10 M*A*S*H: Tragedy or Comedy?

Jane Schaefer

Since the invention of the television in the early 1900s, it has been a significant part of American culture. While it was initially invented as a way to communicate news from all over the country more easily, it quickly became much more than that. In addition to the sporting events that would be broadcasted on live television, live entertainers would be broadcasted in between major news stories. This then evolved into films being shown on television, as well as radio shows being taken to the small screen. The production of television shows simply for entertainment changed the way television was viewed. The most popular and timeless form of television shows was the situation comedy. Since the first sitcoms aired in the 1950s, they have continuously been a way for Americans to unwind at the end of a hard day, spend time together as a family, and inadvertently hear the latest news. Sitcoms are reflective of what is occurring in American history at that time, whether it be the portrayal of interactions between races reflecting the civil rights movement, or the tension at a war time, or the attitudes regarding women’s role in the workplace.

Released in the 1970s, M*A*S*H has proved to be one of the most enduring situation comedies. Although it first aired almost forty years ago, the show can be easily found by flipping through television channels almost any day of the year. Set in the 1950s while the United States was in the midst of fighting the Korean War, M*A*S*H portrays many of the events that would take place in everyday life of the soldiers who were abroad at war. Even though it was based during the Korean War, the series aired when America was actually fighting in the Vietnam War, during a time when the government faced decreasing support for the war from citizens the longer the conflict continued. M*A*SH is not only one of the most famous sitcoms, but it is also one of the most influential. Although M*A*S*H is obviously critical of the war efforts in Vietnam, it also praises those people who are fighting in a war whether or not they believe in it. The lasting influence of the series comes as much from the fact that this sitcom has an important message as from its considerable entertainment value. M*A*S*H endures because it encourages support of soldiers at war at the same time that it reinforces the idea that patriotism can be expressed without following leaders blindly, and the series also encourages personal connections among characters and optimism even during a dark time, which fits the tone of popular sitcoms across time.

flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/tom-margie/864620217, August 4, 2017.

The encouragement and support of soldiers fighting in a war, regardless of whether they agree with what they are fighting for, is an important theme in M*A*S*H. When this series was on the air during its initial run, many of the soldiers at home and abroad were experiencing a severe backlash as well as being called horrible names and facing other insults. This show provided an insight into the life of soldiers who were experiencing this sort of negative reaction, which can be seen in the episode “A Full Rich Day.” In this episode, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) in penning a letter to his father back home in the States and recounts to him the events that would happen in a full day at war. In his letter, he speaks of how much of his day is spent taking care of other people and helping those that have been injured at war. At the end of the letter, he speaks of the fact that these soldiers in his unit must rely on each other to get through each day because of the lack of support that they experience from others all over the world. In 2003, when American soldiers were moving into Iraq, there were many of the same attitudes toward the war as there were during the Vietnam War. Studies from this time period, which was very similar to that when M*A*S*H aired, showed that although people were not in support of war, they were not lacking in patriotism. Many of these anti-war individuals were interested in the long term success and wellbeing of the nation; they just didn’t believe going to war was the right way to achieve that (Hamilton 2012).

Perhaps the most important and reflective episode of the entire series is one titled “The Interview.” This episode served as the season finale of the fourth season, which has been reviewed as the best season of M*A*S*H. In this episode, a real-life news correspondent, Clete Roberts (playing himself), interviews the characters acting as soldiers abroad, asking them questions about their thoughts and their experiences while being away at war. While some of the responses to these questions were scripted, with the cast being told beforehand what was going to be asked, others were not. The characters spoke about how they were missing home, their families, and what they like to do in their free time. When Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) is asked about what good will come from the war, Potter bluntly responds, “Not a damn thing.” This line accurately portrays the way that many soldiers were feeling while they were fighting in Vietnam. Along with many other American civilians, the backlash against the war was large in part because they didn’t believe that the war would accomplish anything. But, even though soldiers did not necessarily agree with being at war, it was their duty and their job to protect the United States in whatever ways the Commander in Chief sees fit. The unscripted responses to the interviewer’s questions provided truthful insight into the way that civilians were viewing the war while also acting the part of a soldier doing what he is being ordered to do.

This series also encourages the idea of patriotism, not only by going to war to fight for your country but that it can also be shown by small acts taken at home, even if it is simply just supporting loved ones while they are abroad. This was especially important for viewers to see during the Vietnam War and to be able to use M*A*S*H as an example of how they can support their soldiers and loved ones, regardless of their political beliefs. In “Fallen Idol,” Radar (Gary Burghoff) begins to wonder if his idol Hawkeye is worth his adoration. Radar has always looked up to Hawkeye, but when Hawkeye snaps at Radar, leaving him on the verge of tears, Radar starts to question Hawkeye. This can be symbolic of how many Americans began to write off those who went to fight in the war in Vietnam. This episode shows that although someone might not always agree with what you are arguing about or fighting for, you can still value them and support them in the same way that you always have been. Radar’s opinion of Hawkeye is changed, but he soon realizes that Hawkeye is still the same admirable person he as before the accident. Rather than being very upfront about this idea, the series takes a more complex approach to this, leaving the viewers to discover things for themselves. Similarly, this same idea could easily be seen while reading newspapers or other media in everyday life during this time. There was the heavy encouragement of women contributing to the war effort, not by going abroad and actively fighting in the war but by offering support on the homefront by helping raise money for the war effort or simply becoming more supportive of the war being fought (Ghilani 2017). This coincided with the message that was being portrayed by M*A*S*H in a more playful and indirect way rather than actively recruiting people to join the military or donate money to the cause. The combination of these two things could be argued to have changed the way many people viewed the war and leading to more support and greater backing by American citizens.

Many episodes of M*A*S*H reflect and present the fact that being at war is not simply a job for soldiers but a job for the entire country. There is heavy emphasis on the female nurses who contribute greatly to the war effort, as well as the wives and children at home without their husbands and fathers (Thompson 2014). It is touched on several times that although soldiers at war miss their families at home, the letters that they receive from their families is what helps them to get through the war. This can be seen in the way that soldiers discuss their families, as well as the way that the attitudes shift when discussing their families. In addition, several episodes of the series address and praise those that support the war, maybe not in their beliefs, but rather in being able to raise money and awareness for the war in multiple different ways (Thompson 2014). Not only did M*A*S*H offer different points of view in the way that is was filmed, being one of the first American sitcoms to take place in a completely different country, as well as using zooms and telephoto lens shots, but it offered the point of view of needing help from civilians to win the war. The series makes it clear that soldiers are not the only ones at war; the entire nation is, and it can only be won with the help of everyone (Austerlitz 2014).

The importance of family and the support that is offered through loved ones at home is easily seen in the popular episode “Point of View.” This episode is presented through the eyes of a wounded soldier, Private Rich (David Stafford). As a result of having shrapnel lodged in his neck, he becomes unable to speak. Because he undergoes multiple surgeries to repair the problem, he stays at the 4077th. Colonel Potter is noticed to be portraying strange behavior, being in a bad mood, and unwilling to talk to anybody. While Private Rich is recovering, he manages to get Colonel Potter to open up to him and tell him what has been upsetting him. Potter confesses that he forgot to call his wife on their wedding anniversary, which has left him distraught and angered by the war and having to be separated from his wife. Radar hears this and calls Potter’s wife and explains what happened, which prompts her to forgive her husband. Immediately following this, Potter’s attitude changes, leaving him in a better spirits and more optimistic about the future. This is a prime example of the impact that the relationship with loved ones still at home has on soldiers while they are abroad – how it influences their attitudes and their overall wellbeing.

Maybe most importantly, M*A*S*H has served as a reminder to viewers that soldiers are still ordinary people who value human life as whole. The connections between the American soldiers and some Korean citizens portrayed in episodes helped American people to see that there was still hope for a better world after war. An episode titled “Old Soldiers” portrays this very theme. When a group of Korean children arrive at the medical compound with a curious illness, soldiers and physicians working there take it upon themselves to care for these children, even though they may have had ties to the enemy. Instances such as these show the ability of soldiers abroad to look past the race and ethnicity of those people who need medical attention and to practice humanity by being able to recognize that these children are innocent victims of their situation. Soldiers being able to look past this serve as a beacon of light to the viewers of this show revealing that although these soldiers are fighting in difficult situation abroad, they are not stripped of their capacity to value human lives. A newspaper article published in December of 2005 addresses the importance of the series. M*A*S*H aired during a time when many Americans were tired of hearing about the negative things that were occurring abroad with young innocent children dying and suffering as well as the lives of loved ones being lost. But this sitcom offered a different insight into life at war. It portrays soldiers as “good, old American men,” giving them “credibility, believability, and humanity.” Watching this show caused many to change their opinions on those at war, making them feel as though they were heroic (Guider 2005).

Still from M*A*S*H, “Abyssinia Henry” (Season 3, Episode 24, 1975.)
Still from M*A*S*H, “Abyssinia Henry” (Season 3, Episode 24, 1975.)

A highly talked about episode of M*A*S*H is one that portrays the worst of war while also showing the strong relationships that are formed between soldiers during a stressful wartime. “Abyssinia Henry” is the finale episode of third season and sets the tone for the rest of the series. When Lieuteneut Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) is discharged from the Army after completing his tour in Korea, he and his fellow soldiers go out for one last night together. The morning after a night full of drinking too much, Blake says goodbye to the 4077th and boards his helicopter to go home. Life continues on with the operating room soon becoming full of injured soldiers and doctors attempting to repair their damaged bodies. Radar then comes in and delivers gut-wrenching news: Blake’s helicopter has been shot down over the Sea of Japan, leaving no survivors. The doctors, Blake’s friends and comrades, are taken aback and noticeably upset with many of them crying at the operating table as season three draws to a close. The last couple of minutes of this episode are two of the most unexpected and shocking minutes of television; it was one of the first times that a character on an American television show was killed off in such a tragic way. Much of America was reeling from death of Colonel Blake along with many of the cast members. The writers of M*A*S*H had not told any of the actors on set how the episode was going to end, creating more true, pure emotion in this scene. People watching at home were taken aback and hit with a hard reality: death is a very real aspect of war. Not only was it one of the first times that the worst parts of war had a light shone on them in M*A*S*H, but it also helped audiences to see the relationships that were created between soldiers while at war. The real emotion portrayed when Radar walked into that operating room, stating that Blake, one of their friends and a fellow soldier had died, reiterated the fact that soldiers were victims of war as well, rather than only contributing to it. Soldiers at war suffer and deal with the death of their friends more often than loved ones at home, which is something that should not be pushed aside simply because they are doing their jobs and fighting at war.

Although M*A*S*H was portraying a different war and a different time, many of the issues that are addressed in this iconic series are very similar to those that were occurring during the time that this show was aired. With heavy backlash being experienced with regard to the Vietnam War, M*A*S*H makes light of these situations, encouraging a better attitude toward the war. This can be seen in the way that it supports patriotism while also disagreeing with cause, supporting the war effort while at home, and offering a reminder that soldiers are still human beings simply doing their jobs. This series does so while also bringing attention to other issues that are very real during this time period and providing a place for Americans to find humor in the midst of a dark situation. In addition, M*A*S*H can easily be viewed as one of the originators of “dark comedy.” M*A*S*H not only had a large impact on Americans and the war being fought during the time it was on the air, but it also marks the start of a new age in situation comedies.

Jane Schaefer is a sophomore at North Carolina State University from Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is a sports management major and a communications minor. 

Works Cited

Austerlitz, Saul. Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community. Chicago, Ill., United States: Chicago Review Press, 2014. Print.

Ghilani, Jessica. “Glamour -Izing Military Service: Army Recruitment for Women in Vietnam-Era Advertisements.” American Journalism 34.2 (2017): 201–228. EBSCOhost. Web.

Guider, Elizabeth. “‘Variety’ 100: Now & Then, Then & Now: In Viet Era, ‘MASH’ Immediately Struck a Chord.” Variety; New York, N. Y. 5 Dec. 2005: 9, 67. Print.

Hamilton, Heidi. “Can You Be Patriotic and Oppose the War? Arguments to Co-Opt and Refute the Ideograph of Patriotism.” Controversia 8.1 (2012): 13–35. Print.

“M*A*S*H.” CBS, 1983 1972. Television.

Thompson, Ethan, and Jason Mittell. How To Watch Television. New York: NYU Press, 2014. Print.


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Culture and the Sitcom: Student Essays Copyright © 2017 by Jane Schaefer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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