific and comprehensive in its mobilization of the resources of Europe's leading industrial society for the purposes of extermination."

Some reviewers attacked Sack's critics, claiming that the Jewish community objected to the presentation of Jews as persecutors of Germans at the end of World War II. According to John Lombardi in New York magazine: "Alarms went off that Sack had produced a tract that would prove useful to … traditional anti-Semites and right-wing crazies interested in denying the Holocaust and showing that Jews were as 'bad as Nazis': and excitement grew at Basic Books, which signed Sack up, and 60 Minutes, which dispatched its own researchers to verify Sack's reporting." Carolyn Toll Oppenheim wrote in the Progressive that, although she "questioned the book's failure to blast the Polish Communists" who may have placed the abusive camp commanders in their positions, and objected to the fact that "Sack never refers to the ultimate fate of many of those Polish Jewish Communists," she nonetheless felt that "rather than take on the task of supplying such context, some of Sack's critics chose simply to discredit his entire story." In particular, Oppenheim refers to a 60 Minutes interview with "Elan Steinberg, director of the World Jewish Congress, who told Sack … 'You'd better be damn sure you have your evidence there. Because if you don't you're … insulting the memory of six million martyrs.'"

Oppenheim herself took a less harsh view of Sack's conclusions. "Inside," she remarked, "the book is far more balanced and empathetic toward the Jewish avengers than the jacket advertises. Sack, a literary journalist, records his interviews and archival research in a novel-like, 'in-your-face' style with recreated dialogue that packs the brutal punch of a war story…. What comes out is not nice, and it wasn't meant to be nice. It's meant to try to get to the truth about war, violence, and other ugly things most of us want to ignore."

In 1991, Sack returned to his role as war correspondent when he accepted an assignment from Esquire magazine to cover the Persian Gulf war. He tried to use the same methods that had worked for him in M, attaching himself to a company in the First Infantry Division and intending to follow them from training grounds to battlefield. Severe restrictions on the military press held him back at headquarters when the air war began, however. Yet Sack disguised himself in army garb and managed to rejoin his unit. "Of the fifteen hundred accredited journalists covering the conflict, Sack was the only one to stay with a frontline unit throughout the war," asserted Stewart in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. His experiences eventually became Company C: The Real War in Iraq. Stewart went on to note: "The 241-page book presents a view of the war unseen by most Americans, who formed their impressions of the conflict from television coverage. Far from the video-game image created by broadcast coverage, the combat, as Sack described it, was as brutal, confusing, and frightening as in any other war."

In his final book before his death in 2004, titled The Dragonhead: A True Story of the Godfather of Chinese Crime—His Rise and Fall, Sack tells the story of Johnny Kon, a powerful leader in the highly clandes-tine and dangerous criminal society known as the Chinese Triads. Sack recounts how Kon rose to power from being a petty criminal to heading a lucrative operation in heroin smuggling after the Vietnam War ended. Kon's group, known as the Big Circle, eventually made encroachments on the U.S. heroin smuggling market, a move partly motivated by Kon's twisted desire to avenge his children's death during the Cambodian War. Despite being on America's most-wanted list and having a dead-or-alive bounty placed on his head by the Taiwanese government, Kon continued to flourish until the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency indicted Kon's entire family for illegal drug trading in order to get Kon to make a plea bargain. Mary Carroll, writing in Booklist, called the book "an intimate portrait" and noted: "True-crime devotees will relish the international flavor of this account as well as the multidimensional portrait of a crime lord." In a review in Library Journal, Jim Burns noted that Kon is "a man of infinite complexity, a man worth reading about." Publishers Weekly contributors Mark Rotella, Charlotte Abbott, and Sarah F. Gold called the book "a swiftly paced, artful account" and also a "slick, meticulously crafted narrative."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945–1995, First Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Polsgrove, Carol, It Wasn't Pretty Folks, But Didn't We Have Fun?: "Esquire" in the Sixties, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1995.

Schroeder, Eric James, Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews with American Writers, Praeger (Westport, CT), 1992, pp. 12-31.


Atlantic, February, 1983, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Fingerprint, p. 105.

Booklist, May 15, 1995, Roland Green, review of Company C: The Real War in Iraq, p. 1630; August, 2001, Mary Carroll, review of The Dragonhead: The Godfather of Chinese Crime—His Rise and Fall, p. 2062.

Book Week, March 12, 1967, Dan Wakefield, review of M.

Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1967.

Esquire, November, 2001, review of The Dragonhead, p. 54.

Fort Scott Tribune (Fort Scott, KS), May 20, 1995, p. 1.

Journal of Military History, July, 1995, review of Company C, p. 564.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2001, review of The Dragonhead, p. 14.

Library Journal, January 1, 1983, review of Fingerprint, p. 60; August, 2001, Jim Burns, review of The Dragonhead, p. 135; April 15, 1995, John F. Camenga, review of Company C, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1967, Robert Kirsch, review of M.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 2, 1983, Richard Eder, review of Fingerprint, p. 2.

Nation, October 23, 1967; June 20, 1994, Jon Wiener, review of An Eye for an Eye, p. 878.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 1994, Raymond A. Schroth, review of An Eye for an Eye, p. 16.

New Republic, December 27, 1993, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, review of An Eye for an Eye, pp. 28-34.

New York, May 9, 1994, John Lombardi, "The Book They Dare Not Review: An Inconvenient Holocaust Story," pp. 18-21.

New York Times, March 7, 1967, Stewart Kampel, review of M; January 31, 1983, Michiko Kakutani, review of Fingerprint, pp. 17(N), C26(L); November 1, 1994, p. 3.

New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1967.

Parameter: US Army War College Quarterly, winter, 1998, review of Company C, p. 145.

Progressive, September, 1994, Carolyn Toll Oppenheim, review of An Eye for an Eye, p. 39.

Publishers Weekly, November 5, 1982, review of Fingerprint, p. 64; April 10, 1994, review of An Eye for an Eye, p. 60; March 13, 1995, review of Company C, p. 54; April 15, 1996, review of Company C, p. 63; August 20, 2001, Mark Rotella, Charlotte Abbott, and Sarah F. Gold, review of The Dragonhead, p. 69.

Washington Post, February 7, 1997, David Streitfeld, "'Revenge' Talk Scratched: Holocaust Museum Disinvited Author," p. D1.

Washington Post Book World, March 5, 1983, Joseph McLellan, review of Fingerprint, p. C2.


Mob Magazine, (December 26, 2002), review of The Dragonhead.


"The Commandant" (transcript), CBS News-60 Minutes, Burrelle's Information Services, November 21, 1993.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945–1995, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.


Esquire, June, 2004, Mark Warren, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2004, p. B10.

New York Times, March 31, 2004, p. C13.

Time, April 12, 2004, p. 22.

Washington Post, April 2, 2004, p. B9.