MASH, Revisited

by Alasdair Denvil

Every so often when there is a rain delay, Channel 5 shows episodes of MASH. Many of us grew up watching this 70s sitcom about a front-line US medical unit in the Korean War, a series known for its slap-stick, Marx-brothers style of humor, and a cast of characters - "Hawkeye" Pierce, "Trapper John" McIntyre, "Hotlips" Houlihan, "Radar" O'Reilly - that reads like a police line-up.

But MASH wasn't just known for its comedy; beyond exploring the moral dilemmas faced by surgeons amid combat, it sent an unmistakably clear anti-war message at a time when the US was winding down its involvement in Vietnam. The main supporter of the military in MASH was Major Frank Burns ("Ferret Face"), a nervous, whiny coward who followed army regulations without question. Other war supporters on the US side were stone-faced generals, depicted as dismissive of human suffering, fighting merely to prove that they could win.

The Korean War in general was characterized as a contest between two parties so belligerent and unimaginative that they couldn't figure out how to settle their disputes without resorting to force, and - having done so - were too stubborn to admit that this was only making things worse. Their dim intransigence perpetuated the killing, and made peace talks impossible.

"Hawkeye" Pierce was the strongest, most consistent proponent of this view, raging that all sides should stop the insane, destructive, pointless hostilities. But I find myself wondering: What would he say now?

Here's what North Korea (DPRK) has been up to in the 50 years since "peace" took root:

* Its failed communist economy has withered to half of what it was less than two decades ago, and cannot grow enough food for its citizens. Deaths from famine are estimated in the millions. The DPRK relies on donors to help out - the biggest is the USA - but it won't let anyone see how that aid is distributed (hint: it goes to the regime first, the army second, the citizens last).

* The DPRK has abducted citizens from neighboring South Korea and Japan

* North Koreans are subjected to massive pro-Kim, anti-anything-else propaganda. Those caught, say, singing a song from South Korea can be jailed in an "enlightenment center" along with three generations of their family.

* Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are estimated to be detained in these political prison camps, where they face torture and forced labor, and even larger numbers are estimated to have died in such camps. Female inmates face sexual abuse and forced abortion by means of salt solutions injected into their wombs.

* It is prohibited for anyone to leave this manifest utopia. Escapees to China will endure great hardship there, because they know they face the worst sort of prison camp if the Chinese authorities return them to North Korea.

Need I say that this is what we were fighting against, that this was the point of the Korean War? (I should say, my brief account is meek in its generality: read Hae-Nam Ji's Senate testimony of her escape from North Korea at

And yet the MASH mindset - the notion that the use of violence is necessarily cruel, arrogant, and stupid - endures. Anti-war activists describe President Bush as Hitler, even though he bears no resemblance to that dictator. Meanwhile, the communist regime that does resemble the Nazi party is treated as being on a level of moral parity with us such that we could engage in "peace talks" with them to settle our "differences."

This is a horrible distortion of our legitimate moral impulse to defy injustice and human rights atrocities. Violence is sometimes the most compassionate course of action at our disposal. There are occasions where the use of force protects more innocents than it harms, even though it carries risks, even though the violence of war gets much more press than the violence of "peace."

I'm not suggesting force can solve the situation in North Korea now. (I know watching a few MASH episodes won't win Kim Jong Il over.) Perhaps we should offer the DPRK massive economic aid in return for massive human rights improvements: $1 billion for free speech, $1 billion for freedom of religion, $1 billion more for the freedom to leave, still another $1 billion for opening up the prison camps. Make them publicly choose whether they hate democracy more than they value feeding their people. (Such an offer would also put China in a productively awkward position.)

But peace and negotiations have been very costly for innocent North Koreans, who share none of the economic and political prosperity of their South Korea siblings.

That, again, was the point of the war, wasn't it? Would Hawkeye recognize that today? Or would he be too stubborn to admit that pacifism in this instance might have made things worse?

(c) Alasdair Denvil 2003