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How to Comment on War Without Commenting on the War: how M*A*S*H successfully reflected pop culture (and why Combat Hospital failed to do the same)

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On 10th August 2013, an anonymous contributor posted the following essay on the wiki. As it is a well-researched and referenced piece, and makes interesting points, it is left here for everyone to enjoy. Links have been added--they were not part of the original document.

Author's preambleEdit

M*A*S*H is widely understood to be a commentary on the Vietnam War, despite being set during the Korean conflict. This paper investigates the attitudes that M*A*S*H demonstrated about war, and changing popular culture, throughout it's 11-season run.

Main paperEdit

From live coverage of the Vietnam War to the modern television drama Combat Hospital (2011), war and its aftermath have been portrayed on television with different levels of realism. When the United States of America became involved in a “police action” in Vietnam, television carried enormous amounts of footage live from the battlefields into American homes. These images of war and destruction were so potent that in future armed combat, the United States government created guidelines regarding what may be broadcast to the public. The devastation of Vietnam portrayed on screen went a long way in forming public opinion of the USA’s actions abroad, a public opinion that was then exploited by network television through their creation of M*A*S*H (1972-1983). By using it’s format in a unique way to mirror public sentiment, M*A*S*H gained attention and popularity by exploring themes crucial to America’s consciousness in a way that Combat Hospital cannot. Not only did M*A*S*H initially exploit these popular ideas and feelings about Vietnam, but as the social and political climate of the country shifted, M*A*S*H swung with it throughout its 11 seasons.

When M*A*S*H premiered in 1972, the United States of America was winding down its military investments in Vietnam. Fed up with drafts, ‘senseless’ violence abroad, and the “behavior of US military in Vietnam as a force that abused the very people and society it was sent to ‘save,’” (Wittebols 33), the American public was wary of its government actions at best, disdainful at most. Protests ranged from peaceful protests to violent action as young, college-age students loudly expressed their opinions about how their government was handling foreign policy. CBS network saw the opportunity to attract this valuable demographic through a show that reflected those views. They did so with M*A*S*H, a television show developed around the characters and situations introduced in M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker in 1968 and turned into a movie, directed by Robert Altman, in 1969. As series creator Larry Gelbart said about the show, “We wanted to say that war was futile, to represent that it was a failure on everybody’s part that people had to kill each other to make a point,” (Wittebols 18). Despite the fact that it was set during the Korean conflict of the 1950’s, M*A*S*H dealt with many themes, especially war, that were relevant to the audiences of the 1970’s.

In doing so, M*A*S*H broke the mold of the thirty-minute sitcom. Many shows of a similar style broadcast during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s focused on families and family values. As the film M*A*S*H (1969) garnered large audiences, the sitcom style was changing to reflect families that did not reflect the ‘ideal’ image of a father, mother, daughter and son (Wittebols 9). When it premiered in 1972, the television show M*A*S*H was no exception; set in Korea at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H) it presented a dysfunctional “family” of army doctors and nurses. The military unit contained the patriarchal ‘father,’ Colonel Henry Blake, maternal head nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, bickering sons Captain Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, Captain John “Trapper” McIntyre, and Major Frank Burns, as well as various “extended family” members in the supporting cast. Characters also supported stereotypes, from malcontent to overzealous military personnel, bumbling officers to precocious enlisted men. Plots follow the unit, consisting of surgeons, nurses, and patients with varying levels of commitment to the cause as they struggle through daily life at the busy medical unit near the Korean front lines.

However, M*A*S*H stood out from other shows that also portrayed family in a similar way, because its “humor and plotlines were more politically volatile,” (Wittebols 9). In the early seasons of M*A*S*H, the doctors engaged in a very youthful lifestyle that included many parties, heavy drinking, and woman-chasing in addition to lambasting military protocol. Hawkeye and Trapper spend a lot of time joking around and making fun of those around them who adhere to Army policy. For example, in the first season’s “Yankee Doodle Doctor” Hawkeye takes the opportunity of a visiting Army filmmaker doing a piece about M*A*S*H units to create his own film that not only makes fun of the idea of propaganda, but includes a touching speech about the realities of war. As he concludes, undermining the falsely reassuring and overly optimistic message of the original film, “Guns, and bombs, and anti-personnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then, no war is a movie,” (“Yankee Doodle Doctor”).

Hawkeye’s speech, and other comments he makes throughout the series, reinforce the face that despite it’s setting in Korea, M*A*S*H is widely accepted as a critique of the Vietnam War, which is most evidenced in these early years (Shires). As M*A*S*H’s 4077th struggled to heal soldiers battling in Ouijongbou, America tuned in to a show that reflected the crisis they were experiencing in places like My Lai. Its first seasons are rife with episodes that criticize the military and war in general, from bureaucratic paper-pushing, irrationality, and general cluelessness to Colonel Blake’s first rule of war, a rationalization of the reality faced by the doctors everyday as put forth in “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet:” “Young Men Die.” As Wittebols comments, “That the show garnered its highest ratings from 1973-1975 is an indication of how people were attracted to a program offering commentary on a society deeply torn over a distant war,” (Wittebols 147). M*A*S*H’s most anti-war episodes occurred during its second and third season in 1973-1975, as America was becoming more and more unhappy with the country’s actions abroad. Meanwhile, the country’s youth was beginning to develop its own culture, aided by the lowering of the drinking age. In order to attract the age demographics that are key to advertising sales, M*A*S*H began its run with characters, situations, and plots that mirrored the nations attitudes. Women were often portrayed for their bodies, like Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan and many of Hawkeye’s conquests. In addition, jokes and degrading comments were made regarding homosexuality, another hot topic of the time. African-Americans, however, did not receive this negative portrayal thanks to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and its affect on the nation’s race-consciousness.</p>

As the Vietnam War ended and M*A*S*H moved into later seasons, it continued to reflect popular values in American culture, even as these values were shifting. From the release of the Watergate tapes to the publication of the Pentagon Papers and later exposure of CIA wrongdoing, the American public learned about the abuse of power that had taken place in their government in the recent past (Wittebols 30). Their reaction is mirrored in the multiple visits to the 4077th by Colonel Flagg, an intelligence officer with a penchant for doing things by the book and a tendency to be overly paranoid and critical. He is often ridiculed, defied, and portrayed as representative of a secretive operation with questionable goals and morals; for example, in “Deal Me Out,” the 4077th has to risk the life of a CID man because Flagg needs to be present before he is put under anesthesia. Additionally, as the nation passed further from the Vietnam era, its citizens became more introspective and individuals began to show increased interest in themselves (Wittebols 81). As the nation moved into the “Me Decade” of self-help clinics and minority rights movements, so too did M*A*S*H begin to change its portrayal of the activities of the 4077th. Less time was spent portraying the inefficiencies and unreliability of the American military as the show became much more character-driven and began to explore how each individual reacted to the situations in which the war placed them (Shires). Further separating itself from its early ideals, M*A*S*H even began to represent the Reagan administration’s focus on regaining military prowess and the United States’ foreign image. Far from the bumbling military unit portrayed in the first few seasons, later episodes of M*A*S*H portray the unit as working efficiently and in proper military fashion.

Nowhere is M*A*S*H’s changing perspective on the military more clear than in the character of enlisted man Corporal Max Klinger. When viewers were first introduced to Cpl. Klinger (Jamie Farr), he was a supporting character known for his habit of wearing dresses. Early seasons of the show make a big deal about his attempts to receive a “Section 8,” or military discharge for reasons of insanity. A small portion of the show’s plot, these often included ridiculous stunts in addition to his familiar cross-dressing. As the show progressed into the Reagan era, however, and the government was praising military efficiency and prowess, Klinger moved past his desire to return to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, and instead straightens up and accepts more responsibility in his roles on camp. From his role as an orderly, Klinger received a promotion to company clerk and while making the job his own, becomes a model military professional. He is still quirky and mischievous, but his behavior and, most importantly, dress, are much more aligned with that of an American soldier. As Wittebols notes, “By the time…more United States resources were dedicated toward military prowess, Klinger had taken on Radar’s role as paper shuffler, and he even got promoted for his efforts,” (Wittebols 147). The show’s modification of values and representations can thus be tracked by following Klinger’s progression as an individual while M*A*S*H moved through the 1970’s into the early 80’s.

Also in keeping with the nation’s political shift to the right, the show began treating alcohol and drug use as a problem instead of an enjoyable pastime. Parties, use of Hawkeye’s homemade still, and alcohol use in general is severely cut back in later seasons, and some episodes explore the abuse of alcohol or other drugs as the nation began to take a look at underage drinking, and many states raised the legal drinking age. In season eight’s “Bottle Fatigue,” Hawkeye must confront his out-of-control drinking habits when presented with his outrageous bar tab, and the episode follows him as he sets out to cut back on drinking and only imbibe “when I want it, not when I need it.” Meanwhile, as the women’s rights movement marched on off-screen, the image of women within the show began to change as well. As Alan Alda, the show’s lead actor and sometimes writer/director, became more involved in the women’s rights movement in real life, his character Hawkeye, as well as his on-screen cohorts, spent less time chasing skirts and were even on occasion bested by female doctors (Wittebols 144). Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan lost her nickname and, as Margaret, went through the emotions of dating, marriage, and divorce, emerging as a new, confident woman representative of the women’s movement in the country. In addition, fewer jokes were made about homosexuals as that community began to recognize itself and demand acceptance.

With eleven seasons under its belt, M*A*S*H had a long life over which to explore these various themes. Another show about combat medicine, accurately but plainly titled Combat Hospital, was not so lucky. However, the Global Network production does follow a medical unit that is participating in a military action that is not quite a declared war: In an attempt to answer Elizabeth Guider’s call for someone to “try to do for our muddle in the Mideast what Larry Gelbart did for our Southeast Asia shenanigans in the '60s and '70s,” (Guider), Combat Hospital’s wounded come from the military action in the Middle East perpetrated by the United States of America and it’s allies. Also a fairly controversial military undertaking, the presence of American soldiers in the Middle East is and has always been a hotly debated topic in this country. Premiering in 2011, Combat Hospital is an hour-long drama that follows the lives and exploits of the personnel at the Kandahar international medical center and is set in 2006, the halfway point between the beginning of the conflict and the show’s premiere. One of it’s major differences from M*A*S*H is that the war in which the doctors are involved is ongoing – while many ‘exit strategies’ and plans to withdraw troops have been made and discussed over the years, soldiers of many nationalities are still stationed in the Middle East and face danger in these areas at the time of the show’s premiere.

However, the shows are not completely different because of this: there are many similarities between the two shows in theme, character, or simply allusions made by Combat Hospital to the venerated classic that came before it. For example, a prominent feature in M*A*S*H is the signpost in the middle of camp, on which the unit’s personnel have tacked directional arrows labeled with their hometowns. In Combat Hospital’s episode “Shifting Sands,” a similar – but more professional looking – pole of the same nature is directly referenced, and is seen in many other wide shots of the grounds. Another affectionate reference to M*A*S*H and the beloved Fr. Mulcahy, played by William Christopher, occurs in the episode “Reason to Believe” as multiple times the hospital unit’s chaplain is referred to as ‘Padre,’ a nickname used by individuals at the 4077th towards their chaplain. While this may seem like more of a coincidence coming from the chaplains’ similarity of profession, it is important to note that Kandahar’s chaplain is Captain Marjorie Plottel, played by Camille Sullivan.

Besides these callbacks to its highly regarded predecessor, Combat Hospital contains many elements that were also featured in M*A*S*H. The staff and roles they play are very familiar, from the head-of-the-unit as father, Henry Blake and Sherman Potter versus Xavier Marks, to the second-in-command who is able to anticipate his superior’s every move, Radar O’Reilly versus Graham Kelly, to chief nurses who are not afraid to stand their ground against doctors, Margaret Houlihan versus Will Royal. M*A*S*H ‘s beloved Corporal Radar O’Reilly is also mirrored in Combat Hospital’s character ‘Vans,’ who is sometimes known as Bashir, the translator for the unit who often displays Radar’s characteristic youthful naiveté and innocence. Much as Meg Cratty, friend of the 4077th, has a women’s clinic open in Ouijongbou for which the M*A*S*H doctors often do work, the women in Combat Hospital have their own women’s clinic in which they treat natives. Combat Hospital also attempts to touch upon some of the themes brought up in M*A*S*H, such as alcohol, sexuality on a military base, medicine on the front lines and the tough decisions that come with it, and dealing with the indigenous people, sometimes even those of the opposite side.

Combat Hospital’s methods of dealing with these themes, however, is much more subtle. These controversial subjects are very gently touched upon, and often outright forbidden on the Kandahar base. For example, both alcohol and ‘fraternization’ (the military’s term for sex) are forbidden on base – thus, instances of both seen in the show lose their moral connotations as participation in these ‘vices’ becomes a simple matter of breaking the rules. In addition, consequences for these actions are lax, at least for the doctors that are shown breaking them. Combat Hospital tries to tackle another controversial topic, as the homosexuality of Major Grace Pederson is referenced, but far from the jokes made in early seasons of M*A*S*H regarding the subject, on Combat Hospital it is treated so carefully that it is easy to miss. When it comes to battlefield medicine, Combat Hospital is much less subtle, as the show is primarily a medical drama; scenes of blood and guts are shown often and in depth. Though lacking the discretion that M*A*S*H used in order to avoid the ‘heaviness’ thought to accompany scenes of blood and the OR (Wittebols 34), Combat Hospital does demonstrate that doctors have a tough time dealing with the situations around them. In episodes such as “Reckless,” “On the Brink,” and “Triage,” major plotlines revolve around decisions that doctors need to make under duress, and how they handle them both inside and out of the hospital building. Occasionally, the doctors even need to provide care for individuals who operate for the other side of the war – however, the doctors only provide these treatments against their personal feelings and fears because it is ‘protocol,’ rarely displaying M*A*S*H’s sensitivity to the humanity of soldiers on both sides, and its doctors’ desire to help even those that would do them harm.

Because Combat Hospital does not take a stand on any of these issues, it is easy to pass it over as just another medical drama. Unlike M*A*S*H, it does nothing extraordinary for its category of shows, takes no risks, and does not stray into any dangerous (television) territory. Some of the strongest commentary that it makes about war comes from a visiting army higher-up, who claims in the episode “Shifting Sands” that “sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but cry.” It is not the fault of the show, however. Far from M*A*S*H’s introduction into a culture that was collectively questioning it’s government’s involvement in Vietnam, Combat Hospital has been introduced into a society struggling within and against itself during “a war that’s currently under fierce debate, a war that has become something of a partisan ping-pong ball in the endless talk around the withdrawal of troops,” (Gilbert). In addition, the culture of the twenty-first century has become much more concerned about what is ‘politically correct’ and what is ‘offensive.’ In order to avoid offending any segment of its potential audience, Combat Hospital took the middle road and, as a result, comes off as just another template for TV drama with “no social realism or satire,” (Doyle). Combat Hospital took a gamble on presenting itself as an unbiased, detached show and lost – in mid-October 2011, it was announced by the network carrying Combat Hospital in the United States, ABC, that after gathering only 4.8 million viewers in its 12-week run, the show will not be renewed for a second season (Stelter).

Perhaps M*A*S*H just got lucky: it was introduced at the right time, to the right culture, portraying the right values to garner huge audiences. However, the messages it sends to viewers are clearly very powerful, as M*A*S*H is still in syndication almost twenty years later on over 200 television stations worldwide (Wittebols x). Because it took a stance on many issues and reflected back to it’s audience the themes and issues about which they were concerned in a funny, innovative way, M*A*S*H enjoyed the kind of long-lasting critical and commercial success that Combat Hospital has yet to enjoy and, I think, never will. Combat Hospital is hindered by the tension between opposing sides on many controversial issues, and is not being broadcast in an environment that will easily accept the kind of social and political commentary that drove M*A*S*H to its success. As Wittebols comments about M*A*S*H, “We may never see a program like it, just as we may never live through a time like the ten years that took American from the anti-war early 1970’s to the beginning of the Reagan years,” (Wittebols, 21).

Works Cited

“Bottle Fatigue.” M*A*S*H. CBS. 7 Jan. 1980. Television.

“Deal Me Out.” M*A*S*H. CBS. 8 Oct. 1973. Television.

Doyle, John. “On ‘Combat Hospital,’ War is Heck but its Not Controversial .” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 21 June 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/television/john-doyle/on-combat-hospital-war-is-heck-but-its-not-controversial/article2068145/>.

Gilbert, Matthew. “’Combat Hospital’ Infected With Boring Cliches.” Boston.com. The Boston Globe, 21 June 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://articles.boston.com /2011-06-21/ae/29684387_1_cliches-war-zone-rookie-blue>.

Guider, Elizabeth. “In Viet Era, ‘M*A*S*H’ Immediately Struck a Chord.” Variety 12 Dec. 2005: n. pag. Ebsco Film and Television Literature Index. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=bc487c6c-2212-468c-bbf8-755136fe5e84%40sessionmgr104&vid=10&hid=11&bdata= JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=f3h&AN=19078671>.

“On the Brink.” Combat Hospital. Global Television Network. 9 Aug. 2011. Television.

“Reason to Believe.” Combat Hospital. Global Television Network. 23 Aug. 2011. Television.

“Reckless.” Combat Hospital. Global Television Network. 2 Aug. 2011. Television.

“Shifting Sands.” Combat Hospital. Global Television Network. 16 Aug. 2011. Television.

Shires, Jeff. “M*A*S*H.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2011. <http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=mash>.

“Sometimes You Hear the Bullet.” M*A*S*H. CBS. 28 Jan. 1973. Television.

Stelter, Brian. “TV Struggles To Bring War Zones To Americans.” nytimes.com. The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/|2011/|10/|25/arts/television/television-still-struggles-to-bring-war-zones-home.html?_r=1>.

“Triage.” Combat Hospital. Global Television Network. 30 Aug. 2011. Television.

Wiegand, David. “Combat Hospital review: M*A*S*H with More Blood.” SFGate. The San Francisco Chronicle, 20 June 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/06/19/DDAG1JUUGS.DTL>.

Wittebols, James H. Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America: A social history of the 1972-1983 television series. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998. Print.

“Yankee Doodle Doctor.” M*A*S*H. CBS. 22 Oct. 1972. Television.

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