Opinion: M*A*S*H and the Forgotten War

Thirty-eight years ago, on Feb. 28, 1983, the final episode of M*A*S*H was watched by the largest television audience at that time. Estimates of the number of viewers range from 106 million to 125 million, including armed service personnel serving overseas. At the time, the concluding episode of M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” was the most highly rated TV show and, in 2013, it was ranked as the eighth Greatest TV Show of All Times by TV Guide.


The show’s concept derived from Richard Hooker’s 1968 book, MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors. Although the shows were filmed in the hills above Malibu, Calif., the scenes recreated the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Uijeongbu, South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). In the forward to the novel, Hooker wrote, “The surgeons in the MASH hospitals were exposed to extremes of hard work, leisure, tension, boredom, heat, cold, satisfaction and frustration that most of them had never faced before.” The key characters in the series were “Hawkeye” Pierce (played by Alan Alda), Margaret “Hot Lips” Hoolihan (Loretta Swit), and Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers). After the third season, Trapper John was replaced by B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell).


The TV show was originally billed as a comedy, but the first few years of the series were aired during the Vietnam War, so there were many sober and heart-wrenching scenes involving battle wounds and hospital surgeries performed in tents. Therefore, the series became known as a “dark comedy” or “dramedy.”


Hooker’s original book was followed by a series of sequels, beginning with M*A*S*H Goes to Maine. Then there were several co-authored books by Hooker and William E. Butterworth (both Hooker and Butterworth, by the way, are pseudonyms), with Mash Goes to Paris (1974), London (1975), New Orleans, (1975), San Francisco (1976), Morocco (1976), Las Vegas (1976), Hollywood (1976), Miami (1976), Montreal (1977), Texas (1977), and finally (written solo by Hooker), M*A*S*H Mania (1977). As a much younger man, I read all the books and can only recommend the original.


Forgotten War


Had it not been for the popularity of M*A*S*H, the fighting in Korea might have been a forgotten war. Sandwiched between the immensity of World War II and the horror of Vietnam, the conflict on the Korean peninsula could have been passed over as little more than a symbol of the Cold War that raged largely between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. from 1946 to 1991. I think that part of the reason that Korea has not received the continuing coverage that has been allotted to the fighting in Southeast Asia or the Middle East is that the conflict was largely confined to a single country: Korea.


Korea was truly a Cold War casualty. The nation had been ruled by Japan since 1910, but when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, it was forced to relinquish its claim on the Korean peninsula. Korea was then occupied by both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., which had been odd-couple allies against the Axis powers during WWII. Between 1946 and 1950, relations steadily worsened between the two occupying powers because of the ideological conflict between communism and capitalism.

The country of Korea was split at the 38th parallel, creating North Korea and South Korea. In July 1950, North Korea sought to reunite the country under communism by invading South Korea and winning back most of the territory. The United Nations, with United States war power backing, became committed to regaining lost territory, and the Cold War became a very hot war. It lasted for a relatively short time because peace talks began in 1951. However, fighting continued until an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, creating a DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between the two countries.


Casualties and care


During the war, nearly 1 million U.N. troops (603,000 South Korea, 327,000 U.S.A, and about 45,000 from 15 other U.N. countries) and more than1.6 million communist troops (260,600 North Korea, 1,358,456 China, and 26,000 U.S.S.R) engaged in battle. The conflict claimed 100,503 U.S. soldiers’ lives. Although this was about one-fourth of the American lives lost during WWII (407,316), it was twice as many as U.S. lives lost in the Vietnam conflict (about 50,000).


It’s interesting to contemplate the effects of these three wars in terms of casualties. WWII was fought by U.S. armed forces from 1941 to 1945 (a little less than 4 years). And the loss of American lives was 407,316. The fighting in Korea began in 1950 and ended in 1953 (about 3 years). During that time,100,503 American lives were lost. The war in Vietnam involved U.S. fighting troops from 1965 to 1975 (10 years). Yet, far fewer Americans (50,000) lost their lives.


As the years passed, airplanes became more sophisticated, more powerful, and far more destructive. The same could be said for ships and every type of ordinance. Soldiers were better trained and carried more powerful weapons. But, there were fewer casualties. Many analysts explain this phenomenon by pointing to the existence of Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals being in the field where they could more quickly minister to wounded combatants in Southeast Asia.


M*A*S*H may have been an entertaining television program, but it also pointed out the efficacy of having professional medical assistance readily available to our fighting personnel. In 2006, MASH units were succeeded by Combat Support Hospitals. It would be extremely naïve for me to hope for an end to war in my lifetime, but I can expect fewer deaths and better rehabilitation for the wounded when our young men and women must go into battle because trained medical personnel will be there for them.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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