John Sack is an integral part of Esquire lore. This was the guy who sneaked aboard an American landing ship during the Korean War to interview Chinese POWs; the guy who shadowed the grunts of M Company in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and rolled out with them to Vietnam—the first time any reporter had truly embedded with the military. A helmeted, crew-cutted, go-to-hell-and-back-and-tell-it-like-it-is kind of shoe-leather reporter, Sack helped invent New Journalism. Everyone knows Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, but there’s an argument that Sack may have been the least known and best New Journalist of them all.
And, man, could he write. After reading “M,” Sack’s legendary October 1966 cover story about the aforementioned company of American infantrymen headed to Vietnam (which at 33,000 words remains the longest article ever published by the magazine), Arnold Gingrich, Esquire’s legendary founding editor, could only compare it to the work of Esquire’s—and American literature’s—greatest writers:
“The result is one of those landmark events of which there can never be more than a comparative few…. Probably ‘The Crack-Up’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ by Ernest Hemingway would come to mind soonest….”
Sack’s run-ins with the U.S. government were the stuff of legend. During the investigation of the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968—one of the U.S. military’s most horrific moments—Sack refused to turn over his notebooks and tapes to the prosecutors. Facing imprisonment, he steadfastly stood up for his rights as a reporter and famously balked at the feds: “I am a journalist, not an agent of the government.” Sack had become intimately familiar with the story of Lieutenant William Calley and his actions during the horrifying event, having written up a three-part series for Esquire on the soldier. This devastating and exhaustive reporting, which first appeared in Esquire in November 1970, later formed part of the book “Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story.”
For Esquire, John Sack has always covered the uncomfortable, the undeniable, the essential. His stories on the heavy-handed Chicago cops at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Holocaust deniers across the U.S. are as important today as they were when Esquire first published them.
But Sack’s legacy is cemented in “M,” Esquire Classic’s free story of the week. It’s required reading for anyone struggling to understand Vietnam—as most of us still are—and it’s a crucial turning point in the history of journalism, when the world was introduced firsthand to the misery and thrill and chaos and disorder of men at war.
And it’s also a subject of the biweekly Esquire Classic podcast. You can listen to that here, and read the full story here. You won’t regret it.