The MASH sign or a mock-up



Taking Sides: MASH
and the Struggle of Life Against Death

by Ken Sanes

MASH is arguably the best thing that has ever been on television. Although it is set in Korea during the Korean War, its obvious target is Vietnam and the pretensions of traditional culture, including over-the-top patriotism, prudery, and going by the book.

In many ways, it reenacts the "culture war" that was going on in America when the show started in which liberalism, the counter-culture and the anti-war movement, were in a battle with traditional culture, government, and the military. MASH takes these two cultures and turns each one into a kind of society. It then pits the two societies against each other in ways that are symbolically similar to the battles that were taking place in America. *

On one side, it offers a caricature of the military, which is depicted as an institution based on rules, rank, bureaucracy, hypocrisy, war, and mindless expressions of patriotism. The military is epitomized in the earlier episodes by Frank Burns and Major Margaret Houlihan, the by-the-book tattletales who not-so-secretly go at it in Houlihan's tent. On the other side, it shows us a group of people who value peace, life, egalitarianism, and a more tolerant view of human nature. Their leader is Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce and associates, including his fellow physician, BJ Hunnicut.

The first society of the military kills people. The second society, led by doctors, saves them. The first society is in control: it is the prison in which everyone else is trapped. The people who control it are themselves trapped inside their own craziness and so they don't see the craziness of supporting institutions that need to be institutionalized. The second society, led by Hawkeye, is stuck inside the first but it is constantly subverting the first's rules and regulations to help people, just as the counterculture felt trapped in the larger traditional culture and subverted it.

Hawkeye, as the leader of the life-affirming society, is the anti-heroic hero who seems like he has feet of clay but constantly rises to the occasion. He is a fool figure and trickster and subverter of institutions who is constantly coming up with schemes and deceptions along with his co-conspirators.

He is also the great piercer of pretensions. Not only does he not suffer fools lightly, he usually ends up making them suffer. In this he is in a long tradition of comedies that have fun at the expense of braggarts and swaggerers, which are described by the literary theorist Northrop Frye. Of course, MASH itself intends to do to the system what Hawkeye does to its individual representatives: pierce its pretensions and show it off as the ultimate fool.**

But we only get to the essence of Hawkeye when we recognize that he also plays the role of a wise man and benevolent helper who is out to do good and be a force for life in the field of death. Odd as it may sound, this gives him something in common with Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, another doer of good. Like Andy, Hawkeye is in a position of responsibility in what is, for practical purposes, a small town and he couldn't care less about taking the credit. Of course, the two characters were in other ways polar opposites: one dealing with the trivia of small-town life; the other in a holding action against death. And Hawkeye, unlike Andy Taylor, has internal battles going on in addition to the battles taking place around him. He is the "wounded surgeon" who agonizes over everything.

Hawkeye can also be thought of as one of a long line of subverters of crazy institutions. Before him there was Groucho Marx, another lunatic. After him, there was Judge Harold T. Stone on Night Court, another wounded helper who subverts the system and ignores the rules in the service of good. Hawkeye has a parade of wounded kids who come through his hospital tent, who he is supposed to make whole. Whereas some surgeons treat them as meat, he treats them as souls. Judge Stone has his own parade of wounded characters -- people from the margins of society who need compassion more than judgment.

Unlike Hawkeye, Judge Stone is in charge of his own domain -- the court -- and he has a chance to re-create it so it reflects his own humane values. Hawkeye, on the other hand, has to constantly trick the system from within and persuade those in power in order to do good.

But neither MASH nor Hawkeye can really be described without acknowledging that they changed a good deal over the years. Earlier, the program was more slapstick with the annoying Frank Burns and Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan acting as scapegoats and comic foils, and with Hawkeye as the lovable alcoholic predator looking for female companionship. Later, Burns disappears; his replacement, Major Charles Emerson Winchester, is a worthier opponent for Hawkeye; and things get less slapstick as they get both more sentimental and more ironic. In addition, Hot Lips Houlihan becomes Margaret Houlihan, a sympathetic, three-dimensional character; Klinger stops wearing a dress; and Hawkeye's attitude toward women, along with his attitude in general, evolves.

The overall tendency was to make the characters more sympathetic over time, which also means more sane and less crazy, to expand opportunities for us to identify with them as various episodes focused on their problems. The story lines also bring Margaret and Major Winchester and Hawkeye together in various ways even while each maintains a certain distance from the others. It is fortunate that the Frank Burns character, who could never have been incorporated into this society, ceased to be part of the show.

The later episodes even found a way to bring the military into this society of life by creating a military leader for the unit who is rational and humane. In the earlier episodes the unit was "led" by Lt. Col. Henry Blake, a thoroughly nonmilitary officer reluctant to exercise authority, who just wanted to be left alone. In the later episodes, he is replaced by Col. Sherman Potter, a by-the-book military officer who turns out to also be competent and decent. Potter's role is to create a second, more admirable, image of the military and authority. He partakes of both societies and is thus able to act as a go-between from one to the other.

According to first person accounts  to be found on a web site on MASH, which are attributed to The Complete Book of MASH, year six was the time when the program took its most important change of direction, although changes were also made in previous years. The site quotes Burt Metcalfe, who was Executive Producer in year six, as saying, "the stories became more poignant, more Frank Capra-ish -- he's symbolic for what I try to say. Some people will say we got into sentimentality, but we had used many of our best guns comically. We went for more depth and for stressing personal relationships."

But MASH's depiction of the conflict between liberal and traditional culture doesn't exhaust the meanings of the program. MASH is also a lightly-disguised depiction of a family. Here, at the most obvious level, the company commanders, Henry Blake and then Col. Potter, play the role of a parent trying to deal with squabbling and misbehaving children -- Hawkeye, BJ, et al. In the earlier episodes, Blake is a parent figure who acts like one of the children while the kids run amok. In the later episodes, Col. Potter plays the role of a parent figure who knows how to provide a strong holding environment for the family. The children test him but he always passes the test, with just the right combination of firmness, flexibility and compassion.***

MASH also has a religious subtext since it shows us a martyr figure who has to suffer because of the madness of society and who is crucified by his own self-reproaches and his inability to be at peace with himself. Hawkeye has the sufferings of the crazy world on his shoulders, in part, because of his own craziness. He is a man at war with himself, stuck in a war. We frequently see the contrast between him and Father Francis Mulcahy, another selfless healer mostly at peace with himself.

The show's characters; the depiction of people tested by circumstances and acting crazy to stay sane; and the ability to convey the message that it is people who count, not rules or ideals divorced from people's lives, are among the program's strengths. What is so interesting about the later MASH is that it treats many of its characters with the same humanity that the main characters manifest when they treat victims of the war and the system. Although this may sound a little corny and sentimental, the later MASH is a bittersweet depiction of the force of love as it tries to do its work in the field of death.

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MASH as a Vision of the Human Condition


Footnotes:

* MASH, which ran from 1972-1983, took this theme from the 1970 Robert Altman movie by the same name. Also, Northrop Frye describes the way comedy depicts two societies in conflict.
** Both Hawkeye Pierce and BJ Hunnicut have names that involve the idea of cutting, since they are surgeons. The names have a double meaning, since Hawkeye pierces through pretensions and ridiculous rules with an unerring eye, and BJ makes cutting remarks and helps Hawkeye cut through the craziness of the system, although his disposition is (usually) like honey.
*** The depiction of a family is actually a little more complicated than this, although the meanings start to get murkier when you explore the possibilities. According to one way of interpreting the program, there are two parent figures. The more powerful of the two is the military, itself, with all those generals enjoying the prerogatives of rank. The second parent is whoever is in charge of the camp.
Thus, in the earlier episodes, one parent figure -- the military -- is crazy and full of pretension, and the children run amok and undermine its authority. Henry Blake, who is supposed to be the other parent figure, acts like one of the kids. In the later episodes, Col. Potter provides an alternative parent figure who knows how to provide a strong holding environment for the family although the other parent figure, the military, is depicted as being as crazy as ever.
Another way of interpreting the program is to view the 4077 as a family inside the larger family of the military. Both of these associations may have been active in the creators and may be active in many members of the audience.

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Image of MASH sign (or perhaps
of a mock-up) via Wikimedia.

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