“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy-O?” An Appreciation of John Sack’s M, Forty Years On
Published in 1967, John Sack’s M, the unforgettable account of a U.S. Army company during the war in Southeast Asia, stands as a major literary achievement. In The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, author Marc Weingarten asserts that M “was the first great Vietnam book, and it’s unquestionably the first great New Journalism war book.”
Even before the publication of M, John Sack had an impressive resume. Educated at Harvard, he served as a volunteer infantryman in the Korean War. His articles appeared in Stars and Stripes, the New Yorker, and Harper’s, and he worked in Spain as the Madrid bureau chief for CBS News. On assignment for Esquire, Sack joined M Company at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in early 1966. Before long, he’d be Vietnam bound.
Because magazines of the day “provided a trussed-up Hollywood version of warfare in Vietnam that didn’t square with his experiences,” Sack set out to present the truth, to set the record straight on the military. Not every American soldier was “lean, laconic, and looking for a fight,” as they were frequently portrayed in the mainstream press; no, Sack knew, the Army also consisted of "sad sacks, boneheads, goldbricks, loudmouths, paranoiacs, catatonics, incompetents, semi-conscientious objectors, malingerers, cry-babies, yahoos, vulgarians, big time operators, butterfingers, sadists and surly bastards." Sack’s text represented “a major break from the time-honored tradition of war reportage, especially that of the World War II correspondents who pumped up the heroism of our boys on the front until they effaced every vestige of realism." M offered an accurate, unsparing picture of war and military life. “Sack’s grunts were scared, they were vulnerable…Soldiers weren’t superheroes; they were just unfortunate conscripts, forced to endure ungodly privations and accept death as a given of wartime life.”
Many of the two hundred soldiers in M Company interviewed by Sack “opened up readily to him,” and he “left nothing out; his protagonists’ most closely held thoughts about the war, marriage, combat, leadership in the field—it was all in there." Sack focused on a number of GI’s over the course of his book, including privates Varoujan Demirgian, Bernard Mason, Raymond M. Russo, Bob H. Yoshioka, Billy W. Morton, and Robert G. Smith, Jr.
In vivid language, Sack revealed the sheer brutality of war. Consider, for example, his graphic description of one American officer’s agonizing ordeal: “From out of thesmoking top of the tank wreck a tank soldier crawls. A lieutenant, his clothes are in terrible shreds, one of his legs isn’t there, he hasn’t one of his arms, instead of his genital organs there is a bleeding hole, the phosphorus has gone through his eyeballs, they are like glowing charcoals—they are like orange ‘exit’ bulbs."
Or take Sack’s unflinching portrait of Private Demirgian, a “fire-eating soldier” who grew to abhor the Vietnamese. “Demirgian hates the Vietnamese people…Faces like wetbrown prunes, teeth the color of coffee grounds, mouths like a hole in the kitchen sink—the breath of a garbage bag, I bet, I expect to see ants come crawling out…They’re ignorant people—dumb…They’re worthless…A really and truly detestable race of people. Demirgian’s year of duty among the Vietnamese had taught him to loathe them, the earth and Demirgian would be better rid of them, Vietnamese go to your damnable ancestors, die! Demirgian wants to kill communists because they’re the only indigenous people the Army lets him kill." In the book’s shocking conclusion, Private Demirgian finally kills his first Vietnamese, a seriously wounded Vietcong youth, “a gook.” In a relentless rage, Demirgian literally stomps his victim to death. “He looked at Demirgian slowly through one of his yellow eyes, an eye like a twist of lemon rind, an oily eye! He lifted one of his bloody arms! A living breathing communist, a boy of about eighteen, a Vietnamese in crinkled black, Demirgian brought down his foot on his face and crunch, Demirgian felt his little nose go like a macaroon, he said to the communist, ‘Bastard—well, was it worth it,’ kicking him in his eyeballs. ‘Stupid bastard—what did it get you,’ kicking him on his Adam’s apple…Demirgian had become a communist-killer by force of foot alone…Congratulations, Demirgian’s foot…‘Sorry about that,’ Demirgian said to the lifeless body, and he continued toward camp by the dawn’s early light, a Russian watch in his pants pocket—a souvenir." Intense stuff.
And the last few sentences of Sack’s text are absolutely startling. “ ‘Well,’ Demirgian said to another soldier, ‘I finally killed me a gook,’ and Demirgian smiled satisfiedly, Demirgian’s soul was at peace, Demirgian, a little later, started back to the country in whose interests he had been posted to Asia, to his green gabled home in Massachusetts, to the sign in the living room welcome home in red, white and blue! Safe and sound, Demirgian came marching home again! Let’s give him a hearty welcome then! Hurrah! Hurrah!”
Evaluating Sack’s remarkable work, the Christian Science Monitor called M “funny, lunatic, savage, compassionate, moral, real, important.” True words, indeed. Forty years on, it remains a powerful, provocative study. And it’s a relevant book, too, with a cocksure Texan in the White House and American troops battling insurgents in a bloody struggle overseas.
- Marc Weingarten’s The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight (New York: Crown, 2006) is a splendid history of such New Journalists as John Sack, Michael Herr, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion. As a New Journalist, Sack did not always follow the usual rules of style and punctuation.
- In preparing this review, I used the Authors Guild Backinprint.com Edition of M (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2004). M was originally published by The New American Library in February, 1967. The title of this article comes from M, p. 158.
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Vernon Clayson - 9/21/2007
I haven't read the book but I certainly will, for no other reason than that the author peels away some of the BS about what great people soldiers/sailors, airmen, whatever, are and describes them as I recall many of them. I've heard too many old timers praising all of his "buddies", actually, if you had one or two you could consider a real friend you were fortunate. It was a good experience for me, mostly because I grew up and learned some responsibility but for every friend there were ten, twenty, or more, bastards.
Robert Lee Gaston - 9/17/2007
As I remember we (grunts) viewed the Vietnamese as either afunctional, or disfunctional. We did everything we could to remove disfunctional elements from our environment. The remainder, we just did not care about.
Infantry privates are not sophisticated enough to deal with grey areas. Grey areas can get you killed. In short, staying alive involved not careing enough to hate.
Given all this, The only place I heard the phrase "Daddy-O" was in a 1950's Glenn Ford Movie called "Blackboard Jungle". Wrong decade dude.
Joe Dirvin - 9/17/2007
I was an infantry soldier in Viet Nam. I was also in the training cycle at Fort. Dix directly after the soldiers/characters written about in M Company. In fact, we had the same African-American Company Commander of the training company. He was strict and on people all the time. What is new about that?
I did read the book, M, many years ago and thought it different than most books on Viet Nam of that era; but hardly remarkable. John Del Vecchio's, "The 13th Valley", was on target and written in a more aesthetic style. The description of the soldiers in "M" is fantastic, if somewhat true at various moments. Yet, it really misses one character that would offer a reader a greater and truer frame of reference. His name was William Dellafield, the Third. Of course, he did not go to Viet Nam. He was Reserve or National Guard and a banker in training from the First City Troop of Philadelphia. Whose troops, incidentally, never went to such a demeaning and plebeian war as Viet Nam There is a story there somewhere.
M Company Training Company, Fort Dix, 1966
ex- 1/26th Infantry, 1st Inf. Division
Viet nam, 1966-67