As the iconic TV show reaches a milestone,
one writer looks back at how it influenced him
(This post was originally published on The Huffington Post)
In 1972, America was preoccupied with the bad news coming out of Vietnam. Watergate was just beginning to raise eyebrows. The Apollo program was coming to an end and, in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes were murdered during the Olympics by a terrorist group called Black September. On September 17th, a new television show appeared on CBS. It mixed comedy with the deadly serious business of warfare.
The early ratings for MASH were so abysmal that it was nearly canceled, but it would soon become one of the most critically acclaimed television shows in history. It would ask tough questions about war, as well as its brutal aftershocks. For me, it was the first prime time show that I was allowed to watch. So how did this satirical dark comedy about surgeons in the Korean War influence me? As MASH turns 45 years old, I decided to sit down and watch it again from start to finish. How has it aged? What does it mean today?
This show, which is so deeply embedded in popular culture, was originally based upon a movie directed by Robert Altman. The movie in turn was an adaptation of Richard Hooker’s bestseller, MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors, which chronicles the antics of Duke Forrest, Benjamin Franklin Pierce, and John McIntyre in the fictitious 4077th mobile army surgical hospital. The TV show that debuted in 1972 became the most beloved version of this story, thus making it the most successful television spin-off of a book or movie, ever.
MASH was welcomed into living rooms across America thanks to such memorable characters as Hawkeye, Trapper, Radar, Hot Lips, and Klinger. The humor was quick-witted and cutting. Authority figures were skewered. Martinis and hijinks took place one minute and then, in the next, the whole camp might be running to save wounded soldiers. Lazy poker games in the Swamp—that tent where the surgeons lived—were punctured by moments of wide eyed adrenaline. War was boring. War was busy. Many viewers understood this contradiction, especially since the first episode of MASH flickered onto television screens long before an end was in sight to the Vietnam War. For many viewers, MASH was familiar material. Different war. Same emotions.
The executives at CBS wanted a laugh track because that’s the way things had always been done with comedy, but the producers of MASH made sure that canned laughter wasn’t heard in the Operating Room. White scrubs and scalpels demanded a different perspective for the viewer than scenes that occurred elsewhere in the 4077th. In this way, MASH became the first show where humor and sorrow could turn on a dime. And although it’s easy to forget about this now—so many decades have passed and we have so many choices in home entertainment—MASH challenged the very notion of what television could do.
Perhaps the most striking example of this occurred in season three with “Abyssinia, Henry”. Here, the beloved commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, receives orders that he can return home to Bloomington, Illinois. For him, the war is over. Peace awaits. When we see him for the last time, he is dressed in civilian clothing and he climbs into a helicopter where is whisked away to an airport in Seoul. We’ve come to love Henry, and it’s easy to smile at his good fortune. However (and this is a painful however), the next scene takes place in the Operating Room. A shocked Radar O’Reilly stumbles in and Trapper barks at him to put on a surgical mask. Radar leans against a gurney and says, with great effort, “Henry Blake’s plane…was shot down over the Sea of Japan…it spun in…there were no survivors.” Everyone in the O.R. is stunned, and so too are the viewers in their living rooms. It’s a powerful reminder of the waste of war. Sometimes men and women don’t come home. The producers received hundreds of angry letters when this episode first aired, and yet it remains one of the most powerful moments in all of MASH.
Other episodes are just as innovative. Take, for instance, “The Interview,” which was filmed in black-and-white and has Clete Roberts chatting with members of the 4077th about their experiences. The questions were originally asked off camera and the actors’ ad-libbed responses became the script. It says much about how close the cast felt to their individual characters that they were able to offer up statements that seem believable, honest, and true. It remains a fan favorite.
And of course, there is the final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell & Amen”. When it aired on February 28, 1983, it became the most watched television show in American history. Over one hundred million viewers tuned in and, famously, when the final credits began to roll, the sewage system in New York City experienced an unprecedented surge of water from so many toilets flushing at the same time. “Goodbye, Farewell & Amen” remained the most watched television show in history until 2010. It took a sporting event to surpass what MASH had achieved.
This article, however, isn’t about the end of MASH; it’s about the beginning.
It all started with a golf ball being placed onto a tee. We see a soldier’s boot. The boot belongs to Trapper John McIntyre. He’s wearing a beige Hawaiian shirt, he squares his shoulders and swings while “My Blue Heaven” plays in the background. Hawkeye Pierce stands next to him. Yellow military font appears on the screen in capital letters. “KOREA, 1950”. There is a short pause. Another phrase appears, also in yellow military font, “a hundred years ago”. To the viewing public this would have felt true, at least in terms of social change. In the twenty-two years between 1950 and 1972, monumental changes had gripped the nation: the Space Race, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, a series of political assassinations, and an unpopular war in Vietnam. For those who had witnessed the 1960s, the Korean War might as well have been a hundred years ago.
After snapshots of characters going about their daily lives in the 4077th, the camera returns to Trapper and Hawkeye. Another golf ball is hit. It slices into a mine field, which causes a huge explosion. “Fore!” Trapper deadpans.
And then? The familiar chords of the opening credits start. Two helicopters skim around a hilltop. They thump towards camp like dragonflies. You can probably hear the theme song in your head right now, if you listen for it.
When watching MASH today it’s good to keep three different historical periods in mind: the 1950s, the 1970s, and 2010s. Obviously the history of the Korean War needs to be considered, but that particular history has been filtered through the social and political concerns that existed during the 1970s. The actors, writers, and producers of MASH raised issues that were contemporary for their audience and so, if we watch MASH today, we need to remember that we’re looking backwards at a show that in turn is looking backwards at a war.
This makes a few things about season one jarring for viewers today. The sexism is more evident, especially when a nurse is raffled off in the pilot episode. Hawkeye and Trapper also say things that would probably land them in hot legal water today. I say “probably” because it’s good to remember that the military, as well as several businesses, have recently had a number of problems with sexual harassment. Even though it’s easy for us to cluck our tongues at MASH, the objectification of women and sexual innuendo hasn’t changed as much as we might like to think it has. And while Hawkeye Pierce is certainly a womanizer, it’s worth pointing out that Alan Alda, who plays Hawkeye, is not. Aside from being married to the same woman for over sixty years, he is a father to three daughters, he was an active champion of the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s and, as MASH progressed, he wrote scripts that made Major Margaret Houlihan a more rounded character. (Fun fact: Alda’s birth name was Alphonso D’Abruzzo and he served as a gunnery officer for six months in Korea after the war.) My point here? Although it’s good to furrow our eyebrows at the way Hawkeye and Trapper treat nurses, it’s even better to consider how we can challenge such behavior today, now, in our military and in our own places of employment.
Through the lens of 45 years, it’s also noticeable how few African-Americans are in the cast. Segregation wasn’t abolished in the armed forces until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981. The Korean War, which began two years later, was the first time racial integration and combat existed together; nevertheless, African-Americans remain on the margins of MASH. This wasn’t always the case. In season one, for example, there are two black characters.
The first is Lieutenant Ginger Bayliss, played by Odessa Cleveland. She makes several appearances during the first two seasons but, like many of the other nurses in camp, she remains in the background and we don’t learn much about her. The second is Captain Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones, played by Timothy Brown. He appears in the novel and the movie as a neurosurgeon, and in the TV series we see him in the O.R. alongside Hawkeye, Trapper, and Henry. His character was dropped after the first season, possibly due to the offensive nickname. I can’t help but wonder what issues of race might have developed in the series if they had kept him though. A black neurosurgeon would have certainly opened up new creative ground and his character would have surely changed the narrative arc of the series as a whole.
And lastly, it’s jarring to see how the Koreans themselves are often sidelined and treated stereotypically. In the first few seasons, they are servants, shysters, prostitutes, and generally in need of saving. In the pilot episode, Ho-Jon, a teenager that cleans the Swamp, is accepted into Hawkeye’s alma mater and a nurse is auctioned off to raise funds to send him to America. The tuition money is raised, Father Mulcahy wins the rigged raffle, and Ho-Jon (a name that doesn’t even exist in the Korean language) is sent off to New England. While the assumption is that he has moved to a better place, I’m sure he’d rather stay in Korea and live in peace with his family.
Likewise, slavery and racist language is tackled in an episode called “The Moose”. Here, Sergeant Baker has bought a teenage girl for $500, making her his servant, his moose. Hawkeye and Trapper are rightfully shocked by this, especially when Baker calls her a gook—Hawkeye immediately says after this, “I don’t care for that word…knock it off”—and the two surgeons go about trying to free Young-Hi. When Baker refuses to sell her, they invite him to a poker game where, with a little cheating help from Radar, Hawkeye wins her. He sets her free, teaches her the ways of America, and ultimately sends her to a convent near Seoul.
In both of these cases, salvation comes from a white man who Americanizes them. Of the other Koreans that appear in MASH, they are frequently in need of help and they aren’t fully developed characters. It isn’t until the final two episodes of the last season that we are introduced to Soon-Lee Han, played by Rosalind Chao. The pain she feels for not being able to find her refugee parents is real and immediate. Notably, she becomes the only Korean to make a lasting influence on a member of the 4077th: Max Klinger, played by Jamie Farr, has spent the entire series trying to get out of the Army and return home, but when the war is over, he marries Soon-Lee and stays on when it’s clear that she will not stop looking for her parents. Soon-Lee is a strong character, she takes charge of her situation, and she refuses to be helpless.
What strikes me the most in viewing MASH now is the overall absence of Koreans. They are on the fringes, little is known about their culture, their desires, and their history. It makes me wonder what Koreans think about MASH today. I doubt it’s on rerun in Seoul.
It’s a Tuesday evening in the 1970s and I’m sitting on a braided carpet as the end credits for All in the Family roll. I’m happy that Archie Bunker is over because it’s boring, too adult, too politicky. But MASH? There’s something about it that makes me sit up. It’s about saving lives, and playing jokes on Frank Burns, and watching Klinger patrol the camp in high heels.
As I look back at my younger self, I’m aware that MASH was much more than just a TV show—it helped shape my understanding of the world. I dare say this is probably the case for many in Generation X. It was, after all, wildly popular when it first aired, and even when they decided to fold up the green tents and call it quits, it was on endless rerun during the 1980s. For the first two decades of my life, MASH was inescapable. I see now that it helped frame my worldview in ways that few other television shows of my youth (perhaps no other television show of my youth) ever did.
For starters, I learned that those in power will try to make you feel weak. Humor, however, can subvert authority and puncture blowhards. I also learned that nationalism is tribalism, that honesty requires strength, and that doing the right thing often means disobeying what you’ve been told to do. My early feelings about the military were certainly shaped by MASH, as were my distrust of the government and bureaucracy in general. This might have something to do with Watergate and the aftermath of the Vietnam War of course, but it could also be due to a recurring minor character called Colonel Flagg. He’s a diehard CIA operative who shows up at the 4077th to investigate unpatriotic behavior.
My early understanding of masculinity was surely shaped by Hawkeye Pierce. He isn’t physically strong, he cries without embarrassment, and even though he doesn’t want to be a hero or a leader, he accepts these roles when they’re thrust upon him. He stands up for the weak, he cares about those who suffer, and he sees humor as a way to cope with the human condition. For him, laughter is as necessary as oxygen.
At a fairly young age, I came to understand that war is bloody and awful and fearsome. I didn’t charge around the backyard with a snap gun firing at invisible enemies. Instead, I began to see that war ruins not just bodies, but also minds. When the physical fighting stops, another kind of fighting begins; it is a fight to restore, and fix, and make whole again.
Much of what I’ve just talked about can be seen in an episode called “Yankee Doodle Doctor”. It aired 45 years ago and it’s still funny, it still resonates with me. General Clayton has ordered a documentary of a MASH unit to be made and he sends a camera crew to the 4077th to gather footage. When Hawkeye and Trapper find out that it’s a propaganda piece, they subvert the General’s orders. Instead of a rah-rah puff piece, they film scenes around camp with Hawkeye dressed as Groucho Marx and Trapper as Harpo. They mug for the camera. They make goofy faces. They use a wooden mallet to knock out patients.
It’s the final scene that makes an abrupt shift from comedy to the deadly serious. Hawkeye appears on screen as himself. He’s in the Post-Op ward and he glances down at a wounded soldier. He stares into the camera and says, “Three hours ago, this man was in a battle. Two hours ago, we operated on him. He’s got a fifty-fifty chance. We win some, we lose some. […] Guns and bombs and anti-personnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it.”
Another thing I learned from MASH? Words have power. They last. They linger.
I didn’t think much about Korea while I was growing up. It was just a place, it was just a setting, it was just another country where Americans had gone to kill and die. As an adult though, I’ve come to care about this peninsula a great deal.
What do I mean by this? Well, my wife and I couldn’t have biological children so we began to think about adoption. Since my wife is British, and I lived in Europe for seven years, we were drawn to the idea of becoming a truly international family. I’ve written elsewhere about how we made this decision so I won’t go into the hows and whys here, but I will say that we adopted an amazing little boy from South Korea. One night, shortly after we brought him home, I went downstairs to watch TV. I was beat. Worn down. Totally drained. I cracked open a beer and flopped on the sofa. I used the remote to zap from one channel to the next.
That’s when an episode of MASH appeared on the screen. It wasn’t just any episode, though. It was “The Kids” (season four). This is the one where the 4077th takes in Nurse Cratty’s war orphans and each of the main characters gets attached to a child. I sat there and thought about my son sleeping upstairs. I thought about the events beyond his control that pulled him to America. I thought about his birth mother. I thought about how the Korean War had changed the direction of his ancestral country. I wondered how his great-grandparents had suffered in that civil war—a civil war that was fueled by the geopolitics of the Cold War. And as I continued to watch that episode, I began to wonder about the children in the camp. What were their stories? What had happened to their parents? I can’t say it was an earthshattering moment for me (I fell asleep before the show ended) but it was a reminder that my first impressions of Korea were shaped almost exclusively by an American television show in the 1970s.
Since the adoption of our son, I’ve learned a great deal about Korea. In fact, we traveled to Seoul earlier this year as a family in order to know the place better. We went to museums and temples and folk parks and backstreet restaurants. Although MASH remains a powerful, funny, and poignant show for me, there is no mention of the brutal Japanese occupation of 1910-1945 nor is there any reference to the “Comfort Women” who were forced into prostitution to pleasure Japanese soldiers. There is also no mention of the crippling poverty or the rapid rebuilding of Seoul after World War II or even the slightest nod to the influential Chosun dynasty, which existed for over half a millennia—in other words, there is no sense of a history that pre-dates the arrival of the 4077th.
When viewing MASH today, from the distance of 45 years, I see that it reflects American values even as it displays America’s ignorance for other cultures, especially other cultures that we go to war against. We know so little about the people we try to kill. All too often we send troops into countries without knowing the basics of our enemy’s history and culture. Would I care about the representation of Koreans in MASH if my son wasn’t a Korean-American adoptee? Maybe not. But I do care. Deeply. And so, because I love my son and his background, the world is framed differently.
Before writing this article, I decided to watch every episode of MASH again, in broadcast order. I was in the middle of season two when my son rumbled down the stairs. He’s eight now and full of beans. He flopped onto the sofa and stared at the characters in olive drab. The camp loudspeaker blared out an announcement: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, lunch will be served today.” The scene shifted to Hawkeye helping a wounded Korean girl in the Post-Op Ward. We sat in silence until one of the characters—Trapper—mentioned going down to Seoul.
My son sat up. “Hey, that’s my city.”
We talked about our recent trip to Seoul, the amazing food, the burnished armor in the National Museum of Korea, Namsang Tower, and the DMZ. My wife and I decided that our son was a too young for the DMZ, so I went alone where I stood on a militarized observation deck and stared at the mountains of North Korea. I heard propaganda over a loudspeaker and wondered about the lives that were just beyond the minefields and razor wire. Maybe my son has blood relatives in North Korea?
We turned our attention back to the TV and watched the Swampmen hustle out of their tent to treat the freshly wounded. My son asked where the 4077th was located and I said, “Near a village called Uijeongbu.”
I grunted at the realization that I must have passed it on my way to the DMZ a few months ago. I hadn’t thought about that before.
“Uijeongbu?” my son said. “That sounds like déjà vu.”
(What can I say? He’s a bright kid.)
“Daddy? I have a question. Can you show me where it is on a map?”
We trotted upstairs to his bedroom. He’s got a poster of Harry Potter on the front of his door and, on the back, is a huge map of Korea. I used the pointer of my finger to find Uijeongbu, which is now a city of 430,000. We stared at the gash of the DMZ slicing the peninsula in half. North and South. The 38th parallel. Technically speaking, the Korean War isn’t over. It could turn hot again at any moment if cooler heads do not prevail. What started in 1950 is still with us, it still haunts us, and in many ways it, too, is still on rerun.
As we stared at the map, I heard the end credits of MASH play downstairs. My son leaned into me and we stood there, together, looking at Korea.