Morality Monday: M*A*S*H
“War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.”
— Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce
How do I do what’s right when I’m given every encouragement to do what feels wrong?
That’s how I felt growing up, that the world was set up to benefit those who followed a set of rules that directly contradicted everything I had been taught was moral and virtuous. I was raised to adhere to a set of Protestant Christian values in the Midwestern United States, and my formative years took place in the late seventies and early eighties. During my high school years, M*A*S*H aired weekly and while I couldn’t be counted on to attend church on Sundays, on Monday evenings I eagerly adjourned to the TV room where I knew a new episode of M*A*S*H would be shown.
Many of the stories I found compelling were stories of soldiers, particularly Radar O’Reilly, being bullied by tougher types, because I was being bullied quite a lot at the time and I found the answers comforting. That it would be okay to have a set of principles that don’t revolve around being the strongest, toughest, and meanest. This message was reinforced by characters like “Hawkeye” Pierce and Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, who exhibited deeply pacifist ethics and occasional thoughtful introspection.
Growing up in rural Indiana, I found the emphasis on kindness and understanding refreshing, given that I saw so little of that in the real people around me. It showed me that people could live emotionally rich lives, and in situations of terrible stress and mayhem, could find powerful ways to live out lives in dignity, even when all around them were acting insanely, cruelly, even brutally.
They built islands of serenity in an ocean of war… I mean, police action.
“Listen, it’s too big a world to be in competition with everyone. The only person who I have to be better than is myself.”
— Colonel Sherman Potter
The person I most aspired to be was Hawkeye. Even though he was a porn hound, a womanizer, a ham, a drunk, and occasionally an emotional trainwreck, he had a core of liberal sensibility that shone through. All of his problems seemed to stem from the fact that he cared so deeply about the people around him. He felt like a cog in a murder machine that he couldn’t escape from: both because the army would have imprisoned him and ruined his life if he resisted violently, but also because he felt a duty to use his abilities and skills to provide solace and support to the many others in the same situation who made their way through the hospital.
I suppose my childhood, especially my high school years, felt very much like a war zone to me. I guess that sounds dramatic, but there were those who made it clear they’d be happy to kill me because of who I was, or because of who they thought I was. However real their threats were, they certainly felt real and it left me feeling constantly in danger of life and limb to an unjust situation without recourse.
I wanted to be able to deal with my situation with as much integrity as the doctors and nurses on M*A*S*H did.
To that end, I aspired to have a skill so necessary that people couldn’t live without me. That they would have to put up with me being different, radically different, because they needed my talents so badly.
That worked out pretty well for me. I gravitated towards other misfits who had their own ways of standing out from the crowd. We sheltered each other from the outside world and urged each other to continually better ourselves. Some people thought us clique-ish, but I don’t think it was ever because we felt we were better than other people.
“There are so many things I was sure I’d have in my life by now. Every birthday reminds me of what’s still not there. This just turned out to be another day in the middle of nowhere.”
— Major Margaret Houlihan
In the very early years of M*A*S*H, many of the themes were profoundly racist and sexist, and though the show grew up faster than the times it existed in, it’s still existed in and reflected a time less enlightened than the one we live in now.
But characters like Major Houlihan shattered the stereotypes they started out as. Margaret started out as a mockery of career women and finished up as a role model. Corporal Maxwell Klinger began as a running crossdressing joke and by the end, redefined himself as a visible and relatable Arab-American character, even as he remained a first-class joker.
Major Charles Emerson Winchester III allowed M*A*S*H to explore issues of class, greed, and selfishness. Yet Charles wasn’t a cardboard cutout like Major Frank Burns was, he had his own set of talents that let him get away with his avarice as often as he was caught up in it. He also displayed a conservative sensitivity that helped me to understand that even people whom I disagreed on many matters with could, at the same time, hold values that I held dear as well.
M*A*S*H went to great efforts to humanize the Korean people, on both sides of the 38th Parallel. Certainly, this is the area where the white American view of Asians is the most problematic, but it was clear that the writers made great efforts to highlight the predominantly white character’s supremacist and colonial attitudes and expose them for what they were. The Korean people were portrayed as having lives that were valuable even as they were different and often similar.
“I just don’t know why they’re shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread. Transplant the American dream. Freedom. Achievement. Hyperacidity. Affluence. Flatulence. Technology. Tension. The inalienable right to an early coronary sitting at your desk while plotting to stab your boss in the back.”
— Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce
M*A*S*H probably wouldn’t hold up today because we have (rightly) higher standards, but given the times it grew out of, it helped us all get to the world we have today where we expect not just television, but all storytelling, to be better by including all of our stories. Even now, we still have a long way to go.
Those stories of overcoming adversity are at the core of the human experience. While we all get enjoyment from conflict to the point where some of us spend much of our time inciting it, what we yearn for is the closure that comes from the resolution of conflict.
M*A*S*H allowed me to see myself in a variety of people at a time in my life when I didn’t see my beliefs reflected in the actions of the people around me. I felt alone and alienated because I was sensitive and caring. That perceived weakness made me a target, but ultimately those assets helped me survive the chaos of everyday life.
“Just remember, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything and the wrong way is to keep trying to make everybody else do it the right way.”
— Colonel Sherman Potter