M*A*S*H - War Is Heaven

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I finished watching Frasier over lockdown - the miserable tale of a self-destructive incel - and decided to continue watching old American sitcoms. I thought Cheers was a hellish dystopia populated with malicious tormentors.

So now on to M*A*S*H. It's hailed as a masterpiece of comedy. But, really, it's an exercise in military propaganda.

The first season is genuinely hilarious and, at times, moving. But there's no disguising just how fun it makes war look.

Imagine being so vital to the war effort that you can back-chat your boss, disobey orders, and act like a asshole without repercussions.

You get provided with an endless supply of uncomplaining nurses to sexually harass. What are they going to do? Complain about a handsy surgeon? LOL!

And professionally? You get presented with tough and interesting cases. You have to demonstrate your excellence every day. Sure, there's an occasional death, but mostly you'll be fêted as a lifesaver. Grope another nurse to celebrate!

All your military superiors are oafish buffoons who you can easily manipulate. OK, the occasional bullet whistles by, but you and your friends never suffer anything worse than a hangover. Hell, you're a better surgeon after a few glasses of homebrew!

All sitcoms take place in a heightened reality. MASH does a brilliant job of mixing the mundane with the profane. But, after all the laughs have faded, I find it disturbing how relentlessly pro-war it is.

Famously the TV show lasted longer than the actual war - presumably because it was so much more entertaining.

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13 thoughts on “M*A*S*H - War Is Heaven

  1. @Edent You should watch "Hogan's Heroes" which shows how much fun a Nazi-POW-camp was. In German it has the almost same voices as MASH - so if you are just listening, you can't really tell which one is on.

  2. @Edent I disagree. The MASH is more anti-war from my point of view. Especially in the later series. It shows the absurdity of the war. Yes, it is propaganda in the sense that "the GI Joes are the good boys." But no one (maybe with the exception of Burns) wants to be there. It is packed with humor but you can see there are a lot of anti-war messages.

  3. says:

    @Edent The differences between seasons on Mash are immense, and I'd argue that Seasons 1-3 are the 'lighthearted sitcom', 4-5 is the 'okay we should not be glorifying all this' and from 6 onwards it becomes more dramedy and anti-war.

    I'd be interested on your thoughts if you jumped into, say, season 7.

  4. says:

    @Edent Interesting — I haven't seen it since I was a teenager but I understood it was meant to be anti-war, criticising the Vietnam War through satire of Korea. But I can absolutely see how that would go completely wrong.

  5. Dave Cridland says:

    It started off while the Vietnam War was ongoing - political requirements of that period meant that they were broadly unable to criticise warfare in case it was seen as a political statement about America's involvement in Vietnam. So yes, the first season really avoids exposing the audience to war as more than a backdrop to a sitcom.

    Later seasons gradually lost that requirement, and it is empowered to include much more of the darker side of warfare, and does. By about season 5, I think, it's in full-swing, and is much closer to the MASH that's lauded as a comedy-drama.

  6. I’ve only seen a few episodes since I was a kid, but I hadn’t had that strike me so much as you mention here. Some of that feels very “sexual harassment was considered normalised and appropriate for humour” of the era, but I hadn’t considered the workplace dynamics; I had always been left with the impression that the show was making a point about the relentless pointlessness of war. (On duration, to be fair to the show, while it was set in the Korean War, which it outlasted threefold, it was more about the US war in Vietnam, which was ~11 years long in its main sense.)

    If you’re working through some sitcoms, can I recommend this excellent book I just finished an ARC of? It’s a walk through queer representation in American sitcoms with a wonderfully puntastic title: Hi Honey, I’m Homo!, by Matt Baume; the epub is still up on Netgalley

    1. @edent says:

      Yes, just starting the 2nd season now. Everyone says it gets grimmer as it goes on. It's worth rewatching the first season just to see how bizarre it is.

  7. mike says:

    Ah, OK. If you'd written it having watched all of it I'd think you'd very much misunderstood it. Overall I think it's pretty much the antithesis of military propaganda and war is fun. The fun is what's created to distract from the war and rebel against the army, which has drafted them and put them somewhere they don't want to be to do something they don't want to be doing. But if you've only seen season one your review seems a lot more plausible at least. I haven't seen it recently enough to be able to consider season one in isolation of the rest. I do remember season one has a laugh track, except operating room scenes, which having been introduced to the show with the later seasons with no laugh track, has always felt wrong to me.

  8. Ivan says:

    This reminds me of Starship Troopers (specifically, the film, although the book is of course also open to interpretation). There's very similar discourse on whether the film is intended to be taken straight, or more on a meta level, forcing the audience to conclude that the society portrayed is deeply troubled.

  9. Merton says:

    I served, 12 months with USA 9th Infantry division in Vietnam, April 67 to April 68. I was there for Tet! I had a non-combat roll, very much like Radar in MASH. I was enlisted, not an officer. The antics of Radar were not that far from the truth.
    We had no woman on base so there was nobody to grope!
    I don't agree that MASH was pro-war. But then I'm seeing it from a different perspective.
    One thing you might find interesting: during my time in Vietnam the one subject that was never discussed was the war itself. We just wanted to put in our time and get back home alive.
    I feel the Vietnam war was a very large black mark on the USA. Millions died, and for what?
    War is hell!


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