Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Anti-War
By Thomas Firey
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. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
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.
The 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.