What M*A*S*H teaches us about Iraq

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FROM THE DISTANT SHORES OF JASON’S CHILDHOOD — I’m not sure the cable and satellite generations can understand exactly how pervasive M*A*S*H was in the antennae days.

Set in Korea — America’s original “forgotten war” — the show ran from 1972 to 1983, and ranked in the top 10 shows on television for nine of those years. But what is more impressive is that when the series finale aired in February 1983 it captured 77 percent of the market share, with 55 million families (105 million viewers total) tuning in to watch, according to Nielsen ratings.

It remains the single highest-rated prime-time show in American history, topping the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas, the mini-series finale of Roots, all SuperBowls, and even the legendary 1976 telecast of Gone With the Wind.

Even modern broadcasts haven’t been able to surpass M*A*S*H despite the fact that the U.S. population has grown by more than 60 million in the past 20 years. SuperBowl XLI (2007), with 91 million viewers total, is the most-watched show since 2000, and still didn’t exceed M*A*S*H‘s market share by a long-shot.

In 90s context (for Andrew and others), let’s run down the list of other finales: Cheers (1993), 80 million viewers; Seinfeld (1998), 76 million viewers; Friends (2004, 52.5 million viewers.

Skipping a little: Home Improvement (1999), 35.5 million viewers; Will and Grace (2006), 18 million viewers; Monday Night Football (2005), 14.5 million viewers; The Sopranos (2007), 12 million viewers.

My point: Where shows like Lost and Heroes get lots of water cooler play today, everybody — and I mean everybody — in the 70s and 80s had tuned in to M*A*S*H the night before. It’s a phenomenon the scale of which we’d never seen before and haven’t seen since.

Then there’s the theme — “Suicide Is Painless” — which was penned by director Robert Altman when he was 14. For my money, it’s the most recognizable television opener in all of history and the most poignant, rivaled only by the Cheers theme, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”

The movie version is far superior:

I remember lying close to my grandparents’ woodgrain-paneled console television in the mid-80s, getting nasty orange shag rugburns on my elbows as I watched M*A*S*H reruns. More often than not, I would be shuffled to bed because the show’s themes were not accessible or appropriate for a 6- or 7-year-old boy.

I wanted to understand, and to some degree I did. I got a few of the punch-lines, though most of the sex jokes passed right over my spiky-haired head. More importantly, though (and just like Star Trek: The Next Generation would some few years later), M*A*S*H gave me a concrete ethical compass.

I said an ethical one, not a moral one. There’s an important difference.

But it’s only now, watching the show again in the Sunday afternoon scheduling lull or late-nights on TV Land, that I realize exactly how soulful, how comically tragic, how rueful of the past, and how horribly prescient the scripts were.

Against the cultural context of the Iraq War, these lines seem to be screaming across the decades:

Frank Burns: “I’m sick of hearing about the wounded. What about all the thousands of wonderful guys who are fighting this war without any of the credit or the glory that always goes to those lucky few who just happen to get shot.”

Father Mulcahy (singing): “There’s no one singing war songs now, like people used to do
No ‘Over There’, no ‘Praise the Lord’, no ‘Glory Hallelu’
Perhaps at last we’ve asked ourselves what we should have asked before
With the pain and death this madness brings, what were we ever singing for?”

Col. Potter: “Every month there’s a new procedure we have to learn because somebody’s come up with an even better way to mutilate the human body! Tell me this, captain: How the hell am I supposed to keep up with it? If they can invent better ways to kill each other, why can’t they invent a way to end this stupid war?”

Nothing’s gotten easier since the 80s, though we seem to be more culturally isolated from actually overseas conflicts than ever.

I’ve spoken with soldiers who’ve returned from tours in Iraq. Combat is far more clinical today, but is still laced with the inherent futility of fighting an insurgent enemy. They suffer the same delicate psychological trauma as Hawkeye and Hunnicutt — they might as well be prisoners of war, because they can’t go home, and they can’t forget what they’ve seen.

They also wrestle today with feelings of pettiness and sexual frustration — the two main mechanics of the television show’s weekly plot. And while medicine has advanced significantly in the past 50 years, it hasn’t found a cure for the doctors who feel helpless as they heal soldiers so they can be marched again like puppets straight back to the front.

What M*A*S*H did for an entire generation and more was teach very subtly (and with a laugh track) how nobody benefits from martial conflict, especially those who have pledged to first do no harm.

It’s a lesson I think we could all do well to hear again as a nation, if only we could get behind one source as prevalent and trustworthy as the 4077th.

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One Response to What M*A*S*H teaches us about Iraq

  1. Hank Alme says:

    Ah, MASH. Enjoy the show, and really love the movie once I saw it. It’s amusing to see actors I am used to thinking of as old (Tom Skerrit, Robert Duvall, Donald Sutherland) be young.

    I remember a part of the TV series really hitting me hard: an episode where the 4077th guys are reading and trying to answer letters from kids hack home. One of the letters — I think Hawkeye had it — was from a kid whose big brother had been wounded and put back together by the MASH guys, and then killed when he got send back. The kid was full of hate, and who could blame them? It captured the “What’s the point? Why are we here?” crap that would have to drive combat medical people crazy.

    I also recommend Richard Hooker’s novel M*A*S*H, which provided the story for the movie, and thus the basis for the TV show. Hooker actually wrote several MASH books, mostly dealing with things the group got up to once they got back to the states. The non-Korea ones are not without their charms, but nothing like the original novel, though they did introduce me to one of my favorite euphimisms: “terpsichorean ecdysiast”

    I remember the day after the finale (which I didn’t see). Everybody in my seventh grade homeroom/math class was on about it all day. I don’t think I saw the finale until some time in the last couple of years. That made me an outsider, I guess.

    I figure that is something we won’t see again, mainly due to changes in technology. There were no Tivos, and cable TV had nothing like the variety of today. People would all gather at the same time on the same night to watch a show because that’s what you did, and there were few alternatives (VCR time-shifting was not *that* common, as I recall).

    On that night in 1983, I’d be surprised if there were another show worth watching on in that slot; if I turned on the TV, that would have been what I watched. Now, I can try to catch up on my DVR stuff, or see what’s new/rerun on A&E, or Doscovery, or…

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