“M*A*S*H” Is Anti-War But Not Antiseptic

On September 17, 1972, CBS introduced television viewers to M*A*S*H, a half-hour comedy filmed with a laugh track and set in an Army hospital situated approximately three miles from the front lines of the Korean War.  The M*A*S*H acronym stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.

At first, M*A*S*H appears to be an ordinary, run-of-the-mill military comedy.  It depicts the usual antics associated with military settings.  Outwitting the establishment.  Coping with boredom and monotony.  Finding glimmers of sunshine during the horrors of war.  We saw these themes in other military-based properties, e.g., Hogan’s Heroes, Mr. Roberts, You’ll Never Get Rich.

But M*A*S*H was no ordinary show.

M*A*S*H, in fact, evolved into an intelligent, powerful, and gripping show of the 1970s.  It struck a chord that resonated for eleven years and 251 episodes.

It began with Dr. Richard Hornberger.  Dr. Hornberger served as a surgeon in the M*A*S*H 8055th during the Korean War.  Influenced by his golf swing, Hornberger used the pseudonym Richard Hooker when he detailed his experiences in a novel, appropriately titled M*A*S*H.  Initially rejected by nearly twenty publishers, Hornberger found a publisher, a readership, and a transformation of the novel into a movie at 20th Century Fox.

The success of the book, film, and television series results largely from timing.  By the early 1970s, an anti-war sentiment pervaded after years of American involvement in Vietnam.  The time was ripe for stories to tackle subjects related to war.

Like the movie, the television series’ central character is Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce.  Hawkeye, nicknamed as such because The Last of the Mohicans is the only book that his father ever read.  Hawkeye is the main character in the book.

Hawkeye’s cohorts at the M*A*S*H 4077th, or four-oh double natural, were Lt. Colonel Henry Blake, Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre, Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, and Major Frank Burns.  Blake was a befuddled commanding officer with occasional glimpses of sharpness.  Trapper was Hawkeye’s partner in surgery, practical jokes, and drinking alcohol to escape the pressure of surgery in a war zone.  Hot Lips was a “Regular Army” nurse craving order.  Burns was an inept “Regular Army” doctor carrying on a not-so-secret affair with Hot Lips.

After three seasons, Captain B.J. Hunnicutt and Colonel Sherman Potter replaced Trapper John and Henry Blake, respectively.  Major Charles Emerson Winchester III replaced Frank Burns in the sixth season.  The three new characters contrasted greatly with their counterparts.

Where Trapper is a ladies man, like Hawkeye, B.J. is adamantly devoted to his wife, Peg.

Where Henry Blake is intimidated by Army protocol, Sherman Potter is a dedicated “Regular Army” career doctor, though he earns the respect of the staff, particularly Hawkeye.

Where Burns is inept, gullible, and fragile, Winchester, a Boston native, is an excellent surgeon.

The only major character created specifically for the television series was Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, an average guy from Toledo, Ohio who dresses in women’s clothing.  The cross-dressing is a ploy to convince the doctors to declare him mentally unfit to serve in the Army.  In military lingo, Klinger wants a Section 8 discharge.

M*A*S*H did not focus on the action of war, but rather, the consequences.  It never backed away from the realities, psychological and medical.  It treated the topics intelligently, thoughtfully, and provocatively.

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