Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Anti-Draft

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 4. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

 

When M*A*S*H debuted, the U.S. armed forces still used conscription to fill out its ranks. The peacetime draft began in 1948, following the expiration of World War II conscription, and included a special “doctor’s draft” for medical personnel. Selective service was vital to staffing up the U.S. military for both the Korean and Vietnam wars and was particularly despised by Vietnam protesters. Partway through M*A*S*H’s first season, the Pentagon announced that it would shift to an all-volunteer force, with the last inductions occurring before the TV season ended.

Among government institutions, conscription is one of the most disturbing. People of a particular demographic group — young men — are taken from their private lives and forced to work and live under strict government direction, at great risk to life and limb. The draft is regularly derided on M*A*S*H; as Hawkeye explains about his draft board in “Yankee Doodle Doctor” (s. 1), “When they came for me, I was hiding, trying to puncture my eardrum with an ice pick.”

No element of the show better represents opposition to the draft than the character Klinger. The show’s first seven seasons depict his many schemes to get discharged from the Army: trying to hang-glide out of Korea (“The Trial of Henry Blake,” s. 2), preparing to raft across the Pacific to California (“Dear Peggy,” s. 4), threatening to immolate himself (“The Most Unforgettable Characters,” s. 5), attempting to eat a jeep (“38 Across,” s. 5), pretending to believe he’s back home in Toledo (“The Young and the Restless,” s. 7). In “Mail Call” (s. 2), he claims his father is near death, hoping for a hardship discharge. Blake then flips through Klinger’s file:

BLAKE

Father dying last year.

Mother dying last year.

Mother and father dying.

Mother, father and older sister dying.

Mother dying and older sister pregnant.

Older sister dying and mother pregnant.

Younger sister pregnant and older sister dying.

Here’s an oldie but a goody: half of the family dying, other half pregnant.

Klinger, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

KLINGER

Yes, sir. I don’t deserve to be in the Army.

Klinger’s longest-running scheme is pretending to be a transvestite in the hope of earning a “Section 8” psychiatric discharge. Among the outfits from 20th Century Fox’s wardrobe shop that Farr wore (sometimes while puffing on a stogie) were Ginger Rogers’ Cleopatra costume (“April Fools,” s. 8) and a woolen coat of Betty Grable’s (“Major Ego,” s. 7), as well as reproductions of Dorothy’s pinafore dress from the Wizard of Oz and a Scarlett O’Hara gown from Gone With the Wind (“Major Ego,” s. 7), and a flare-torched Statue of Liberty get-up (“Big Mac,” s. 3).

Klinger usually provides comic relief, but in “War of Nerves” (s. 6) he delivers a serious condemnation of the draft. Confiding in Sidney, who previously knocked down several of Klinger’s Section 8 schemes, he says he really does fear he’s going crazy because of his attempts to get out of the Army. Sidney asks Klinger why he wants out:

KLINGER

Why? Well, there’s — there’s lots of reasons.

I guess death tops the list. I don’t want to die.

And I don’t want to look at other people while they do it.

And I don’t want to be told where to stand while it happens to me.

And I don’t want to be told how to do it to somebody else.

And I ain’t gonna. Period. That’s it. I’m gettin’ out.

SIDNEY

You don’t like death.

KLINGER

Overall, I’d rather lay in a hammock with a couple of girls than be dead — yes.

SIDNEY

Listen, Klinger. You’re not crazy.

KLINGER

I’m not? Really?

SIDNEY

You’re a tribute to man’s endurance. A monument to hope in size-12 pumps.

I hope you do get out someday. There would be a battalion of men in hoopskirts right behind you.

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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Anti-War

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

 

Though Hornberger’s book avoids judgment on war, both the film and TV series are unapologetically anti-war. The series regularly portrays war’s miseries, tugging at the heartstrings but not breaking them, respecting viewers instead of putting them off.

The greatest horror of war, death, was central to one of the series’ first ratings successes, the episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (s. 1). Hawkeye is visited by childhood friend Tommy Gillis, who has volunteered for service in order to write a book on his experiences. Later in the episode, a wounded Gillis is brought to the 4077, where he dies on Hawkeye’s operating table. Afterward, a tearful Hawkeye is consoled by the unit’s bumbling but kind-hearted first commander, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson):

HAWKEYE

I’ve watched guys die almost every day. Why didn’t I ever cry for them?

HENRY

Because you’re a doctor.

HAWKEYE

What the hell does that mean?

HENRY

I don’t know.

If I had the answer, I’d be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this place look like the Mayo Clinic?

All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war.

And rule number one is: young men die.

And rule number two is: doctors can’t change rule number one.

 

The series’ pivotal episode, “Abyssinia, Henry” (s. 3), concluded with news that Blake, on his way home after an honorable discharge, was killed when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. The story shocked viewers, prompting an avalanche of angry letters to the network. But as show co-runner Gene Reynolds explained, “We didn’t want Henry Blake going back to Bloomington, IL and going back to the country club and the brown and white shoes, because a lot of guys didn’t get back to Bloomington.”

 

Death-centered episodes are among the series’ best. In “Old Soldiers” (s. 8), the 4077’s subsequent commander, the venerable Colonel Potter, reminisces tenderly about his now-deceased comrades from World War I. “Follies of the Living — Concerns of the Dead” (s. 10) depicts a deceased soldier’s soul lingering at the 4077, observing the big and small tribulations of the staff. In “Give and Take” (s. 11), an American G.I. and a North Korean soldier whom the G.I. wounded are both treated at the 4077 and become friendly, only for the North Korean to succumb to his wounds. “Who Knew?” (s. 11) shows Hawkeye, sobered by the tragic death of a unit nurse, finding the courage to express his love for his unit colleagues. And in “Death Takes a Holiday” (s. 9), Hawkeye, fellow surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), and head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) try to extend the life of a brain-dead soldier brought in on Christmas Day, hoping to not ruin future Christmases for his children. When the G.I. dies before the day is out, Margaret reflects: “Never fails to astonish me: you’re alive, you’re dead. No drums. No flashing lights. No fanfare. You’re just dead.” And in “The Life You Save” (s. 9), a philosophical surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) compares his profession’s limited abilities to those of the 4077’s company mechanic, Sgt. Luther Rizzo (G.W. Bailey):

Don’t you understand the power you have here?

You can take a Jeep apart and reduce it to an inert pile of junk.

And then, whenever you want to, at whim, you can fit it together again, and it will roar back to life.

If only we could do that with human beings.

They — they wouldn’t die.

Also among the series’ best episodes are several portraying the war’s devastating effects on the Korean people, few of whom cared—or even knew—about the ideologies and geopolitics of the Cold War. In “In Love and War” (s. 6), Hawkeye falls for a cultured, upper-class Korean woman who sells her possessions and uses her wealth to care for villagers dislocated by the war. The relationship ends when the woman decides to take the people in her care further south, away from the war zone. In “B.J. Papa San” (s. 7), B.J. devotes himself to a Korean family impoverished by the war. Just as he is about to reunite them with a long-missing son, he discovers they have disappeared, also fleeing south. And in “The Interview” (s. 4), “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), Klinger’s predecessor as company clerk, is asked by war correspondent Clete Roberts about the plight of Korean peasants:

ROBERTS

Do you get to meet the South Koreans? Do you know them?

RADAR

Yeah, they’re nice people. I worry about ’em though.

We got a girl here that was, you know, pregnant. She doesn’t have any money or anything.

I don’t know how these kids live. I mean, some of ‘em don’t. That’s the God’s honest truth. Some of ‘em don’t even live over here.

ROBERTS

Do you help them?

RADAR

We do the best we can, but we haven’t got— I mean, we got just— Sometimes we got just enough for ourself. Penicillin and stuff like that.

I mean, I really wish somebody would tell these people back home this.

When you have to look these kids in the face, that’s where it’s really at. I mean, that’s what the ball game really is. Is looking these kids in the face here.

Several episodes focus on war-orphaned children. In “The Kids” (s. 4) and “Old Soldiers,” orphans visit the 4077 for checkups, touching hearts and boosting morale. “Yessir, That’s Our Baby” (s. 8) has Hawkeye, B.J., and Charles finding an abandoned Amerasian baby and battling the xenophobia of Korean society and the nativism of America to secure the girl’s future. And in “Death Takes a Holiday,” an initially incensed Charles learns just how desperate the lives of the orphans are after he confronts orphanage master Choi Sung Ho (Keye Luke) for selling the gourmet chocolates that Winchester had left the children as a gift, in accordance with a Winchester family tradition:

CHARLES

Go on. Deny it. Deny it, if you can.

You took the Christmas candy I gave you, and you sold it on the black market.

Have you no shame?

CHOI

May I explain?

CHARLES

No! What you may do is retrieve that candy immediately and have it in the children’s stockings by morning.

Otherwise, they’re gonna find you hanging by the chimney without care!

CHOI

Major, I cannot. The money is gone.

CHARLES

You parasite!

CHOI

Please. Your generous gift and insistence that it remain anonymous touched me deeply.

The candy would’ve brought great joy to the children for a few moments. But on the black market, it was worth enough rice and cabbage to feed them for a month.

CHARLES

Rice and cabbage?

CHOI

I know. I have failed to carry out your family tradition, and I am very sorry.

CHARLES

On the contrary, it is I who should be sorry. It is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.

 

Just as moving are episodes in which members of the 4077 deal with their own terror in war. In “The Interview,” Hawkeye describes how sometimes, when he’s lying on his cot at night, he finds it shaking — not because of falling artillery, but because his heart is racing. “Heal Thyself” (s. 8) tells of visiting surgeon Steve Newsome (Edward Hermann) who had performed valiantly under fire on the Pusan Perimeter during the desperate early months of the war, succumbing to post-traumatic stress and fleeing the 4077’s operating room. In “Dreams” (s. 8), members of the principal cast suffer nightmares of how the war has changed their lives. The same device is used in “Hawk’s Nightmare” (s. 5): Hawkeye experiences sleepwalking and nightmares of childhood friends suffering horrific deaths. Exhausted and worried about his sanity, he turns to recurring character Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus), a psychiatrist, for help:

HAWKEYE

I keep having these dreams about these kids I grew up with. And the dreams start out OK. The kids are fine. And then they end in disaster.

SIDNEY

Like those kids who roll past you on that bloody assembly line. You dream to escape, but the war invades your dream, and you wake up screaming. The dream is peaceful. Reality is the nightmare.

HAWKEYE

Am I crazy, Sidney?

SIDNEY

[Chuckling] No. A bit confused, a little fershimmeled is all. Actually, Hawkeye, you’re probably the sanest person I’ve ever known. The fact is, if you were crazy, you’d sleep like a baby.

HAWKEYE

So when do my nightmares end?

SIDNEY

When this big one ends, most of the others should go away. But there’s a lot of suffering going on here, Hawkeye, and you can’t avoid it. You can’t even dream it away.

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Laughter, Liberty, and M*A*S*H

Television’s finest half-hour reminded America of the values of classical liberalism.

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 1.

CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The TV series M*A*S*H premiered on September 17, 1972 — a bad time to debut an anti-war, anti-establishment dark comedy. America’s mood was on the rebound from the social upheaval of the late-1960s: Operation Linebacker was pushing back the North Vietnamese forces with few U.S. casualties, easing public frustration over the Vietnam War. The nation’s economy was booming, growing 5.25 percent in 1972 and would grow 5.6 percent in 1973. Prosperity and military success produced strong approval numbers for President Richard Nixon, who would be reelected in November with more than 60 percent of the popular vote and winning 49 states.

All that good news was bad for the early weeks of the impertinent if not subversive M*A*S*H. The pilot finished 45th in the week’s ratings, a miserable showing in the three-network era. Subsequent episodes fell into the 50s, raising the specter of cancellation.

But national moods can change quickly when the news changes. Three months before M*A*S*H debuted, the Washington Post reported that five men had been arrested in connection with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. As the show’s first season played out, Watergate mushroomed from an offbeat news item into a full-blown scandal. Halfway through the TV season, a humbled United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending America’s involvement in Vietnam; the last U.S. troops left the country on March 29, 1973, four days after M*A*S*H’s first-season finale. That fall, with the show’s second season underway, the OPEC oil cartel cut production in retaliation for western nations’ support of Israel. The resulting energy crisis sent the U.S. stock market reeling and the economy into recession. With inflation already surging, the United States got its first dose of “stagflation.” Finally, on August 9, 1974 — a month before M*A*S*H’s season-three premiere — a disgraced Nixon resigned the presidency.

Those events may have helped Americans embrace the sitcom that treated the inhumanity of war and the inanity of government with a cathartic mix of laughter and tugged heartstrings. M*A*S*H’s ratings rose in the final weeks of its first season, as more viewers began following the goings-on at the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near the front lines of the Korean War. That prefaced regular top-10 finishes for the rest of the show’s 11-year run. M*A*S*H’s cast, crew, and writers would carry off a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes over the next decade. The series finale is television legend; even current Super Bowls struggle to top the nearly 106 million viewers who watched “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” on February 28, 1983. Following the program’s end, its decommissioned sets, costumes, and props became wildly popular exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Today, M*A*S*H continues to draw audiences in syndication, nearly a half-century after it debuted.

What made it so successful? Public reaction to Vietnam and Watergate may explain its first few years, but M*A*S*H was a TV juggernaut for the rest of its run, despite the departure of most of its original cast, change in show runners, and turnover of writers. Even the series’ shift in tenor from situation comedy to dramedy (sometimes heavy on drama) did not weaken its audience.

An academic thesis has argued that the show’s success came in part from its following changing public values and outlooks as the United States moved from leftish libertinism of the early 1970s, to malaise-induced cynicism of the late ‘70s, to the conservative Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. Yet, libertarians and other classical liberals — who often find political similarities where others see left–right differences — may perceive something else: that throughout its run, M*A*S*H consistently promoted the ideals of classical liberalism.

People unfamiliar with classical liberalism may be unsurprised by the idea that M*A*S*H was a “liberal” show. Several of its cast members are vocal supporters of political causes on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum, and critics (and even some fans) of the series criticize it for being too “lefty” in its later seasons. But this is not the liberalism I mean. The philosophy of classical liberalism acknowledged that government has an important role to play in addressing truly public problems, but that individual liberty and private, consensual relationships are of paramount importance. Classical liberalism is skeptical of government power, appreciates the incentives and benefits of the marketplace, and defends civil liberties. As such, classical liberalism encompassed a broad swath of the American political spectrum as it existed in the latter part of the 20th century, from ACLU civil libertarians, to Jimmy Carter/Bill Clinton centrists, to Ronald Reagan’s small-government conservatives.

To be clear, M*A*S*H’s chief protagonist, surgeon Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (played by Alan Alda), may not have been an avowed libertarian who leafed through The Road to Serfdom along with his beloved nudie magazines. But he and his comrades embraced and advocated principles and institutions that acknowledged classical liberals hold dear, as did many Americans (including both Democrats and Republicans) of that era. And today, amidst a surge in illiberalism in both the United States and abroad, the show continues to offer classical liberals both comic relief and hope.

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