Visions of the Things to Be: Reflections on M*A*S*H


By Michael W. Harris

The gang’s all here

I try not to identify a lot with fictional characters—the Fantastic Four aside. It is hard, though. Fiction is designed to engage us on an emotional level, draw us in and create moments of reflection within us. Growing up, as strange as it may sound, one of the characters I identified with most was Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit.

The show was obviously in reruns by the time I started watching it, right after the evening news on a cheap black and white TV (this was the early ‘90s after all), but beside the show being funny and a bit raunchy for my age (I was in elementary school!), it also had something else that I could not identify then but that I recognize now as psychologically complex characters. This story of people trying to survive the day-to-day grind of putting up with so much, under such impossible conditions, and using a combination of humor, booze, sex, faith, and basic human compassion to do so resonated with me on levels that I only understand now. So much of Pierce’s humorous façade masked a deep well of pain that he had as a peaceful man, a healer, who saw the worst of humanity daily…but still hoped for its ultimate salvation. His dark, black comedy disguised his pain. It was his shield and sword, which is almost exactly how one teacher described my use of humor in a report card. I was an introverted, overweight, nerd who somehow needed to survive elementary, middle, and high school, and I learned how to navigate these treacherous waters from Hawkeye Pierce, Radar, Hunnicutt, Margaret Houlihan, Father Mulcahy, and Colonel Sherman T. Potter, regular Army. But none more so than Hawkeye (though I was always a bit more like Radar in actual personality).

I sometimes wonder if my attraction to gin later in life is somehow a subconscious echo of the gin still in Hawkeye’s quarters, “The Swamp”—though he drank the “perfect dry martini” (“You drink a jigger of gin while staring at a picture of Lorenzo Swartz, the inventor of vermouth.”) and not gin and tonics…I guess no one is perfect. But what could Hawkeye do? The US Army was not as generous with its rations of alcohol like the British Army and Navy were in the 19th century. Stupid puritanicals like Frank Burns, always ruining everything.

Still Hawkeye, with his world-weary view, taught me a lot about how to view society, and informed my own jaded cynicism tinged with optimism that was already forming. As I have said before, you need only know that I grew up watching Star Trek, Star Wars, M*A*S*H, and Mel Brooks to have a good sense of who I am. Throw in my love of Douglas Adams, Carl Sagan, and Kurt Vonnegut and I think you get the drift; deeply cynical and dark while also somehow remaining hopeful.

It is my motto in life: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. And I am pretty sure I learned how to reconcile that contradiction thanks to Hawkeye.

*          *          *

Don’t overthink, but maybe over-drink.

My memory is sometimes a weird thing (as I am pretty sure is the case for many people). Some things are absolutely seared into my long-term storage, while others I forget about the moment they happen.

To wit: one of my strongest memories from elementary school comes from fourth grade recess at William Yates Elementary School. I was standing at the top of the stairs leading down to the playground area and was talking to one of my teachers…you know, like you do. It was either Mrs. Brand (who was my actual teacher) or Mrs. Kaufman (who had been my older sister’s teacher and who I also talked to on occasion because I was “Kim’s Brother”). Regardless, somehow I had gotten to talking to one of them about how I would stay up past the 10 o’clock news and watch M*A*S*H, and how much I liked the show. They were rightfully a bit confused by this 4th grade student watching a show that had gone off the air 7-8 years prior and was fairly adult in themes at times.

I don’t really remember much more about the actual conversation besides talking about the show (though I do remember that it was a gray and overcast day, probably in the Fall), but it is a reminder of how far back my love of M*A*S*H goes and also just how wrapped up it is in my childhood insecurities. Talking with a teacher instead of playing with my classmates, enjoying the media of adults and not so much that of fellow children (though my love of Batman: The Animated Series, Doug, and Animaniacs is still undying!). M*A*S*H was just an outward marker of my already fraught relationship with my peer group, a sign that I was not typical. I just lacked the vocabulary and framework to articulate what it was that I was feeling and experiencing. So instead I identified with a misfit, brilliant surgeon, trapped in an impossible situation, wanting nothing more than to flee, and yet compelled by his unshakable moral duty and code to help those that needed it most.

And that might have been the most compelling part of Hawkeye as a character: his unwavering morality in that most immoral of situations, especially when contrasted to the hyper patriotism of someone like Frank Burns or the elitism of Charles Emerson Winchester, III. Hawkeye took everyone down a peg. He was the classic jester character who saw the truth of the world and was sadder for it, but also hid his depression through humor and spoke truth to those in power. But unlike Batman’s Joker, or the classic Pierrot, or even Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka, Hawkeye was not driven to insanity. Just to drink.

Yes, Hawkeye did have a few episodes where he went off the rails, where he seemingly cracked, but he was always able to come back, and those few episodes really took the opportunity to delve into the psychology of war. Its toll on the human mind. Why we really do all that can to avoid them. It was a message that, to me, living in a post-Soviet era, that we were actually heading in a better direction. Then came Gulf War I, Somalia, the Balkans…and then 9/11 and the “War on Terror.”

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

*          *          *

Seeing this on the store shelf made me so very happy.

The DVD sets for M*A*S*H began releasing in January of 2002, during my junior year of undergrad, the school year of 9/11. It was also when DVD TV shows really began to hit big (I remember being overwhelmed at the Kirksville, MO, Wal*Mart when I saw the box set for Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night). For me, it was like rediscovering an old book all over again. Having only ever seen the show in reruns and in no discernible order, sitting down and watching the show in order, and then having to wait for the next set to be released, was a revelation…though also confusing when there was seemingly little continuity between episodes as to either storyline or even time of year (I swear there is one run of episodes in which it goes from summer to winter to fall to summer again in the span of just five or six episodes). But it didn’t matter, I had my M*A*S*H DVDs and I could finally watch my show, and also finally see the legendary final episode, still one of the single most viewed television events of all time. I was 2-years-old when it aired and it was not until November 2006 that I finally saw it, while travelling with my family for Thanksgiving (my last one before moving to Colorado), and watching it on a portable DVD playing as we drove across Missouri.

I have yet to watch that episode though, or indeed watched the entire seasons from start to finish, again. In the years since I finished M*A*S*H, I have rewatched a number of my favorite episodes countless times—“5 o’clock Charlie,” “Adam’s Ribs,” “A Full Rich Day,” “End Run,” “Deal Me Out,” and so many more—but I usually stick to the first five seasons or so, and have never sat down with “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” again. Maybe I should, though the time in my life when I saw it was so specific and different than I where I am now.

In November 2006 I was on the cusp of deciding to go back for my PhD, moving away from my family in a major way, and all the other changes that would result from my decade in Colorado. However, in many ways, I now understand even more why 10-year-old me, and 22-year-old me loved the show so much. I can see the appeal of Hawkeye and what those younger versions saw in him. We saw of part of ourself…myself. And now, 38-year-old me finally has the self-awareness and vocabulary to explain why it appealed to us so many decades ago.

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