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September 17, 2022

M*A*S*H Notes

Vivien Bui

In the summer of 2020, at the height of a pandemic and a personal crisis, I began watching M*A*S*H. Fat chunks of memory are missing, but the skeleton remains. My employment contract had ended during an industry-wide hiring freeze, my roommate moved home to be with her family, and I was suddenly alone in a poorly lit in-law apartment, drowning in vacuous stretches of time.

While everyone baked bread and took family-sanctioned walks, I morphed into the yuppie version of a troll under a bridge. The only thing I had written in months was a list of microwave-friendly meals. Each night I would stay up until 5am, then pull a blanket over myself in the same corner of the couch I had spent all day on. The next afternoon, I would wake up groggy, dizzy in a cloud of failure — surely, to choose suffering from a place of such relative privilege and physical safety came from a deep and inherent moral lack on my part. 

The advice is simple, intuitive even. Drink water! Do YouTube yoga! Try Better Help with this influencer discount code! What the internet never tells you about self care is that you need to be at a certain level of emotional wherewithal to do the very things that will help you feel better. 

If you’re below that threshold, fear not! You can do what I did: feel around the dirt floor of rock bottom, find a bunker, and ease yourself in. Escape — not to the bottom of a fifth or an overseas camgirl, but a CBS wartime comedy-drama television series from 1972. 

I remember being wrapped in a blanket in the middle of the night, my mouse hovering on a show I remember ignoring on Nick at Nite and MeTV as a child. The title sequence opens with tiny army men running around helicopters, pointing with urgency to something offscreen. “M*A*S*H” pops up in a dense and bright yellow font. The theme song — haunting and cheerful, Simon and Garfunkel-esque — is titled “Suicide is Painless.”

Oh, all right. Press play, motherfucker.

MASH is short for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a type of medical army unit developed in 1945 and first deployed during the Korean War. Mortality rates were astronomical when soldiers had to be transported to a bigger hospital for treatment; the purpose of these makeshift hospitals was to bring experienced medical professionals closer to the front so wounded soldiers could get treated as soon as possible. 

It was what character “Hawkeye” Pierce calls “meatball surgery:” less fine-tuning and meticulous care, more quick patching up in favor of saving as many lives as possible. A handful of surgeons and their assisting nurses would tend to the wounded after skirmishes at the front, patching up soldiers with a fighting chance and moving on to the next. This proved highly effective — a soldier had a 97% survival rate if he passed through a MASH unit. They would operate day and night at the whim of battle, which meant long hours and handling up to hundreds of casualties in a 24-hour period. When front lines moved, MASH units moved with them. The canvas tents in that ubiquitous Army green were packed in jeeps and driven to the next location, where everything was set up again within 24 hours, ready for the next batch of wounded meatballs. 

M*A*S*H the show, a spinoff of a movie based on a novel, takes place twenty miles from the front lines of the Korean War in a village called Uijeongbu. The ensemble cast is comprised of doctors and nurses, unsuccessful draft dodgers and army devotees alike, all members of the fictional 4077th MASH unit: Hawkeye Pierce: flirtatious, goofy anti-authoritarian. Trapper John McIntyre: infidelitous prankster. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan: blonde, busty, by-the-book head nurse. Frank Burns: staunch Republican, married man, and Margaret’s inconspicuous lover. Henry Blake: lovably incompetent lieutenant of the unit. Radar O’Reilly: clairvoyant company clerk.

With some departures and promotions to the main ensemble over the years, cast members shifted around and new ones were added: Sherman T. Potter: lieutenant, painter, avid equestrian. Father John Mulcahey: US Army chaplain with a mean hook in the boxing ring. Maxwell Q. Klinger: corporal who wears dresses in an attempt to get a Section 8 psychiatric discharge from the army. Charles Winchester: silver-spoon surgeon with a penchant for cognac and Beethoven. B.J. Hunnicutt: family man whose new handlebar mustache in the seventh season ruined my day.

Like their real-life MASH counterparts, much of the unit’s day is dictated by men with starred lapels. In between skirmishes at the front, the whole crew waits out long stretches of boredom in the blistering cold or melting heat. The personnel are exhausted, traumatized, desensitized, and much of the show revolves around their attempts to retain a semblance of their humanity. From the island of my worn gray sectional couch, I watched the granular men and women in green mill about, trying their best to stay afloat. They couldn’t leave Korea, and I, stuck in their stuckness and also my own, couldn’t bring myself to look away. 

My friends were amused when they found out about my newfound interest in boomer television. Leave it to Viv to find some esoteric, obscure show no one watches anymore, they said. It’s TV made for old, white, conservative men

To their credit, I didn’t know of any other Vietnamese-American women in their mid-twenties mowing through seasons of wartime sitcoms from the 70s. 

To my credit, M*A*S*H is neither esoteric nor obscure; when it was airing, it was wildly popular. Its legacy continues to this day — M*A*S*H popularized the dual plotline dramedy (drama-comedy) format, and the legacy of Alan Alda’s charming, wise-ass Hawkeye Pierce is echoed in characters like Ghostbusters’ Peter Venkman and Community’s Jeff Winger. 

And yes, it’s ostensibly old and white, but it’s not conservative or centrist or even boringly neoliberal. In many ways, it was radically progressive for its time. Several episodes throughout the show’s eleven year run tackled topics like racism and sexism. There’s an episode in which the team works together to remove a racist commanding officer from a position of power to protect the Black men he deliberately puts in danger. In season 6, Hawkeye falls in love with Kyung Soon, a South Korean woman (played by Vietnamese superstar actress Kieu Chinh). Though her arc was limited due to the network’s hesitation to portray an interracial relationship, her character is a clever subversion of the Madame Butterfly trope — she’s the one who leaves him to flee to safety with her family despite his pleas for her to stay. 

But what stuck out to me the most was M*A*S*H’s criticism of U.S. foreign intervention. When the show began airing in the early ‘70s, the U.S. was embroiled in both the Cold War and the Vietnam War, and still feeling the aftereffects of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, yet the show’s narrative never directly condemns communism. Instead, it chooses to shed light on the futility of the U.S. military’s presence in Korea and the irony of American cultural imperialism. 

The characters and their commentary on the war present a correlating political and moral dichotomy. The characters we laugh at and deride are politically conservative and staunch supporters of the army and its war efforts. The characters we sympathize with and root for are physicians who were drafted, miserable from being away from their loved ones, and constantly deriding the war they see as needless and antithetical to their Hippocratic oath. 

In season three, Hawkeye muses at an operating room table: “I just don't know why they're shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread. Transplant the American dream. Freedom. Achievement. Hyperacidity. Affluence. Flatulence. Technology. Tension. The inalienable right to an early coronary sitting at your desk while plotting to stab your boss in the back.” 

I mulled over that quote for weeks, surprised at its humor and incisiveness. I thought of it again in September 2021 when President Joe Biden pulled troops out of Afghanistan. Video footage of young boys tying themselves to planes rumbled across my social media feeds. Conversations on whether or not the U.S. should have gotten involved in the first place bubbled up again. No, they shouldn’t have, I thought, as my throat dried up and my heart thrummed in my fingertips. Then I’d close Twitter and put on M*A*S*H, where I’d listen to white men in green and Korean men in beige deal with the consequences of a war none of them wanted. 

When article after article came out, written by front-line doctors pleading with the public to get vaccinated and wear masks, I prodded my friends who were slow to get their boosters. Then I’d switch on Hulu and watch Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt vomit after witnessing his first combat death, shocked at how pointless and preventable it was.

When I was too depressed to eat or sleep or bathe, when dirty clothes and takeout containers would pile up around me like a mountain range of failure, I would watch comedic relief scenes. Radar O’Reilly sleeping with his teddy bear. Corporal Klinger vying for a Section 8 discharge in his flouncy, florid gowns. Colonel Potter painting his own thumb after running out of painting subjects.

And when I thought of how much I missed my family, even if they didn’t understand me, or how I must be burdening my friends because surely no one wanted to be around this much palpable, unadulterated sadness, I would watch a “Dear Dad” episode. Recurring narrated letters to Hawkeye’s father back in Crabapple Cove, Maine, they’re full of anecdotes about the 4077 from Hawkeye’s keen and snarky perspective, stories of the adventures and hijinks in between cold nights of meatball surgery. 

I dreamt that I, too, was writing letters to my loved ones, who were what felt like an ocean away. In my dispatches, I reported on the conditions of the deep and uncomfortable recesses of my mind. I wanted to tell them that I wasn’t lazy, just so immeasurably tired of living, and that the most self-loathing parts of me had taken form in their likeness. Then I would wake up, and the words would evade me once again. 

None of these are direct metaphors; I was not fighting a war or dealing directly with death. M*A*S*H isn’t a metaphor for my life; it’s an iconic television show I used as a coping mechanism. “Suicide Is Painless,” but I didn’t feel like doing that just yet. Somehow, this wartime sitcom shot on 35mm film was doing the trick, allowing me to process my surroundings without asking me to ignore them. Momentarily, it allowed me to escape. 

* * *

As it turns out, some things you can’t escape. I cannot express to you how badly I want to avoid talking about race. But there’s an elephant in the room, at least my room, and since I’ve already told you about how messy that got, I might as well tell you about the elephant. 

I was a few seasons in when I was struck with the realization of M*A*S*H’s ancillary role in my own history. Although it takes place during the Korean War, the show began airing during the tail end of the even more unpopular war in Vietnam. It’s a stretch to say that a television show helped shape the public’s opinion when there was already so much protest against U.S. foreign intervention in Southeast Asia, but at the very least, it echoed a sentiment of many Americans at the time: the war was a waste of money, resources, and human lives. These very sentiments contributed to the U.S. withdrawing its troops from Vietnam, another link in the chain of events that preceded a tumultuous regime change. 

April 30, 1975. You’ve seen the picture: the helicopter on the roof of the embassy, a line of people hoping for the off chance that they might get a ticket out of their crumbling capital. I can spend pages talking about the pain of a country in political unrest, the lingering violence in the bodies and the lingering poison in the soil, both left in the wake of the brutal invasion by the same military my high school classmates enlist in today. How it tore countless families apart, mine included. I can spend twice as many pages on how I refuse to let me or my motherland be defined by pain, or even by the resilience that is only asked of people who have been through the unthinkable. But this essay is about a CBS war comedy-drama television series from the 70s, so what I’ll say is this: without the war, both of my parents would have had present fathers during their childhood. They wouldn’t have escaped by fishing boat as refugees and they wouldn’t have ended up in Chicago, where they met, married, and procreated. I wouldn’t be here, twenty-seven years later, navel gazing in front of Hulu Plus and Uber Eats from the comfort of my couch, talking about things like “social needs” and “collective trauma.” I wouldn’t exist at all.

In 1979, when M*A*S*H ranked at 7th most popular show in America, President Jimmy Carter announced that he was doubling the number of refugees from Southeast Asia accepted into the U.S., going from 7,000 to 14,000 per month. At the time, 62% of Americans disapproved. I had vaguely known about this, how unpopular my parents’ existence in America was and why my father had a soft spot for Jimmy. Even so, the statistic gutted me. People wanted out of Vietnam, they wanted to consume radically progressive media like M*A*S*H and clap along to edgy Hawkeye quotes, but they didn’t want to accept the Vietnamese refugees they were seemingly so concerned for.

And for every M*A*S*H, there was an Apocalypse Now that painted us as savages. For every Kyung Soon,  there was a Vietnamese prostitute in Full Metal Jacket, crooning “me love you long time” at a GI on a street corner, or a Miss Saigon, depicting a Vietnamese woman’s love for an American man so overpowering that she simply cannot live without him. I thought about this when hate crimes against Asians were on the rise last year, and again when six Asian women were gunned down at a spa in Atlanta. M*A*S*H was a drop in the cultural bucket of a country that bombed and poisoned my motherland and couldn’t even keep us safe when we fled here for safety. There is no resolution to that; there’s just a show that did its best to humanize the pawns of war. 

I’ll be the first to admit that its best wasn’t perfect. From nurses at camp to geishas in Tokyo, women were often used as a punchline in the first few seasons. One of the cast members in the first season was a Black man nicknamed “Spearchucker” Jones, and though the original book explains that the nickname was a reclaimed reference to his javelin-throwing skills, this isn’t explained in the show — without context, it comes across as just another racial slur. And despite its progressivism, M*A*S*H never really overcomes its white saviorism. With the exception of Kyung Soon, the plight of any person of color, whether a discriminated-against Black soldier or a Korean family or a Chinese communist on the wrong side of enemy lines, was another opportunity for the primarily white main cast to flex its moral compass.

However, watching M*A*S*H was like watching someone grow up. It matured out of its initial debaucherous humor, and by Season 3, the bulk of the awkward racial humor towards Asians had disappeared, and by the later seasons, Asian characters possessed autonomy in the narrative, as well as their own story arcs. 

This growth is most present in the character development of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. A busty blonde and the show’s only female character in the main cast, Hot Lips is depicted in Season 1 as a career army woman. Stern and no-nonsense, she’s the 4077th’s chief nurse and certified girl boss who has wholeheartedly dedicated her career to the war efforts in Korea and her heart to fellow army zealot and married lover, Frank Burns. In short, she’s a sexy walking punchline. 

Over the eleven seasons of the show, largely due to actress Loretta Swit’s efforts, Hot Lips becomes Margaret, a real person and a more sympathetic character. She’s a former army brat with daddy issues and a burning desire to belong, but she’s also strong and resilient, inconspicuously kind and loving and loyal. She ditches Frank and marries a more accomplished army man, then divorces him too. She becomes more lenient towards the surgeons and more compassionate towards her nurses. She doesn’t lose any of her grit, but she drops the toxic masculinity cosplaying as feminism. At the end of the show, when the war is over and everyone gathers to talk about their postwar plans, Margaret confesses that she’s going to pursue what she’s wanted to do all along: work as a nurse in a hospital — stateside. Her growth and character development is directly correlated with her divestment from the U.S. military, in her personal and professional life.

It was the show’s sense of earnestness and self examination for improvement that kept me invested, even after I cringed halfway to death after a Korean woman said “arigato'' in the first episode. There is one rule that M*A*S*H never breaks: it doesn’t give you an inch to wonder if war is anything but needless and destructive. The moments that poke fun at war don’t lighten the circumstances; rather, they mock the institutions responsible for them. This ethos required writers to dance between comedy and drama, making me laugh and cry and laugh again.

The episode “The Interview” features real-life reporter Clete Roberts interviewing the medical personnel. It’s the episode with the most heartbreaking quote of the whole show, the one that creator Burt Metcalf said was a metaphor for the entire series. When Father John Mulcahey is asked what, of all he’s witnessed, he’ll never forget, he says this: “When the doctors cut into a patient... and it's cold, the way it is now today... steam will rise from the body. And the doctor will warm his hands over the open wound. How could anybody look upon that and not feel changed?”

When art has that kind of unexpected depth, it meets us on a different emotional plane. The first time I watched that episode, I had two reactions. First, I cried. Then, I wanted to make good art. I wanted to tell stories that would meet an audience on a different plane, on a separate dimension unto itself. 

The show finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” aired in 1983 and remains the most-watched finale of any television series. With over 100 million people tuning in, it also held the record for most-watched television broadcast in U.S. history until it was beaten out by the 2010 Super Bowl (halftime show: Black Eyed Peas). The New York City Sanitation Department reported the plumbing systems broke down shortly after the end of the finale due to the volume of New Yorkers who waited until the end to use the toilet. While the eleven-year television show ends in real life, the three-year Korean War ends on screen. In a sense, both army personnel and actors alike bid farewell to each other, saying goodbye to the people they had lived and worked with. 

When Hawkeye departs camp via helicopter for the last time, he sees a message relayed by his best friend; B.J. has spelled out, in stones, “Goodbye.” So too was the show saying goodbye to its loyal audience — goodbye to the 105.97 million viewers who tuned in for the finale, goodbye to me in mid-July of 2021. 

I watched the finale of M*A*S*H in the middle of the night, alone in bed and wrapped in a blanket, just as I had watched the pilot almost a year prior. There was a certain finality to it, an isolation that comes with a monumental end to an era that I was experiencing 38 years too late. Everything else, however, was different. I was in a room with a big window, and though it was dark, I knew the sun would blind me awake the next morning. I was eating regular meals again. A cat, whom I had adopted a few months prior, was curled up beside me. I would have to wake up the next day for a job I had been at for almost a year, which meant I no longer had the sleeping schedule of an owl. 

It felt like I, too, had flown stateside to safety. I, too, was grieving the person I had lost while I grew into the person I had become. Instead of closing my laptop and going to sleep, I opened an empty document in another tab. In that moment, for the first time in many moments, the person I had become wanted to write. 

* * *

A few months later, I parachuted down to LA to visit the filming location of M*A*S*H. Early on a hot Saturday morning, I drove an hour from East LA to Malibu Creek State Park, parked my bright blue Honda Fit in the lot, and walked to the trailhead. There wasn’t much left, the internet had said; a fire that had destroyed the set during the last week of filming had taken much of it out. But still, it was only a five-mile hike there and back. I had to see for myself. 

Tiny streams flowed on the side of the trail. My inexperienced hiker feet kicked up dust with every step. I was mostly alone on the trail, passing only a handful of people. I wanted to ask them how they got here, if they also watched M*A*S*H or if it was a regular family hike in Malibu, but then I saw the open field: scraggly desert foliage surrounded by towering trees with arms so long they looked like they were reaching down to hug me. It felt like I had dropped into an episode, an HD upgrade of the grainy film quality on my screen, and that at any moment a green medic truck would zoom past. 

I wondered if “Abyssinia, Henry” was filmed there, the episode in which Henry Blake takes off in a helicopter, finally allowed to return home to his wife and children. Everyone celebrates and says their emotional goodbyes; it is truly a beautiful, moving end to a character arc. At the end of the episode, Radar O’Reilly, company clerk and Henry’s former right-hand-man, walks into the OR to announce through belabored breath: "Lt. Col. Henry Blake's plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan — it spun in. There were no survivors." It was the first time a main character of a sitcom had been killed off, and even the other actors weren’t in on it before the camera began rolling.  It was a historical moment in television, and the choice drew fire from both CBS and 20th Century Fox, as well as over a thousand letters from angry fans. Still, the episode remains on multiple “Best Episodes of All Time” lists. 

I cleared my throat, took a sip of water, and kept walking. In the unshaded parts of the trail, the sun beat down on me. I took off my tee and used it to wipe the sweat off my brow. It had been a while since I had gone on a hike, or exercised at all; my body felt pale and soft, my ankles wobbly against the uneven terrain. I lost my footing once or twice, and when I got to a large slab of gray rock, I awkwardly clambered across, nicking my knee as I leapt down on the other side. 

Tall grass and reeds framed the path, grazing my arm as I traipsed past, swatting away mosquitos. There was little incline, but by the time I arrived at the clearing, the back of my sports bra was soaking wet. A few recognizable set pieces were sprawled across what seemed like half an acre. A rusted medic truck, the mess hall tables without the mess hall tent, a huge wooden stake in the ground with arrowed signs pointing to the only places that mattered to the characters: from Boston to Burbank, Tokyo to Toledo, Seoul to San Francisco. 

According to a sun-bleached placard, the set was often adjusted to seem bigger than it actually was on film. As promised, it was underwhelming, but I felt a buzzing in my fingertips as I approached the artifacts from a show that had consumed over a year of my life. I sat on the bench of the mess hall table, mainly because I was tired, and remembered that one scene when Hawkeye is in a psychiatric hospital spewing to the doctors about a beach trip gone wrong. The entire camp was on a bus on the way back to camp, having just picked up some locals who needed a lift, when enemy soldiers were spotted in the distance. The bus was turned off and everyone quieted, save for a chicken that a local Korean woman had brought onto the bus. As Hawkeye remembers it, he urgently whispers to her to silence the chicken, lest they all be discovered and executed by the enemy. The woman ends up accidentally strangling the chicken to death — except the chicken isn’t actually a chicken. It’s her own baby whom she’s just smothered to death.

I blinked myself away from the memory, feeling the discomfort settle in my chest. I stood up and walked over to the truck, climbing in and finding the interior sparsely littered with graffiti. I sat in the slatted metal driver’s seat and gripped the steering wheel. It suddenly struck me how much I knew about this one television show. Little things, even tangential to the program, littered my mind. The cast had stayed friends, even though some of them had moved on. Alan Alda met his wife when they were both willing to eat cake off the ground at a party — now he has a podcast and a grandson with a TikTok. The time capsule the cast buried was dug up by a construction company only a few months after filming wrapped, likely cast aside by whoever found it and didn’t know how valuable it was. Gary Burghoff, the character who played Radar O’Reilly, eventually won a bid on the teddy bear that his character had so treasured in the show. 

I had collected these tidbits and facts like a manic hoarder, and I felt the weight of them now. It occurred to me that out of all the trauma responses I could have picked to get through rock bottom, I had chosen a most peculiar one, and it had lifted me from a sadder, lonelier place. It made me laugh without trying to delude me. It honored the reality of suffering, and in turn, so did I. Was healing just the act of respecting pain? 

I gripped the steering wheel tighter, seeing the whites of my knuckles. “Insanity is just a state of mind,” Hawkeye had said. Perhaps he was right. I had survived — not war, but still — and my funny-shaped scar came in the form of a boundless wealth of information that would come in handy only on trivia night or a crossword. I leaned forward and hugged the wheel tight to my chest. “Thank you,” I thought to myself, feeling a little foolish. No one heard, but if ghosts existed and haunted the M*A*S*H filming site, I could tell you which cast members would be exempt on account of still being alive. 

I stepped out of the truck and landed with a soft thump on the dirt. The sun shone warm on my skin. Maybe I could live with some obsessions, I thought, and suddenly I felt lonely and fortified all at once. I was invincible, and everything was painless.