One of my earliest memories — one that I may have altered significantly in the 34 years or so since it happened — is of me sitting on the floor of the living room in the trailer house I shared with my mom, my face probably a little too close to the TV, attempting to read the credits of an episode of “M*A*S*H.” I couldn’t really read at that point, but I had been read to a lot, and I could sort of halfway “read” fairy tales and whatnot that my mom and grandparents had already read to me several times.
This is what I have been told, that I surprised the people who read to me by reading ahead in stories I already had heard before. I don’t actually know if that happened before that one day I sat in front of the TV trying to read the credits of M*A*S*H. As I mentioned, I am not a hundred percent sure that this memory even happened the way I remember it happening.
But I am pretty sure I remember trying to read the M*A*S*H credits, what with the yellow Army stenciled lettering and whatnot, and not really being able to decipher anything.
I was only about two, in my defense.
But anyways, getting on with it, the memory I may have manufactured many years later had to do with my biological father. He and my mom had just recently split up.
Before I go any further, I would like for the reader to know that I am not embellishing anything here. I am relating things my mom and others have told me about myself as a toddler, and you are free to believe or disbelieve them as you choose.
But in addition to “reading ahead” at quite an early age, some time around the time I was two or so, I began speaking in more or less complete sentences. Everyone was sort of worried about me, I have been told, because I didn’t really speak at all for the longest time, and then one day I just more or less began conversing in more or less complete sentences.
I would tell my mother, using passable grammar, that my diaper needed to be changed, for example. I don’t really know how common this sort of thing is; I merely mention it to point out that I was speaking at a somewhat advanced level for my age.
This is what I have been told. I obviously have next to no memory of this period in my life. But anyways, this memory has to do with a conversation my mother and I may or may not have gotten into about my father. He worked at a local television station at the time, quite possibly the one I was watching M*A*S*H on that particular day.
And like I said, I don’t really remember clearly, but I think I was trying to convince my mother that my father’s name would appear in the M*A*S*H credits. Which, of course, it didn’t.
I “remembered” this episode many years after the day that it may or may not have actually happened. I had moved back home after spending two years as an ESL teacher in South Korea. At the time, TV Land was showing M*A*S*H reruns most every evening. And due to the fact that it was set in Korea, and that I had all sorts of reasons to think about Korea that I had been putting off thinking about, I became somewhat obsessed with the show. Especially considering that my mom had told me many times growing up that I used to love watching it as a kid.
My liking the show as a kid may or may not be due to the fact that Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce had the same hair color and hair-do that my dad had.
But I am not sure about that. I do know that the “memory” I had about trying to read M*A*S*H credits to find my dad’s name stuck in my head for quite a while after I first “remembered” it. Maybe it really happened the way I remember it happening, maybe it didn’t. I really can’t say for sure.
At any rate, I incorporated the “memory” into a song I wrote, or at least into one lyric.
(Also, Norah Jones is my favorite singer, on the off-chance anyone listens to that song and wonders who I was talking about.)
At any rate, as long as TV Land played M*A*S*H reruns, I kept watching them. I think I saw every episode at least once, and a few episodes more than a few times. All sentimental attachments I have to the show aside, it’s a great show. The dialogue was witty, it managed to be lewd without being vulgar, it had a well-developed cast that viewers actually cared about, and above and beyond all that, it was a perfect illustration of the absurdity of war.
A recurring theme on the show had to do with another absurdity of modern life, one we humans just can’t seem to get past: racism. There was the episode where the racist white soldier Sergeant Condon asked not to be given any “colored blood” in a transfusion. Hawkeye and Trapper resolve to teach this fellow a lesson: while he is sedated, they swab his skin with tincture of iodine, which darkens his skin. The soldier is congratulated by Lieutenant Ginger Bayliss, an African-American nurse who is in on the joke, when she says “They got you down as white…way to go, baby!”
Granted, the show sort of stuck its foot in its mouth with regard to racism a few times. The story told near the end of the aforementioned episode about Dr. Charles Drew has been widely disputed. It is true that Drew was African American, it is true that he improved techniques for blood storage and blood transfusions, and it is also true that he protested the practice of racially segregated blood transfusions, but the story of him actually dying because of segregated hospitals is disputed. At any rate, M*A*S*H addressed an actual historical issue regarding blood transfusions: they were racially segregated by the Red Cross until 1950, despite there being no scientific rationale whatsoever for doing so, and they called attention to Dr. Charles Drew, a pioneer in the field.
It’s also been argued that the character Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones is an illustration of racism in the show — not as in “M*A*S*H was against racism” as I am trying to illustrate, but as in “M*A*S*H is itself racist” — and I have to say based on that ugly racial slur of a nickname, I can’t really argue with that point. Jones’ character was, however, an accomplished neurosurgeon, and in the first season, at least, one of the central characters. The show wrote him out, allegedly, because they wanted to focus on Hawkeye and Trapper. I suppose I have to take the internet at its word on that.
It could also be said that many of the Korean characters on the show lacked depth. But there were notable exceptions, such as Sam Pak and Charlie Lee. It’s worth noting, however, that both of the actors who played these characters were actually Japanese, as were a great many other “Korean” characters that appeared on the show.
I don’t know if that represents anything “racist” about the show or not. Most likely, there were more Japanese-American than Korean-American actors available for casting at the time M*A*S*H was being produced. But that’s just a theory I haven’t actually researched at all.
It could definitely be said that M*A*S*H was an illustration of Orientalism, which you can read about from the link provided. I would not argue with anybody who made that case.
As a matter of fact, to insert myself into the narrative again, when I decided to go teach ESL in South Korea, I had no idea whatsoever what to expect. In my mind’s eye, when I was trying to imagine what my apartment would be like, I pictured something roughly equivalent to the inside of one of the tents at the 4077th. I was pleasantly surprised to find that South Korea was much more advanced than what I had been shown as a kid in M*A*S*H, and was actually a good bit more advanced than where I grew up or where I was living before I went there.
I won’t deny the “Orientalism” charge, should anyone make it. That’s there in plain sight, for anyone to see. But I would like to state that I don’t really think it’s possible for a white westerner to write about or make a movie or TV show about any quote-unquote “Oriental” culture (I use that term only to be linguistically consistent) without there being an element of “Orientalism” involved. But in M*A*S*H’s defense, I would argue that the “Orientalism” that arguably exists in M*A*S*H at least attempts to minimize differences and humanize the people being portrayed.
Before I get into examples of that, I would also like to proffer the idea that something similar to the concept of “Orientalism” occurs whenever any culture examines and writes about (or makes movies or TV shows about) any other culture. For example, there is a world of difference between actual culture and society in the UK and the way culture and society in the UK is portrayed on American TV. And vice-versa. When one culture attempts to portray another, there is always going to be a disconnect between reality and what is being portrayed.
And to be sure, when there is not only a language barrier but also a significant cultural difference, well, the disconnect is going to be much wider. At any rate yes, the case could be made that M*A*S*H is an example of “Orientalism,” but I would venture that for what it’s worth, it meant well.
There are several instances of American soldiers using racial slurs against Koreans, and central characters (usually Hawkeye) chiding or otherwise belittling the American soldiers who use those slurs. There are several instances of North Korean and Chinese troops needing medical care at the 4077th, and certain doctors (usually Major Frank Burns) objecting to treating them. And Hawkeye usually sets them right.
And it could be argued that Hawkeye is presented as a “White Savior” in such instances. But I don’t think that accusation really holds much water: Hawkeye doesn’t “lead” any nonwhite people, he simply treats their injuries, just like he would treat anyone else’s. The overall theme of M*A*S*H is that all people are people, war is stupid, and whatever differences there are between cultures can be solved by simply behaving well toward each other.
And getting good and drunk. Remember the episode where all the Greek soldiers celebrated Easter at the 4077th, and everybody got hammered on ouzo and danced all night? Most of the Greek soldiers didn’t speak any English. That was a good episode…
But moving on, and inserting myself back into the narrative again, prior to my re-introduction to M*A*S*H a few years back by way of TV Land, I had remembered hearing and reading many things about how Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character was something of a “feminist icon.” That he was an example of a “sensitive male” if there ever was one. And frankly, it took me quite a while to understand what I think was the rationale behind those characterizations.
I mean, Hawkeye Pierce isn’t exactly a “gentleman” or anything. He is constantly hitting on nurses, chasing after a different one each week, and he gets his face slapped on a pretty regular basis.
I mean, look at the guy:
To be sure, this aspect of the “Hawkeye” character became less and less prevalent as the seasons progressed. He didn’t mention Geisha houses nearly as often, for example, after Trapper left the show. Whether this was a conscious decision to soften Hawkeye’s image, or just a natural reaction by the writers to the introduction of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt to the show is uncertain. Nonetheless Hawkeye kept on propositioning nurses left and right, and getting slapped in the face on a semi-regular basis.
What I didn’t quite understand, as I sat there watching Hawkeye get slapped again and again in episode after episode, is that “feminist” and “sensitive” do not equate to “neutered.” Here’s why I think Hawkeye was something of a feminist hero: it wasn’t because he chased nurses around, it wasn’t because he occasionally said something inappropriate, and it wasn’t because they slapped him.
Why I think Hawkeye was something of a feminist hero is the way he reacted to being slapped. He didn’t slap back (he generally acknowledged that he had the slap coming), and he didn’t hold anything against any nurse who rejected him. He simply took his slap and moved on.
And to be sure, Hawkeye got infatuated with some nurses more than others. And despite his being quite a bit of a cad, he was a cad with principles.
Such as in the episode where Hawkeye spends most of the episode courting Lieutenant Regina Hoffman, but is forced to be late to the date he finally convinced her to have with him because he was helping an American soldier get his marriage to a Korean woman approved. Lieutenant Hoffman is upset, reveals herself to be a bit of a racist…and Hawkeye splits.
I dunno. It’s my favorite TV show of all time. What can I say?
I could sit here and write about it all night, and I may very well come back to it at some point…but the season premiere of “Better Call Saul” is about to come on.
So anyways…thanks for reading!
So I decided when I read back over this blog post that it didn’t appear to be finished. It wasn’t what I set out to do when I began writing it, it’s only part of that.
I didn’t get far enough into my own personal impressions regarding the show. In addition to discussing various criticisms of the show – valid criticisms – I wanted to just kinda ramble on about how much I liked this or that episode, or character, or whatever. But at the same time, I don’t want to start a whole series of blog posts about M*A*S*H, and I’d like to leave all the stuff up above regarding racism, Orientalism, etc. just so my personal impressions of various episodes and characters and whatnot can be read as impressions that are aware of the show’s many faults.
Plus, my most recent (and only) viewing of the show that has been more or less in its original broadcast order has only advanced to the beginning of season 4.
I have owned seasons 1 and 2 for a few years now. For whatever reason, my interest in M*A*S*H was renewed a few months ago, and I rewatched all (or maybe most, I can’t remember) of seasons 1 and 2, and I ordered season 3 after that. I watched all of season 3, some episodes more than once, and then I wrote the first part of this blog post.
Now I have season 4 on DVD, and I have watched the first two episodes, the ones that deal with replacement characters coming to the 4077th at the beginning of this season.
In the final episode of season 3, as many M*A*S*H fans are undoubtedly aware, Colonel Henry Blake receives his orders to go home. Henry is of course ecstatic to finally be able to go back home to his wife and daughter, and everyone at the 4077th is simultaneously happy for Henry and sort of sad: he’s a great guy, a great surgeon, and a crappy excuse for a Colonel…at any rate Col. Blake’s departure from the 4077th is bittersweet.
So Col. Blake says goodbye to everyone, everyone says how much they’ll miss him, and he leaves.
Later in the operating room, while everyone is busy doing meatball surgery, Radar receives a call bearing some really bad news, and he informs everyone in the OR that Col. Henry Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan (he was flying to Tokyo to connect with a longer flight home; as a sidenote Koreans generally refer to the “Sea of Japan” as the “East Sea”), that it had spun in, and that there were no survivors.
Everyone is shocked, but they don’t have any time to be shocked: they have patients to tend to.
I think I read somewhere that the cast wasn’t told about Henry’s fate until they shot the scene where they found out about it. I think I read that, at least…
And this is where season 4 picks up. The beloved Col. Blake is dead, and it’s not clear who will take his place. In the meantime, Major Frank Burns has taken command, and attempted to make the 4077th into more of a “regular Army” sort of unit, with drills and salutes and regulations an whatnot, all of which result in various slapstick jokes and whatnot, jokes that are actually a lot funnier if you turn the laugh track off.
Anyways, at the beginning of the first episode, Hawkeye returns from a drunken Geisha-fest in Tokyo. He went there alone for some reason – I forget if the episode explicitly says why – and his usual partner in crime Trapper stayed back at the 4077th. When Hawkeye returns, Radar tells him that while he was in Tokyo, Trapper also got his orders to go home. Trapper and Radar had tried to call Hawkeye in Tokyo, to tell him the good news, and so Hawkeye and Trapper could meet up or whatever one last time before Trapper left, but Hawkeye had been ignoring phone calls.
Meanwhile, news comes of Trapper’s replacement, Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, and Burns sends Radar off to Kimpo in a jeep to pick him up. In the hopes of catching his best friend Trapper before he leaves, so he can say goodbye, Hawkeye (against Burns’ orders) goes with Radar to Kimpo. Hawkeye drives, and after several misadventures along the way, he and Radar arrive in Kimpo just about ten minutes after Trapper’s plane left. Hawkeye is really upset that he was unable to tell his best friend Trapper goodbye, but just about the time he starts feeling sorry for himself, Captain Hunnicutt appears.
Hawkeye decides they all need a drink, so long story short they go get one (Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, at Hawkeye’s insistence, wears one of B.J.’s sets of Captain’s bars to get into the Officer’s Club in Kimpo), or maybe more than one, and when they leave their jeep has been stolen.
So, they steal another one, and after an eventful ride home where B.J. is introduced to the wonderful world of mortar fire and war in general, they make it back safely to the 4077th.
And Frank gets blamed for the stolen jeep. It was a general’s jeep.
At the end, as Radar sits outside his office working on his tan, Col. Sherman Potter arrives and announces he will be the new commanding officer of the 4077th.
Now I had seen this hour-long episode before, on TV Land, at least a couple of times. I like it for a number of reasons. One reason is that it gives Hot Lips and Ferret Face a few extra minutes on screen – love them or hate them (hint: you’re supposed to hate them) they’re an integral part of the show, and the writers of M*A*S*H did well in this episode, with regard to making the best of what was kind of a bad situation, cast-wise: two of the shows main characters, Henry and Trapper, two fan favorites, were now gone. Another reason I like it is the way it introduces B.J. and gives ample reason for he and Hawkeye to be new best buds, essentially replacing Trapper.
It’s a good episode, at any rate, despite Henry and Trapper’s absence. And after I finally got around to reading why they were no longer on the show, this episode and the next one got a little more interesting.
As it turns out, McLean Stevenson (Henry) and Wayne Rogers (Trapper) both felt that the series was focusing too much on Hawkeye and not on them. And to be fair, it did make some changes from the novel and film to the various characters in such a way that favored Hawkeye. For example, in the novel and film, Trapper was a thoracic surgeon, the only one at the 4077th. This expertise gave Trapper the spotlight, so to speak, in situations that called for that expertise in the novel and film.
In the series, Hawkeye was made the thoracic surgeon. In episodes that dealt with that expertise, Hawkeye was made the center of attention, not Trapper.
So after season 3, after getting tired of playing second and third fiddle to Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, Stevenson and Rogers picked up their ball and went home, so to speak.
Not that I can say I blame them. At any rate, I think it’s interesting that in the opening episode of season 4, the plot is centered around how much Hawkeye is going to miss his friend Trapper. Trapper’s departure is used to once again thrust Hawkeye to the forefront.
Not that I can say I blame the writers for writing it that way. The shows other two main stars were gone, what else could they do? And to be fair, it gave Trapper’s character a pretty long farewell, approximately as long as the half-hour episode at the end of season 3.
At any rate they made the best out of a bad situation. And it turned out pretty well, whether Hawkeye lamenting Trapper’s departure was meant to be ironic or not.
And the second episode in season 4, the first one to prominently feature Harry Morgan as Col. Potter (Morgan played a Section 8 general in a season 3 episode, as many M*A*S*H fans probably know), well, I’ll just remind you that two of the show’s stars had complained about not being the center of attention and quit the show before the season started and then tell you about it:
Frank Burns, who has been relishing his newfound authority over the 4077th and has big plans for the unit, is quite upset to learn that he will be replaced as commanding officer. He plays it cool when he is first informed, then in the privacy of Major Houlihan’s tent, he throws a full-on childish temper tantrum, even holding his breath, because he can’t have his way.
After that, and for most of the rest of the episode, Burns is missing.
I can’t presume to know if that was a jab at the actors who left the show…but it kinda seems like it might have been.
I dunno. What do you think?
I originally planned on periodically updating this blog post upon the completion of viewing each individual season. If memory serves (I did not review the previous portion of this post before I began typing this afternoon) I was somewhere around season four or five when I last updated this blog post, and I was discussing how the characters Major Frank Burns and Major Margaret Houlihan were presented very well by the actors who portrayed them. “You’re supposed to hate them,” I think I wrote before, following a description of Burns throwing a childish temper tantrum over a plot issue that I don’t quite remember off the top of my head. But as it turned out, I found I would rather continue watching more episodes of M*A*S*H instead of pausing to reflect upon what I had already seen.
As even the most casual M*A*S*H fan knows, Burns left the 4077th (following season five) and was replaced by Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, a wealthy, upper-class, well, snob from Boston who, at least at first, considered his being assigned to a MASH unit to be, well, beneath him.
Burns being sent home to the states was explained, at the beginning of season 6, to be a result of Burns having sort of a nervous breakdown following the marriage of his one-time mistress (Burns was married to a wealthy woman back home the whole time they were consorting together) Major Houlihan to Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot. Burns went to Tokyo in an attempt to regain the affections of his former mistress, and not only did he fail to do so, but he also managed to offend a high-ranking Army officer by jumping into a bath this man was sharing with his wife at a Tokyo bathhouse. Somehow or other, Burns ended up getting sent home following this off-camera episode, and as Colonel Potter was making calls looking for a replacement, one of the people he called in Tokyo just happened to find himself indebted to one Major Charles Emerson Winchester III to the amount of over $600 for losses at cribbage.
(By the way, if my prose seems to be somewhat reserved or stilted or whatever, blame it on the fact that since completing my months-long “project” of viewing all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H in broadcast order, I have begun re-viewing another of my all-time favorite TV series, albeit one I have no sentimental childhood attachment to: the BBC programme “Jeeves and Wooster,” based on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Wooster. There will likely be a blog post regarding esoteric minutae of this show at some point in future, and yes, my use of “programme” instead of “program” and “in future” instead of “in the future” was quite intentional, thanks for noticing.)
So Burns left the 4077th, and he was replaced by Winchester. This seems simple enough – replace one easily dislike-able character with another – but as the show progressed, the change brought about when Winchester arrived was much more profound.
Winchester was a much more well-rounded and, well, realistic sort of character than Burns was. Burns – as much as I loved to hate him – was pretty darn one-dimensional. And as a result of her being almost constantly associated with Burns, Major Houlihan was, at least while Ferret Face was in the picture, quite a one-dimensional character herself.
To be completely fair, Burns and Houlihan being more or less cast as “villains” in the first five seasons also contributed to their rivals – Trapper and his replacement B.J., and of course Hawkeye – as well as their superior officers – Colonel Blake and his replacement Colonel Potter – being, themselves, somewhat one-dimensional.
Winchester – while at times being a shallow, whiny, social climbing boor, much like the character he replaced – was not only those things. Winchester was also shown to have some quite admirable qualities: he was charitable from time to time toward the ever-present orphanage Father Francis Mulcahey volunteered at, and when given an opportunity to return to his posh job at Tokyo General if only he’d betray his colleague Major Houlihan, he chose the honorable path and defended her good reputation.
It’s possible for any M*A*S*H fan, no matter how casual, to feel about Winchester much the same way they felt about Burns. But it isn’t nearly as easy to “hate” Winchester as it is to hate Ferret Face. Sure, Winchester possessed many of the very same traits – greed, selfishness, snobbishness, a tendency to brown-nose – that Burns had, but in addition to those undesirable traits, he also possessed other much more admirable traits, and if any M*A*S*H fan out there never noticed these traits before, I would insist that they review the series at their earliest convenience.
And yes, I do own all eleven seasons on DVD, all featuring the “olive drab” cover design…but no, sorry, you can’t borrow them from me. 😉
Winchester’s being simultaneously “easy to hate” as well as “not difficult to begrudgingly like” opened up a veritable Pandora’s box of possibilities for all the other characters. If there’s no easily identifiable “villain” any more, and if the person who replaced the “villain” (please bear in mind that I actually like the Frank Burns character quite a bit from a storytelling sort of perspective, and that my description of him as “villain” amounts to nothing other than laziness and/or limited vocabulary on my part) is actually a pretty sympathetic character, then from whence will conflict arise? If there’s no conflict in any given episode, I mean, then what’s the point?
The answer to this dilemma is, to my view, perhaps the single most relevant reason why M*A*S*H stayed on the air for eleven seasons, why its appeal was not limited to any one demographic, and why the final episode set ratings records, out-performing even the Super Bowl:
The “good guys,” at times, became the “bad guys.”
Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce is the most easily recognizable example of this. Pierce, in the first few seasons, was presented as the hero, as both the show’s comic relief and the show’s moral compass. As mentioned earlier, Pierce’s “morals” regarding nurses and the fairer sex in general were at best questionable, nonetheless it was never assumed – at least not by this viewer – that he was anything but a “good guy.”
But as the seasons wore on, Pierce’s character began to degenerate. To unravel. To become less of a lovable sort of cad, and to become more of – at least at times – a loathsome pest at best, and an unforgivably self-centered and egotistical asshole sonofabitch at worst.
As I have watched somewhere around 150 episodes of M*A*S*H since I last updated this blog post, and as these episodes are at the moment a sort of olive drab blur in my mind, the reader will have to forgive me for not including specific examples of Pierce’s assholery here. But at the same time, the reader should understand that I view this degeneration from “hero” to “something else entirely” as a good thing, at least from a dramatic/storytelling/etc. point of view.
Our heroes, at the end of the day, take their pants off one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. Sometimes they lay down in their beds – or on their standard issue Army cots – and have trouble sleeping, just like the rest of us. Sometimes the pressures they face on a day to day basis prove to be more than they can handle, heroic figures though they are.
Had M*A*S*H continued with the simplistic “good guys/bad guys” dichotomy it employed for the first few seasons, it quite simply would not have been The Greatest TV Series Of All Time, According To Me, or to anyone else. Its shift from this dichotomy to a much more muddled – and therefore much more human – style of character and plot development is, to my view, what makes it so memorable.
Pierce wasn’t the only “good guy” who had asshole moments. Colonel Potter sometimes behaved abominably, as did Captain Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt was, in the majority of episodes he appeared in (a number which constitutes a majority with regard to the entire series) presented as a calm, collected, compassionate, caring family man, someone who sincerely missed his wife and daughter back home in San Francisco. And though he did actually have one dalliance with a nurse, unlike his predecessor Trapper John McIntyre, Hunnicutt felt guilty about that dalliance. And he was never unfaithful to his wife again, despite the lovely and talented journalist and artist Aggie O’Shea doing her level best to entice him into doing so.
To be sure, Hunnicutt was an admirable character, not only because of his skills as a surgeon, not only because of his usual level-headedness and wit, not only because of his unwavering compassion, but also because at times he was the opposite of these things, such as when his wife Peg wrote to tell him that she had taken a job at a restaurant to help pay the bills, and Hunnicutt felt not only embarrassment that his wife had to lower her social status slightly to get by but also helpless agony because he simply was not able to be there with her and their daughter Erin. Hunnicutt’s performance in this particular episode was at least as assholish as Pierce often behaved, and possibly more unforgivable than even Burns (or Winchester) at their worst.
But this performance did not make Hunnicutt a “villain” or for that matter diminish his status as a sympathetic character one iota. Far from it: this performance served to present Hunnicutt not only as a warm, caring, talented surgeon that nobody with any sense of decency could possibly have a bad word to say about but also as a human being, a flawed human being, a human being subject to the same frailties and insecurities and slips into general assholery that the rest of us struggle with.
This is, to my view, the genius of M*A*S*H: its humanity. This is the basic premise of the show, even in the early seasons, when there were clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys”: humanity.
Imagine yourself – assuming you are not a medical professional who has served in the military; if you are, I salute you, and I hope you’ll comment – as someone who has devoted your life to healing the sick and treating the injured. Imagine that you are passionate about this profession, that all your life you’ve known that this was your calling, and that you have devoted many years to studying this profession and becoming the best medical professional you could possibly be.
Now imagine that you’ve been drafted into military service during wartime. Your skills as a medical professional will be of great practical use on the one hand, and you will have ample opportunity to heal people who have been wounded in combat, or as an indirect result of combat or bombing campaigns or what have you.
But on the other hand, this horrible and inhuman abomination called “war” is for all intents and purposes the polar opposite of everything that motivated you to become a medical professional in the first place: you want to help the injured; the single solitary purpose of war is to inflict injury.
Your purpose as a medical professional is to sustain life on an interpersonal basis, to do everything you can to help whichever individuals you are presented with to stay alive; the inevitable result of war is injury and death on a massive, wholly impersonal scale.
I have never been a soldier, nor am I a medical professional of any sort. And my ruminations upon this subject are purely speculative and spectator-ly, nonetheless I have to imagine that this sort of internal conflict would be hell to try and deal with.
Which may or may not have been a contributing factor toward Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce spending roughly half of the two-hour M*A*S*H finale in a mental hospital, under the care of psychiatrist (and recurring character) Sidney Friedman.
The proximate cause of Hawkeye’s loss of control was a Korean woman on a bus. Most of the main staff of the 4077th, several Korean people, and a dead American soldier were on a bus in a combat zone, and the aforementioned Korean woman at the back of the bus was holding a chicken in her lap. Everyone was told to remain quiet, so as to prevent the bus from being shot at or shelled or bombed or what have you, but the chicken kept clucking. Hawkeye yelled at the woman to make that chicken be quiet, and she put a blanket over its face and inadvertently smothered it.
The bus wasn’t shot at, or shelled, or bombed, or what have you, and everybody (except the dead soldier and the chicken) made it back to the 4077th unscathed.
Which was good…except for the inescapable fact that the chicken wasn’t clucking, it was crying…
…and that it wasn’t a chicken at all, it was a baby.
This by itself – accidentally prompting a mother to accidentally smother her baby – would be enough to send any decent person into a downward spiral of guilt and madness. But in Hawkeye’s case, the madness began many episodes before that.