Sometimes, long after first reading a book or watching a movie and enjoying it very much, I have come back to re-reading or watching, and then wondering what I had ever seen in that in the first place. So it was with the original M*A*S*H book and especially with the movie. I originally read the book in college and thought, “Eww, funny but gross and obscene, with their awful practical jokes and nonexistent sexual morals.” Then I re-read after having been in the military myself for a couple of years, and thought, “Yep, my people!”
The movie went through pretty much the same evolution with me, all but one element – and that was when I began honestly wondering why the ostensible heroes had such a hate on for Major Burns and the nurse Major Houlihan. Why did those two deserve such awful, disrespectful treatment? In the movie they seemed competent and agreeable enough initially. In the book it was clear that Major Burns was an incompetent surgeon with delusions of adequacy, and that Major Houlihan was Regular Army; that being the sole reason for the animus. But upon second viewing of the movie, it seemed like Duke Forrest, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre were just bullying assholes selecting a random target for abuse for the amusement of the audience.
Some of that scathing contempt for the Regular Army, (as opposed to Duke, Trapper John and Hawkeye, who were draftees serving one year tours) also seemed to land on the nurses at the 4077th generally – for they would have been volunteers in the Army Nurse Corps. An episode in the book does not do the three surgeons any credit, when they drunkenly troll the nurses heading to their shower of an evening by comparing them to elephants and saying that they have the clap. That’s an episode – which if it really did happen during Richard Hooker’s tour of duty which inspired the whole cycle of MASH stories – is bound to leave a sour taste in the mouth of any woman who ever served in the military, as a nurse or anything else.
Just this week, in working through a history of the frontline nurses in WWII, I read the chapter on the nurses who landed after the first wave in the Torch landings, in North Africa. All volunteers, some more experienced and well-traveled then others, all were volunteers, just as they would be ten years later, serving in Korea. It’s a fascinating account, of how the first handful of surgeons, corpsmen and nurses got so far in advance of their equipment that they had to set about doing frontline surgery with what they had on them – a couple of surgical scissors, a scalpel, some clamps and a great many bottles of disinfectant alcohol. At one point in that first day, they ran through all available surgical silk, and had to ask the nurses to provide locks of hair, which when rinsed with alcohol, could be used to suture up wounds.
Six weeks later, with supplies having caught up to them, and a well-functioning military hospital established in the town of Arzew (about twenty miles east of Oran) the nurses decided that they must make Christmas a memorable and meaningful one for their patients and other staff. They began making small Christmas stockings out of red cloth and extra white cotton sheets, and the hospital supply officer located enough sugar, milk, chocolate and peanuts to make nearly four hundred pounds of taffy, peanut brittle and fudge. Whenever the nurses were not on duty, they were sewing or making candy. The Red Cross in Oran came up with more candy, cigarettes and small gifts to fill the stockings. The nurses and other staff cut ornaments out of the foil that x-ray plates had been wrapped in and tin from plasma containers to decorate for a tree set up in the entrance lobby of the building serving as their hospital. A patient who had been an art teacher in civilian life folded, cut and painted realistic-looking candles, branches of holly and garlands to decorate the lobby. They brought in pots of plants, and made up a table on the stair landing at the back of the lobby to look like an altar, and stitched purple bougainvillea blossoms to a cardboard cross hung over it – and at midnight on Christmas Eve, the Catholic chaplain held a midnight mass there. On Christmas morning, a surgeon dressed as Santa (again, in a costume that the nurses had sewn from the same materiel as the Christmas stockings) distributed the stockings of gifts to every patient. The men were thrilled – as one of the nurses later wrote, “You would have thought that Santa had brought them the bikes they always wanted – just the right brand and just the right color!”
So – reading and watching M*A*S*H, and see women of that quality (perhaps the same women, or maybe just their close successors in military nursing) being dunked on for cheap laughs – it does rather put a bad taste in my mouth. Your mileage may vary – comment?