Tuesday, February 09, 2010

BEATING M*A*S*H—Well that took a long Time: Let’s Consider Why? What did M*A*S*H offer American Viewers?

BEATING M*A*S*H—Well that took a long Time: Let’s Consider Why? What did M*A*S*H offer American Viewers?

By Kevin Stoda, Germany

Well, one of the AP’s big headlines following the Super Bowl yesterday was “Super Bowl is Most Watched TV Show Ever“. I was startled as I realized that the Final Episode of M*A*S*H had been able to hold its own against the Super Bowl, sponsored so much by the Department of Defense’s recruiting services to the tune of millions year-after-year for over 26 years. [That episode was called “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”.]


Let me explain for those of you who are too young to remember. M*A*S*H was an essentially irreverent anti-war, anti-military, anti-draft, anti-chain-of-command comedy which ran for over a full-decade from the early 1970s onwards on American TV (long before we had 500 channels to choose from on our TV dials). The final episode of M*A*S*H, shown in February 1983, was seen by the largest USA audience up to that time--even during the most expensive and largest peace time arms build-up in USA history. This reveals, despite the rise of Americans Super Power status, that many Americans identify themselves and their relationship to America’s militarization in a peripheral and very critical way throughout the 20th Century. [This was not the image portrayed to non-Americans abroad by most USA media or foreign policy occupation in the second half of the 20th Century.]


M*A*S*H was the most successful television show inspired by a movie (in this case a movie of the exact same name).

Although that war comedy film, M*A*S*H, was set in one Asian war—namely the so-called Korean War or Korean Police Action, Director Robert Altman intentionally set out in creating the M*A*S*H movie to make certain that viewers would identify with troops in Vietnam—up-till-then-and now America’s Longest War.


In short, most of the American veterans from the Korean War had already been forgotten about—so, HEY, let’s make a movie that has allusions mostly to Vietnam? Let me add here that the U.S. had definitely not clearly won the Korean War, so those affected veterans had been discouraged from talking about their war days in public back in the USA in the 1950s, 1960s, and onwards.


So, in the midst of America’s resistance [to war] rising in the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Altman might certainly have asked: “Why not, after all in 1972, set this irreverent film, M*A*S*H, based on a book by a hardly remembered Korean Veteran in Korea--but with as many allusions as possible to what we see happening in the run-amok Vietnam and Southeast Asian debacle on our nation’s TV and on the cover of newspapers and tabloids?” [Due to the growth in power of TV mass media in two decades, everyone was more conscious of the other losing battle or war: Vietnam. Otherwise, perhaps the Korean War might have had its own program a decade or so earlier.]


Lary Gelpert wrote and directed many of the M*A*S*H stories over the years. However, In order for the M*A*S*H series to run for 11 years, of course, it had to have a lot more writing contributors and room for ever-inspired growing creativity. M*A*S*H wasn’t just a comedy or farce anymore. At times it was clearly a drama. Sometimes both. At times, the actors wrote and directed the shows themselves. Over 5 different U.S. presidents the show, set in an unsuccessful Asian war, continued to be viewed and became very well syndicated world-wide.


“Many of the stories in the early seasons are based on real-life tales told by real MASH surgeons who were interviewed by the production team. Like the movie, the series was as much an allegory about the Vietnam War (still in progress when the series began) as about the Korean Conflict.”


You can click on many of the data, including plots, actors, and changing characterizations over time about most episodes of M*A*S*H here:


Everyone seems to have a different list of their top ten episodes.


In short, understanding the history of M*A*S*H, i.e. with its dual focus on the Korean and Vietnam Wars, you will become a better Americanist—expert on Americana. For example, the Korean War was the first war that helicopters were used extensively. It was the first time that America left a major war almost cold turkey without an unconditional surrender. Learning about M*A*S*H will help you reflect on three generations of Americans—both their lives on the war front and the home front (from the late 1940s through the 1980s). Because M*A*S*H was very therapeutic for Americans who heard only silence, shame or anger about either the Vietnam or the Korean wars in the years prior to the Gulf War in Kuwait.

Interestingly, and reflective of the America I grew up in, is the fact that between 1973 and 1983, when the beloved TV series M*A*S*H ran once a weeknight on regular TV, the USA government never once moved to occupy any foreign territory. [Is it a coincidence that it wasn’t until after last episode of M*A*S*H was shown, that Ronald Reagan sent troops to make war Grenada? ]

Those were some good-old days, folks, in American foreign policy history—but most Americans did not really appreciate the dominant anti-war attitudes of USA citizens in that decade. Even Jimmy Carter described the American attitude a sort of malaise. Worse, the pro-militarized forces in American history have reported only of the failures and boondoggles of that decade.


Can we turn back the clock America? And leave behind the militarism and militarization of America from the late 1970s onwards?

Or can we at least in the 21st Century gain some foreign policy balance, i.e. moderation—instead of war making and DOD blank checks?




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