Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H
By Thomas Firey
Television’s finest half-hour reminded America of the values of classical liberalism.
This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H.
The TV series M*A*S*H premiered on September 17, 1972 — a bad time to debut an anti-war, anti-establishment dark comedy. America’s mood was on the rebound from the social upheaval of the late-1960s: Operation Linebacker was pushing back the North Vietnamese forces with few U.S. casualties, easing public frustration over the Vietnam War. The nation’s economy was booming, growing 5.25 percent in 1972 and would grow 5.6 percent in 1973. Prosperity and military success produced strong approval numbers for President Richard Nixon, who would be reelected in November with more than 60 percent of the popular vote and winning 49 states.
All that good news was bad for the early weeks of the impertinent if not subversive M*A*S*H. The pilot finished 45th in the week’s ratings, a miserable showing in the three-network era. Subsequent episodes fell into the 50s, raising the specter of cancellation.
But national moods can change quickly when the news changes. Three months before M*A*S*H debuted, the Washington Post reported that five men had been arrested in connection with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. As the show’s first season played out, Watergate mushroomed from an offbeat news item into a full-blown scandal. Halfway through the TV season, a humbled United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending America’s involvement in Vietnam; the last U.S. troops left the country on March 29, 1973, four days after M*A*S*H’s first-season finale. That fall, with the show’s second season underway, the OPEC oil cartel cut production in retaliation for western nations’ support of Israel. The resulting energy crisis sent the U.S. stock market reeling and the economy into recession. With inflation already surging, the United States got its first dose of “stagflation.” Finally, on August 9, 1974 — a month before M*A*S*H’s season-three premiere — a disgraced Nixon resigned the presidency.
Those events may have helped Americans embrace the sitcom that treated the inhumanity of war and the inanity of government with a cathartic mix of laughter and tugged heartstrings. M*A*S*H’s ratings rose in the final weeks of its first season, as more viewers began following the goings-on at the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near the front lines of the Korean War. That prefaced regular top-10 finishes for the rest of the show’s 11-year run. M*A*S*H’s cast, crew, and writers would carry off a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes over the next decade. The series finale is television legend; even current Super Bowls struggle to top the nearly 106 million viewers who watched “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” on February 28, 1983. Following the program’s end, its decommissioned sets, costumes, and props became wildly popular exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Today, M*A*S*H continues to draw audiences in syndication, nearly a half-century after it debuted.
What made it so successful? Public reaction to Vietnam and Watergate may explain its first few years, but M*A*S*H was a TV juggernaut for the rest of its run, despite the departure of most of its original cast, change in show runners, and turnover of writers. Even the series’ shift in tenor from situation comedy to dramedy (sometimes heavy on drama) did not weaken its audience.
An academic thesis has argued that the show’s success came in part from its following changing public values and outlooks as the United States moved from leftish libertinism of the early 1970s, to malaise-induced cynicism of the late ‘70s, to the conservative Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. Yet, libertarians and other classical liberals — who often find political similarities where others see left–right differences — may perceive something else: that throughout its run, M*A*S*H consistently promoted the ideals of classical liberalism.
People unfamiliar with classical liberalism may be unsurprised by the idea that M*A*S*H was a “liberal” show. Several of its cast members are vocal supporters of political causes on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum, and critics (and even some fans) of the series criticize it for being too “lefty” in its later seasons. But this is not the liberalism I mean. The philosophy of classical liberalism acknowledged that government has an important role to play in addressing truly public problems, but that individual liberty and private, consensual relationships are of paramount importance. Classical liberalism is skeptical of government power, appreciates the incentives and benefits of the marketplace, and defends civil liberties. As such, classical liberalism encompassed a broad swath of the American political spectrum as it existed in the latter part of the 20th century, from ACLU civil libertarians, to Jimmy Carter/Bill Clinton centrists, to Ronald Reagan’s small-government conservatives.
To be clear, M*A*S*H’s chief protagonist, surgeon Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (played by Alan Alda), may not have been an avowed libertarian who leafed through The Road to Serfdom along with his beloved nudie magazines. But he and his comrades embraced and advocated principles and institutions that acknowledged classical liberals hold dear, as did many Americans (including both Democrats and Republicans) of that era. And today, amidst a surge in illiberalism in both the United States and abroad, the show continues to offer classical liberals both comic relief and hope.
From Anti-Authority to Government-Skeptical
The TV series evolved from a fictionalized war memoir, MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors, written by Korean War Army surgeon H. Richard Hornberger Jr., with help from sportswriter and one-time war correspondent W.C. Heinz, and published under the pen name “Richard Hooker” in 1968. The book inspired a 1970 movie, M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman and starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall. Hornberger was a conservative Republican with hawkish, nationalist leanings, and his book is frat-boy crude, funny, and largely untainted by the ugliness of war, though honest about the grim nature of “meatball surgery” at a field hospital. The 1970 movie is just as crude and even funnier, and it captures the grisliness of war and the madness of those who love it. Hornberger liked the movie despite its lefty politics, a testament to a time when personal judgments were not always made through a red–blue political lens. Altman wasn’t a fan of the book, though not for political reasons. Both Hornberger and Altman despised the TV series.
One theme common to all three versions of M*A*S*H was the comedic skewering of authority. Hornberger’s book makes clear his opinion that his conscripted, jokester doctors are superior to the military figures and protocols that try to control them. Altman’s movie luxuriates in contempt for authority. The TV series pokes plenty of fun at overpuffed authority figures, from hypocritical flag-waver Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville), to unhinged Maj. Gen. Bartford Hamilton Steele (Harry Morgan, who was later recast as the very-different Col. Sherman Potter), to sadistic Col. Sam Flagg (Edward Winter), to a parade of officers willing to trade troops’ lives for ground, glory, and promotion.
But where Hornberger’s skewering is limited to the career military and Altman’s to the military generally, TV’s M*A*S*H has plenty of skepticism for government broadly. The show is not outright anti-government — and neither are proper classical liberals, because government is important for accomplishing certain public goals. But classical liberals know, and M*A*S*H regularly shows, that there is plenty to criticize in what government does — or, more specifically, what the politicians and bureaucrats who animate it do.
Many government failures happen when it extends its reach beyond truly public problems, meddling in people’s private decisions and interactions. But failures also happen when government limits itself to its proper sphere, such as the conduct of foreign and war policy. From the crooked U.S. senators mentioned in “For the Good of the Outfit” (season 2) and “The Winchester Tapes” (s. 6), to the Congressional investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee in “Are You Now, Margaret?” (s. 8), to Hawkeye’s irreverent letters and telegrams to President Harry Truman (and wife Bess) in such episodes as “Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde” (s. 2), “The Interview” (s. 3), and “Give ‘Em Hell, Hawkeye (s. 10), the show depicts how foolish, hubristic, dangerous, hypocritical, uncaring, and dishonest government officials can be.
For instance, in “Depressing News” (s. 9), the unit receives an erroneous, enormous shipment of tongue depressors. Hawkeye realizes the shipment reflects the U.S. government’s blithe preparation for the war to continue for years, bitterly concluding, “We wouldn’t have this supply if [the Army] didn’t think there’d be a demand.” So, he embarks on a symbolic crafting project, getting the attention of company clerk Max Klinger (Jamie Farr):
Excuse my impertinence, but if all these sticks were laid end to end — and they are — what would they be?
They would be, and are, the foundation for the Washington Monument.
Don’t they already have one of those someplace?
It’s completely different.
That one commemorates Washington the man, who crossed the Delaware and gave us wooden teeth.
This one commemorates Washington the place, which sent us across the Pacific and gives us wooden legs.
Excuse me. My nose for news thinks it smells a story here.
They sent us half a million of these things, which is monumental stupidity.
So I’m building a monument to stupidity, made out of tongue depressors and dedicated to all the wounded who have passed through here.
Klinger writes about Hawkeye’s project for the camp newspaper, a copy of which finds its way to Army headquarters. Not understanding the meaning of the “monument,” HQ dispatches a public relations officer to the 4077, believing Hawkeye’s creation would be “great for enlistment.” But as the officer snaps a picture of the monument, Hawkeye and Klinger explode it. When the befuddled information officer asks why, Hawkeye explains: “Senseless destruction—that’s what it’s all about. Get the picture?”
Though Hornberger’s book avoids judgment on war, both the film and TV series are unapologetically anti-war. The series regularly portrays war’s miseries, tugging at the heartstrings but not breaking them, respecting viewers instead of putting them off.
HAWKEYEThe greatest horror of war, death, was central to one of the series’ first ratings successes, the episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (s. 1). Hawkeye is visited by childhood friend Tommy Gillis, who has volunteered for service in order to write a book on his experiences. Later in the episode, a wounded Gillis is brought to the 4077, where he dies on Hawkeye’s operating table. Afterward, a tearful Hawkeye is consoled by the unit’s bumbling but kind-hearted first commander, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson):
I’ve watched guys die almost every day. Why didn’t I ever cry for them?
Because you’re a doctor.
What the hell does that mean?
I don’t know.
If I had the answer, I’d be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this place look like the Mayo Clinic?
All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war.
And rule number one is: young men die.
And rule number two is: doctors can’t change rule number one.
The series’ pivotal episode, “Abyssinia, Henry” (s. 3), concluded with news that Blake, on his way home after an honorable discharge, was killed when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. The story shocked viewers, prompting an avalanche of angry letters to the network. But as show co-runner Gene Reynolds explained, “We didn’t want Henry Blake going back to Bloomington, IL and going back to the country club and the brown and white shoes, because a lot of guys didn’t get back to Bloomington.”
Death-centered episodes are among the series’ best. In “Old Soldiers” (s. 8), the 4077’s subsequent commander, the venerable Colonel Potter, reminisces tenderly about his now-deceased comrades from World War I. “Follies of the Living — Concerns of the Dead” (s. 10) depicts a deceased soldier’s soul lingering at the 4077, observing the big and small tribulations of the staff. In “Give and Take” (s. 11), an American G.I. and a North Korean soldier whom the G.I. wounded are both treated at the 4077 and become friendly, only for the North Korean to succumb to his wounds. “Who Knew?” (s. 11) shows Hawkeye, sobered by the tragic death of a unit nurse, finding the courage to express his love for his unit colleagues. And in “Death Takes a Holiday” (s. 9), Hawkeye, fellow surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), and head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) try to extend the life of a brain-dead soldier brought in on Christmas Day, hoping to not ruin future Christmases for his children. When the G.I. dies before the day is out, Margaret reflects: “Never fails to astonish me: you’re alive, you’re dead. No drums. No flashing lights. No fanfare. You’re just dead.” And in “The Life You Save” (s. 9), a philosophical surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) compares his profession’s limited abilities to those of the 4077’s company mechanic, Sgt. Luther Rizzo (G.W. Bailey):
Don’t you understand the power you have here?
You can take a Jeep apart and reduce it to an inert pile of junk.
And then, whenever you want to, at whim, you can fit it together again, and it will roar back to life.
If only we could do that with human beings.
They — they wouldn’t die.
Also among the series’ best episodes are several portraying the war’s devastating effects on the Korean people, few of whom cared—or even knew—about the ideologies and geopolitics of the Cold War. In “In Love and War” (s. 6), Hawkeye falls for a cultured, upper-class Korean woman who sells her possessions and uses her wealth to care for villagers dislocated by the war. The relationship ends when the woman decides to take the people in her care further south, away from the war zone. In “B.J. Papa San” (s. 7), B.J. devotes himself to a Korean family impoverished by the war. Just as he is about to reunite them with a long-missing son, he discovers they have disappeared, also fleeing south. And in “The Interview” (s. 4), “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), Klinger’s predecessor as company clerk, is asked by war correspondent Clete Roberts about the plight of Korean peasants:
Do you get to meet the South Koreans? Do you know them?
Yeah, they’re nice people. I worry about ’em though.
We got a girl here that was, you know, pregnant. She doesn’t have any money or anything.
I don’t know how these kids live. I mean, some of ‘em don’t. That’s the God’s honest truth. Some of ‘em don’t even live over here.
Do you help them?
We do the best we can, but we haven’t got— I mean, we got just— Sometimes we got just enough for ourself. Penicillin and stuff like that.
I mean, I really wish somebody would tell these people back home this.
When you have to look these kids in the face, that’s where it’s really at. I mean, that’s what the ball game really is. Is looking these kids in the face here.
Several episodes focus on war-orphaned children. In “The Kids” (s. 4) and “Old Soldiers,” orphans visit the 4077 for checkups, touching hearts and boosting morale. “Yessir, That’s Our Baby” (s. 8) has Hawkeye, B.J., and Charles finding an abandoned Amerasian baby and battling the xenophobia of Korean society and the nativism of America to secure the girl’s future. And in “Death Takes a Holiday,” an initially incensed Charles learns just how desperate the lives of the orphans are after he confronts orphanage master Choi Sung Ho (Keye Luke) for selling the gourmet chocolates that Winchester had left the children as a gift, in accordance with a Winchester family tradition:
Go on. Deny it. Deny it, if you can.
You took the Christmas candy I gave you, and you sold it on the black market.
Have you no shame?
May I explain?
No! What you may do is retrieve that candy immediately and have it in the children’s stockings by morning.
Otherwise, they’re gonna find you hanging by the chimney without care!
Major, I cannot. The money is gone.
Please. Your generous gift and insistence that it remain anonymous touched me deeply.
The candy would’ve brought great joy to the children for a few moments. But on the black market, it was worth enough rice and cabbage to feed them for a month.
Rice and cabbage?
I know. I have failed to carry out your family tradition, and I am very sorry.
On the contrary, it is I who should be sorry. It is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.
Just as moving are episodes in which members of the 4077 deal with their own terror in war. In “The Interview,” Hawkeye describes how sometimes, when he’s lying on his cot at night, he finds it shaking — not because of falling artillery, but because his heart is racing. “Heal Thyself” (s. 8) tells of visiting surgeon Steve Newsome (Edward Hermann) who had performed valiantly under fire on the Pusan Perimeter during the desperate early months of the war, succumbing to post-traumatic stress and fleeing the 4077’s operating room. In “Dreams” (s. 8), members of the principal cast suffer nightmares of how the war has changed their lives. The same device is used in “Hawk’s Nightmare” (s. 5): Hawkeye experiences sleepwalking and nightmares of childhood friends suffering horrific deaths. Exhausted and worried about his sanity, he turns to recurring character Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus), a psychiatrist, for help:
I keep having these dreams about these kids I grew up with. And the dreams start out OK. The kids are fine. And then they end in disaster.
Like those kids who roll past you on that bloody assembly line. You dream to escape, but the war invades your dream, and you wake up screaming. The dream is peaceful. Reality is the nightmare.
Am I crazy, Sidney?
[Chuckling] No. A bit confused, a little fershimmeled is all. Actually, Hawkeye, you’re probably the sanest person I’ve ever known. The fact is, if you were crazy, you’d sleep like a baby.
So when do my nightmares end?
When this big one ends, most of the others should go away. But there’s a lot of suffering going on here, Hawkeye, and you can’t avoid it. You can’t even dream it away.
When M*A*S*H debuted, the U.S. armed forces still used conscription to fill out its ranks. The peacetime draft began in 1948, following the expiration of World War II conscription, and included a special “doctor’s draft” for medical personnel. Selective service was vital to staffing up the U.S. military for both the Korean and Vietnam wars and was particularly despised by Vietnam protesters. Partway through M*A*S*H’s first season, the Pentagon announced that it would shift to an all-volunteer force, with the last inductions occurring before the TV season ended.
Among government institutions, conscription is one of the most disturbing. People of a particular demographic group — young men — are taken from their private lives and forced to work and live under strict government direction, at great risk to life and limb. The draft is regularly derided on M*A*S*H; as Hawkeye explains about his draft board in “Yankee Doodle Doctor” (s. 1), “When they came for me, I was hiding, trying to puncture my eardrum with an ice pick.”
No element of the show better represents opposition to the draft than the character Klinger. The show’s first seven seasons depict his many schemes to get discharged from the Army: trying to hang-glide out of Korea (“The Trial of Henry Blake,” s. 2), preparing to raft across the Pacific to California (“Dear Peggy,” s. 4), threatening to immolate himself (“The Most Unforgettable Characters,” s. 5), attempting to eat a jeep (“38 Across,” s. 5), pretending to believe he’s back home in Toledo (“The Young and the Restless,” s. 7). In “Mail Call” (s. 2), he claims his father is near death, hoping for a hardship discharge. Blake then flips through Klinger’s file:
Father dying last year.
Mother dying last year.
Mother and father dying.
Mother, father and older sister dying.
Mother dying and older sister pregnant.
Older sister dying and mother pregnant.
Younger sister pregnant and older sister dying.
Here’s an oldie but a goody: half of the family dying, other half pregnant.
Klinger, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?
Yes, sir. I don’t deserve to be in the Army.
Klinger usually provides comic relief, but in “War of Nerves” (s. 6) he delivers a serious condemnation of the draft. Confiding in Sidney, who previously knocked down several of Klinger’s Section 8 schemes, he says he really does fear he’s going crazy because of his attempts to get out of the Army. Sidney asks Klinger why he wants out:Klinger’s longest-running scheme is pretending to be a transvestite in the hope of earning a “Section 8” psychiatric discharge. Among the outfits from 20th Century Fox’s wardrobe shop that Farr wore (sometimes while puffing on a stogie) were Ginger Rogers’ Cleopatra costume (“April Fools,” s. 8) and a woolen coat of Betty Grable’s (“Major Ego,” s. 7), as well as reproductions of Dorothy’s pinafore dress from the Wizard of Oz and a Scarlett O’Hara gown from Gone With the Wind (“Major Ego,” s. 7), and a flare-torched Statue of Liberty get-up (“Big Mac,” s. 3).
Why? Well, there’s — there’s lots of reasons.
I guess death tops the list. I don’t want to die.
And I don’t want to look at other people while they do it.
And I don’t want to be told where to stand while it happens to me.
And I don’t want to be told how to do it to somebody else.
And I ain’t gonna. Period. That’s it. I’m gettin’ out.
You don’t like death.
Overall, I’d rather lay in a hammock with a couple of girls than be dead — yes.
Listen, Klinger. You’re not crazy.
I’m not? Really?
You’re a tribute to man’s endurance. A monument to hope in size-12 pumps.
I hope you do get out someday. There would be a battalion of men in hoopskirts right behind you.
Conscription not only steals young men from their private lives and puts them in harm’s way; it also steals their labor. Though M*A*S*H’s draftees receive Army pay, their wages are far below what they would earn back home — let alone what they would demand for performing medical duties in a combat zone for months on end. That stolen labor features in two episodes, “Payday” (s. 3) and “Back Pay” (s. 8), in which Hawkeye tries to get the Army to compensate him fairly for his work. The Army does no such thing, of course, but Hawkeye gets a measure of justice.
Labor is not the only good in which M*A*S*H depicts the virtues of voluntary exchange. Many episodes show Radar and Klinger making back-channel deals (often in violation of “the regulations”) to get the unit much-needed supplies and unit members much-wanted personal items. Hawkeye and others swing similar deals for items they want, even going so far as to trade on the black market.
Those voluntary exchanges are often explicitly contrasted with the bizarre — and sometimes miserable — results of the command-and-control “Army way.” For instance, in “The Incubator” (s. 2), Hawkeye and fellow surgeon “Trapper” John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) follow procedure to order an incubator for diagnosing infections. Quartermaster rejects their request, informing them such a device would be “a luxury” — but they could have a pizza oven for unit movie nights. (“Just use the standard S-1798 and write in ‘pizza’ where it says ‘machine gun.’”) As they continue trying to work the system for the needed hardware, their experiences offers a fine example of public choice theory, the idea that government officials and employees are as self-interested as private-sector workers: Hawkeye and Trapper repeatedly encounter supply officers who want to know what they would get in exchange for the unit. As the two explain to a general who asks if they’ve followed proper procedure for their request:
Sir, we started with a captain, went on to a major, then to a colonel.
On the way, we’ve encountered oral compulsiveness, raging paranoia and a colonel who’s shipping Korea to Switzerland one dollar at a time.
Which makes you the next contestant, general.
[In a Groucho Marx voice] And the subject you’ve chosen is incubators.
Ultimately, Radar ignores regulation and wheels-and-deals for a unit.
There are other examples of exchange “the Army way.” In “Give ’Em Hell, Hawkeye” (s. 10), the 4077 is informed it can have a much-needed hot water heater — if its members first “beautify” the camp to impress visiting dignitaries. In “The Life You Save,” unit chaplain Fr. Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher) explains Army thinking to Hawkeye after Hawkeye takes over for Mulcahy as mess officer and discovers the unit is missing food trays for which Hawkeye is now responsible:
Look, I was just as upset as you were when I took over the mess tent.
Here’s how it was explained to me.
The Army doesn’t do things the way real human beings do them.
Now, then, you’re minus 75 trays.
But they’re not good for anything except putting under Army food. So, some mess tent somewhere is plus 75 trays.
When this war is over, a few generals will get together, and add up all the pluses and all the minuses, and it’ll all come out even.
Besides which, long before that happens, you’ll already have stuck somebody else for them.
At the end of the episode, Hawkeye indeed sticks Margaret with mess duty — and he and Klinger trick her into thinking that all trays are present and accounted for.
M*A*S*H shows considerable respect for entrepreneurship. As noted above, Radar and Klinger swing clever deals for desired goods. They both also try their hands at get-rich schemes, some of which are hare-brained, but others are clever — such as Klinger’s toying with selling early versions of the Hula-hoop and Frisbee (“Who Knew?”). Hawkeye and B.J. invent a vascular clamp and contract to have it produced (“Patent 4077,” s. 6). Koreans are portrayed as virtuous entrepreneurs, from craftsmen who sell their wares at the 4077 (“Dear Mildred” [s. 4], “Patent 4077”), to domestic workers providing laundry and housekeeping services, to the recurring character Rosie (usually played by Eileen Saki), the proprietress of the off-base saloon.
Private property is also respected. Though the series regularly promotes an ethic of sharing (and features comic retribution for those who violate the ethic), property is not commandeered by the unit’s commander. Potter relies on moral suasion to have Klinger give his dresses to a group of prostitutes in exchange for using their brothel as an operating room (“Bug Out,” s. 5). Charles agrees to share his newspapers from home with the camp — after he finishes reading them (“Communication Breakdown,” s. 10). And, of course, the most famous property on the show is the surgeons’ still — and woe comes to those who violate it. The only instance I can think of where property rights are infringed by command is when Colonel Potter orders Hawkeye and B.J. to get rid of their trouble-causing portable bathtub — and they then trade it for strawberry ice cream (“None Like It Hot,” s. 7).
It should be noted that though economic freedom is respected in the show, there is often “persuasion” — sometimes heavy-handed — against some economic activities. In “Souvenirs” (s. 5), a chopper pilot is pushed to stop buying dangerous war souvenirs from Korean children. In “Change Day” (s. 6), Hawkeye and B.J. refuse to help Charles profit from a shady arbitrage scheme when the Army changes military script. And in “Private Finance” (s. 8), Charles and B.J. use a false diagnosis to temporarily stop a patient from pressure-selling investment products to other patients. But in each of those cases, transactions are obstructed out of an ethic of caring (about children, Korean peasants, and convalescing patients) and are blocked through private arm-twisting, rather than by order.
Likewise, acts of charity are strongly encouraged, but are not ordered. For instance, in “Dear Sis” (s. 7), Charles is free to decline to donate to the unit’s Christmastime orphans fund. However, after Father Mulcahy secretly arranges for Charles’ family to send him a beloved childhood item as a comfort for homesickness, Charles has a Scrooge-like change of heart:
Uh, Father? Is there still time to, uh, contribute to your orphanage fund?
Good. Here. [Hands over a wad of money.] Buy them whatever they need.
Oh. Oh. Here. [Hands over more money.] Buy them whatever they don’t need.
Major? Are you all right?
[Laughing.] You saved me, Father. You lowered a bucket into the well of my despair, and you raised me up to the light of day. I thank you for that.
In this way, M*A*S*H offers a resolution to an age-old dilemma for classical liberals: how to balance an ethic of caring for others with respect for peoples’ property, values, and choices. The solution is to do so through persuasion and example, not force. For a show about a military base in a war zone during the draft era, that is a classical liberal solution.
Other Civil Liberties
M*A*S*H’s respect for civil liberties goes beyond people’s right to property and exchange. Freedom of speech and the press are lionized for protecting against government abuse (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “Are You Now, Margaret,” “Tell It to the Marines” [s. 9]); censorship is condemned and lampooned (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “The Moon Is Not Blue” [s. 11]); and religious freedom is revered (“Ping Pong” [s. 5], “A Holy Mess” [s. 10]).
Throughout the show’s run, bigotry is condemned. Racism is ridiculed (“L.I.P.” [s. 2],” “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Yessir, That’s Our Baby,” “Bottle Fatigue” [s. 8], “The Tooth Shall Set You Free” [ s. 10]) and immigration is championed (“L.I.P.,” “Tell It to the Marines”). In “Dear Dad … Three” (s. 2), a wounded white soldier, Sgt. Condon (Mills Watson), warns the doctors to make sure he gets the “right color” blood. Hawkeye and Trapper decide to teach him a lesson, sneaking into the recovery room at night to dab the sleeping soldier’s skin with tincture of iodine. Worried that his darkening complexion indicates he has indeed been given the wrong blood, Condon confronts the doctors:
What are you guys tryin’ to do to me? Did you give me the wrong color blood?
All blood is the same.
You ever hear of Dr. Charles Drew?
Dr. Drew invented the process of separating blood so it can be stored.
He died last April in a car accident.
He bled to death. The hospital wouldn’t let him in.
It was for whites only.
See ya, fella.
At the end of the episode, a wiser Condon thanks the surgeons “for giving me a lot to think about” and respectfully salutes nurse Ginger Bayliss (Odessa Cleveland), an African-American.
Sexism and sexual harassment are likewise treated with derision (“What’s Up, Doc?” “Hot Lips Is Back in Town” [s. 7], “Nurse Doctor” [s. 8]). In “Inga” (s. 7), Hawkeye —a notorious womanizer in the series’ early seasons — is agog over a visiting woman surgeon (Mariette Hartley) — until she shows him up in the operating room. Later, Margaret takes him to task for having a limited view of women:
You think a woman is dead until she lives for you. Well, let me tell you something, Benjamin Franklin: We actually survive without you.
We live, we breathe, we dream, we do our work, we earn our pay. Sometimes we even have our little failures, and then we pull ourselves together, all without benefit of your fabulous electric lips!
And let me tell you something else, buster! I can walk into that kitchen any time I want and replace those fabulous lips of yours with a soggy piece of liver!
M*A*S*H also respects the rights of homosexuals (“George,” s. 2) and the disabled (“Dear Uncle Abdul” [s. 8], “Run for the Money” [s. 11]). In “Morale Victory” (s. 8), Charles — a lover of chamber music — tries to help an injured soldier, David Sheridan (James Stephens), accept a permanent loss of dexterity in one hand even though Sheridan is a concert pianist. Charles introduces him to compositions written for one hand, explaining that the injury does not diminish who he is or his talent (and illustrates comparative advantage):
Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.
Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift.
I had a gift, and I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?
Wrong. Because the gift does not lie in your hands.
I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing.
More than anything in my life, I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift.
I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.
You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin.
Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live.
Because the true gift is in your head, and in your heart, and in your soul.
Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world — through the baton, the classroom, the pen.
As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.
Classical liberals respect civil liberties because they appreciate the value — and even marvel at the wonder — of the individual. (In contrast, the non–classical liberal Frank Burns believes that “individuality’s fine, as long as we all do it together” [“George”].) This wonder is expressed in “Hawkeye” (s. 4), in which Hawkeye suffers a concussion while away from the unit and seeks help from a Korean family. Despite the language barrier, he keeps talking to stay awake, often falling into philosophizing:
Don’t you sometimes wonder about babies? I mean, how do they know what to do in there? They start out looking like little hairless mice, and they wind up looking like us.
How’s it all work?
I’ve held a beating heart in my hand. I’ve poked into kidneys and crocheted them together again. I’ve pushed air into collapsed lungs like beat-up old pump organs. I’ve squeezed and probed and prodded my way through hundreds of miles of gut and goo, and I don’t know what makes us live.
I mean, what keeps us in motion? What keeps the heart beating without anybody rewinding it? Why do the cells reproduce and re-re-reproduce with such gay abandon?
Did you ever see Ann Corio or Margie Hart? Strippers. … I remember Polly O’Day. She worked with a parrot. He didn’t help her strip or anything; while she got undressed, he stood on the side and talked dirty. It was an exciting act. What a body. She was built great, too.
But what I don’t understand is how she got that way, any more than how we did.
Look at your hand. It’s one of the most incredible instruments in the universe. Of all the bones in the body, one fourth are in the hand.
Forget the hand; look at your thumb, that wondrous mechanism that separates us from the other animals. The world-famous opposable thumb, that amazing device that has transported more students to college than the Boston Post Road. Ideal for sucking, especially as a baby. And lauded in song and story as the perfect instrument for pulling out a plum. Or, in the case of the Caesars, for holding it down for the gladiator to die, or holding it up, which means, “See you later at the orgy.”
My friends, for getting up and down the pike, in your pie, in your eye, I give you the thumb.
Have you any idea, Farmer Brown, of the incredible complexity of this piece of human apparatus?
You have no idea of the balletic interplay of parts that make up the human thumb. The flexor ossis metacarpi pollicis flexes the metacarpal bone. That is, draws it inward over the palm, thus producing the movement of opposition — and the Boy Scout salute.
Because of this magical engineering, we can do this. [Grasping a utensil.] And this. [Grasping a cup.] And this. [Making a fist.]
But our greatest triumph comes not from flexing the metacarpal bone and making a fist, which always seems to be thirsting to be clenched. No, no, no, no, no.
Our greatest moment is when we open our hand: cradling a glass of wine, cupping a loved one’s chin. And the best, the most expert of all, keeping all the objects of our life in the air at the same time. [Picking up three pieces of fruit.]
My friends, for your amusement and bemusement, I give you the human person. [Begins juggling the fruit.] Thumb and fingers flexing madly, straining to keep aloft the leaden realities of life: ignorance, death, and madness. Thus, we create for ourselves the illusion that we have power, that we are in control, that we are loved.
Sadly, M*A*S*H seems out of step with today’s politics. In the America of the 1970s and ’80s and on through the end of the century, both the Democratic and Republican parties were liberal in the classical sense, believing in the value of the individual, the importance of civil liberties, and the benefits of the market. The parties did differ — vigorously — on where to draw certain lines: how big should the welfare state be and what should be required of beneficiaries, how muscular should foreign policy be, what tax rates should be. But those differences fit within a classical liberal philosophy. It’s no wonder that M*A*S*H found plenty of fans on both sides of that era’s red–blue divide.
Today, the show might not find a similar audience. Both ends of the American political spectrum have embraced illiberalism, demanding that speech and the press be constrained, denigrating religious differences, reanimating old bigotries, obstructing immigration, and clamping down on markets and private exchange.
And so, maybe classical liberals in the 21st century can rally in the face of today’s grim times — and at the expense of illiberals who deserve it. And, concerning this so-far-illiberal century, maybe we can be reassured by Colonel Potter’s words to an orphan boy in “Old Soldiers”: “You’re off to a kind of a rough start, but I bet you’ve got some glorious times ahead of you.”For classical liberals, today’s politics are disturbing and exhausting. We feel a bit like the members of the 4077, who were tired of war, troubled by the horrors they witnessed, and desired the peaceful lives they led before Korea. But they rallied when they needed to. When the choppers and ambulances arrived laden with casualties, the 4077 determinedly carried out their medical duties. And when morale sagged, they found ways to boost it, often with a gag at the expense of some hypocrite, fool, or sadist who sorely deserved it.
Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow and managing editor of the Cato Institute’s magazine Regulation. He also is senior fellow for the Maryland Public Policy Institute.