M*A*S*H

It’s a M*A*S*H world now

Remembering the great antiwar TV series 50 Years later

iheard two kinds of war stories growing up in the 1970s. First, there were the World War II tales about how my grandfather had shipped out to the Pacific Theater at age 35 while my grandmother literally took his place on the assembly line of the auto plant where he worked, a real “Rosie the Riveter” — stories of sacrifice and grim determination to “get the job done.” The others came from a mirror universe called Vietnam, stories of burning draft cards and atrocities committed by American soldiers and outright rebellion against the state. A picture of a girl whose skin was burning off from napalm. The massacre at Kent State. The reek of defeat. To come of age in the 1970s was to be caught between these two narratives. By the time I turned 14, I was deeply conflicted about war. Was I supposed to be proud of our soldiers or ashamed of them? Could a war ever truly be called “good”?

Like many other Americans, I worked out these conflicted feelings by watching a dramedy about doctors and nurses serving in a mobile surgical hospital during the Korean War. M*A*S*H was a weekly therapy session for a country that was exhausted from the Vietnam debacle. It neatly straddled the post-Vietnam era, first airing on CBS in 1972 while the Paris Peace Accords were being negotiated and ending in 1983, as Reaganism had fully taken hold in America. A few months after the series finale, the U.S. invaded Grenada and newspapers were declaring an end to the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the supposed period of American self-doubt over its military strength and place in the world. M*A*S*H was Vietnam Syndrome television, served up weekly to a population that was still deeply traumatized by America’s failed war in Southeast Asia. Its influence on my generation was profound.

M*A*S*H celebrates its 50th birthday on September 17, and though the series has faded into pop culture history, it is worth remembering how much the show shaped the way many Americans think about war. M*A*S*H put war itself on the operating table, dissecting it in a hundred different ways that were unprecedented for scripted television. In its comedic universe, the army was an object of scorn or pity, overly bureaucratic and fumbling. The patriotism of Frank Burns and “Hot Lips” Houlihan was played for comedy. One memorable character, the Lebanese American soldier Maxwell Q. Klinger, dressed as a woman in order to earn himself a psychiatric discharge. The show’s moral center, a wisecracking but brilliant surgeon named Hawkeye Pierce, survived the war by drinking, organizing pranks, and bedding nurses — anything to numb the pain and pass the time. In nearly every one of its 251 episodes, M*A*S*H took viewers into the operating room and recovery rooms to show the effects of war on bodies and minds.

M*A*S*H was born squarely in the midst of a revolution in TV programming. Originally airing on Sunday nights, a year later after it had proved itself, the series was moved to a premium spot on Saturday night between two other legendary sitcoms, All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. With this lineup, CBS cemented its reputation as a purveyor of “relevancy television,” programming that grappled with contemporary issues and pushed boundaries.

As a child of nine or ten in the mid-1970s, it felt like these three TV shows had been running since the beginning of time. Archie Bunker’s sneer and Edith’s quavering voice were as familiar to me as the wallpaper in the basement room where the TV was located (on the other hand, Leave it Beaver reruns felt like they were being beamed in from another planet). It also felt as if the Vietnam War had been raging forever, a faraway catastrophe that was always on the news and always starting fights in my family about whether or not the war was justified. The arguments between Archie and Mike about patriotism and war sounded uncomfortably familiar to my young ears.

If the Bunkers felt like family, M*A*S*H felt like family history. I especially enjoyed watching the show with my grandfather, a World War II vet, who by then had retired from his job on the Continental Motors assembly line in Muskegon, Michigan, and would spend part of each summer living with us in New Jersey. He too had served in a MASH unit, the 132nd General Hospital, in and around New Guinea. According to him, the series captured the experience with uncanny accuracy — the wise-cracking surgeons who were only nominally acculturated to army life, the pranks, the fraternizing between nurses and doctors, the binge drinking, the sporadic attempts to apply army discipline, the look and feel of the surgical tent and the recovery rooms.

Because of this connection to my grandfather, watching M*A*S*H felt like I was reaching back to touch the history of war itself. I am certain I was not the only viewer who felt this way. In just three decades, the U.S. had fought three bloody wars overseas. Most of the audience, young and old, had been touched by these wars in some way. The producers and writers of M*A*S*H created a formula that tapped these experiences for comedy while mixing in what can only be described as an antiwar message.

War was not an easy subject for television in the early 1970s, and consequently, a strange bifurcation had emerged: While the Vietnam War was raging on the nightly news, the rest of television was still fighting World War II, which had by then become a familiar brand of entertainment comfort food, played for goofball comedy in lighthearted war sitcoms or ratcheted up for drama with a familiar cast of fearless, staccato-voiced, salt-of-the-earth characters in such movies as Sands of Iwo Jima, A Walk in the Sun, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Stalag 17. The first big wave of critical Vietnam movies would hit in just a few years — Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon — but in 1972 when M*A*S*H first aired, television was still looking nostalgically back at the “good war.”

Critical perspectives on war had begun to break through on television in the late 1960s. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In regularly satirized militarism and the Smothers Brothers on CBS took even more direct aim at the Vietnam War. In one memorable performance, the duo sang Phil Och’s “Draft Dodger Rag” with George Segal on banjo, with this biting refrain: “Well, I’m only 18, I’ve got a ruptured spleen and I always carry a purse.” M*A*S*H channeled these sentiments into the sitcom format by using the Korean War as a proxy for Vietnam. In the first two seasons especially, every joke about the military and every acerbic line about the futility of war carried the freight of America’s long, devastating conflict in Southeast Asia.

M*A*S*H borrowed from the war comedy sitcoms that had preceded it. The formula for the war comedy was created by Abbott and Costello, who made a series of comedic films during World War II that followed a template described here by television scholar Dennis Tredy:

Banter and wordplay, miscommunication, dereliction of duties, the slapstick antics of two misfits who seem to have no place in an otherwise austere and serious military environment, and a peacetime but war-ready atmosphere in which the main conflict is between the inept duo and their frustrated superior officers.

This was the basic formula for The Phil Silvers Show (featuring Sgt. Bilko) and the waves of military comedies that followed it, including popular escapist sitcoms like McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes. According to Tredy, these comedies “sidestepped any direct or even indirect connections to the military’s current endeavors abroad.”

M*A*S*H borrowed some of these war comedy tropes, especially in its interplay between Hawkeye and Trapper and then later, between Hawkeye and BJ, but with a new anti-establishment, antiwar undercurrent. Before M*A*S*H, war comedies could poke fun at the ineptitude of individual military characters and sometimes at military bureaucracy but never specifically at wars past or present or the morality of war in general.  M*A*S*H split that taboo right down the middle.

M*A*S*H was built from the ground up as antiwar entertainment. Drawn from a 1968 novel written by a surgeon who had served in a MASH unit in Korea and the Robert Altman film based on it, the series was steeped in the Vietnam War from the outset. The Altman film, which was released in theaters in autumn 1970, was a hit, topped only by Airport in sales and garnering Oscar nominations. It is also a bona fide anti-war classic. Wes Gehring writes in an article celebrating the 30th anniversary of the series in Entertainment Magazine, “many young fans of the film were all but oblivious to the Korean connection because the picture so totally seemed to speak to them on the ludicrousness that was Vietnam.” To make a TV series out of this film just two years later all but guaranteed that audiences would see Vietnam reflected in it.

M*A*S*H kept its antiwar critique going long after the war in Vietnam had ended. It was part of the show’s DNA from the start. “We wanted to say that war was futile,” said co-creator and principle writer Larry Gelbart, “to represent it as a failure on everybody’s part that people had to kill each other to make a point.” Alan Alda was lured to the project only after the producers assured him that war was not merely the set-piece for comedy.  The producers and actors were committed to capturing the realism and complexity of life in a war zone. The series’ original producer and creator Gene Reynolds wanted “to be sensitive to the horrors of combat and the valor of doctors, nurses and servicemen.” According to actor Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O’Reilly, many of the people involved in creating the series had made a promise to each other to always show “the reality of war whenever possible.”

Some critics have complained that M*A*S*H grew more conservative with age and with the election of Ronald Reagan, becoming more sanctimonious even as it took fewer risks, but on the subject of the consequences of war, the series was unrelenting. Nearly every episode featured operating room scenes in which doctors performed “meatball surgery” — amputating limbs, removing shrapnel, and sewing up bullet wounds. Many episodes introduced storylines of soldiers recovering from surgery, contending with the physical limitations or the mental health consequences of war. Sitcoms are creatures of formula; the formula for M*A*S*H revolved around that operating room from beginning to end.

M*A*S*H opened the door for me to explore my ambiguous feelings about war. I mainly credit Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, for making humanism and antiauthoritarianism sound so literate and seductive. In Season 3, for example, he delivers this little monologue in the operating room:

I just don’t know why they’re shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread. Transplant the American dream. Freedom. Achievement. Hyperacidity. Affluence. Flatulence. Technology. Tension. The inalienable right to an early coronary sitting at your desk while plotting to stab your boss in the back.

These were not sentiments I heard in my house growing up. My dad, who had served as a Radioman on an Aircraft carrier called the U.S.S. Lake Champlain, was fervently patriotic, and I was in awe of my grandparents’ sacrifices during World War II. But by the time I became a teenager, I could not relate to these attitudes. By then, I had read Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake and several other histories of the Vietnam War. Their sense of patriotism and duty did not line up with the realities of that war.

This disconnect would only grow wider throughout my life. The post-Vietnam wars were waged by professional soldiers who possessed overwhelming superiority in weapons and training. Grenada, Panama, The Gulf War, Bosnia. These wars may as well have been fought by another country for all the impact they had on my life. They required nothing of me, least of all my assent. I was a passive consumer of war, watching on television from thousands of miles away. The enemy was never a tangible entity. There were no interruptions in basic services, no scrap metal drives or conscription or war bonds. If I had chosen to ignore the news of these wars for two decades, my day-to-day existence would not have been any different.

The 9/11 attacks were a notable exception. For perhaps a year or more after that awful day, an unambiguous sense of moral purpose had returned to America. I felt what my grandparents must have experienced after Pearl Harbor. But less than two years later, as the country was winding itself up to invade Iraq, I found myself in Washington DC with tens of thousands of other Americans protesting the march to war. The war happened anyway, and the subsequent fiasco snuffed out that feeling of shared national purpose that had been engendered by the attacks on New York and Washington DC. Then, in the long stretch of two decades, the seemingly interminable grind of Afghanistan made many of us return to that Vietnam-era question of purpose: why are we over there? Over time, these “forever wars” began to feel a lot like Vietnam had, messy and morally indefensible. In fact, 30 of my 57 years have been lived in a country at war with insurgencies in three different countries, the surest sign that I live inside of an empire.

Every American now lives in that confusing space that stretches out between V-J Day and the Fall of Saigon, between the “good war” and the morally indefensible one. Americans were recently reminded of this conundrum last year when President Biden finally withdrew troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. The harrowing scenes of chaos and despair at the Kabul airport as tens of thousands tried to flee triggered memories of the inglorious end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975.

In the midst of the withdrawal from Kabul, I thought about the death of Henry Blake, the lovably clueless and amiable commander of the 4077th who, at the end of Season 3, receives his orders to go home and is then killed when his plane is shot down over the Sea of Japan. The heart-wrenching juxtaposition of his fervent preparations for a homecoming with his family and the sudden, unexpected announcement of his death reminded me of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and the pointless, random death of its protagonist Paul Bäumer just as World War I is drawing to a close. In its finest moments, M*A*S*H was capable of kindling the kind of pathos and sense of the sublime that one expects from an excellent novel. It never lets the audience forget that war is hell (or as Hawkeye once said, worse than hell because “there are no innocent bystanders in hell”). M*A*S*H’s main legacy is that it lived up to Gelbart’s aspirations. It is an enduring testament to the futility of war.•

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