Foggy visions of the Korean War from far in the future.

On M*A*S*H, a foggy vision of the Korean War from the future

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be.
– 'Suicide is Painless', theme from M*A*S*H

A North Korean friend recently asked me about famous American films or TV series about the Korean War. The first to come to mind was, of course, the long-running sitcom M*A*S*H (1972-1983) about the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgery Hospital stationed at Uijongbu just south of the 38th parallel and within light helicopter range of the front lines. It can be difficult to describe M*A*S*H to North Koreans — believe me I have tried and failed miserably — as the show uses the Korean War as a backdrop for what is, at least topically, a comedy. Even if it is dark comedy and at times very poignant, a comedy set in the midst of the war would be anathema in North Korea.

Unlike in the US (and other involved countries) where the Korean War is sometimes referred to as the ‘Forgotten War’, the war is very much alive in North Korea almost 65 years after the 1953 armistice. It can sometimes be hard for non-North Koreans to see the war as anything more than history. For North Koreans, the fact that ‘a peace treaty has never been signed’ is a reality rather than a technicality or a line used for dramatic effect. North Korean friends have asked: Do Americans not take the Korean War seriously? What could possibly be funny about war?

Growing up, I watched the occasional reruns of M*A*S*H on late night television, usually after reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and generally disappointed, perhaps wrongly, that the night of science fiction was over. Nor did the show interest me from a historic perspective after my mother told me that the show wasn’t even about Korea but actually thinly veiled commentary about another ‘police action’ in another place called Vietnam. Later in life, despite having later lived and worked in both Koreas, I had never really associated the M*A*S*H with Korea until I watched the 1972 pilot episode for the first time last week spurred by my friend’s questions. The first moments of the pilot episode, simply called Pilot, made me reevaluate the show in terms of the show’s relevance to both Korea and to science fiction.

M*A*S*H is set even in our future. M*A*S*H is from the year 2050.

Pilot is unique among 251 episodes in that it has extended opening credits. Rather than starting with the familiar view of Radar gazing into the distance at incoming helicopters laden with wounded flying over the hills of Korea, we instead find Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, and Ho-Jon driving golf balls into a nearby minefield*. In the background, the Japanese version of 'My Blue Heaven' plays over Armed Forces Radio rather than 'Suicide is Painless'. Familiar yellow subtitles place the time and place as ‘Korea, 1950’, followed by the out of place tagline ‘a hundred years ago’.

A hundred years ago? Wait a second. M*A*S*H is set even in our future. M*A*S*H is from the year 2050. That’s four years after Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 and one year after the new Blade Runner 2049. Not only does this explain and excuse the show’s many anachronisms, but also frames the entire series as a giant mediation on the Korean War. Indeed, many have pointed out that the 11-season run of the series dwarfs the actual span of the three-year Korean War. As a result, the show is riddled with continuity errors and it is almost a futile exercise to place M*A*S*H episodes in any historical chronology. To put it another way, through early morning fog — this is the 'Land of the Morning Calm' — I see, visions of the past that was.

According to MASH4077tv.com, the writer of the episode, Larry Gelbart, once said: ‘I wrote the line to indicate how long ago the Korean War seemed in the minds of the American public.’ At the same time, only 19 years removed from the armistice and with the US already embroiled in Vietnam, placing some distance between the comedy and the harsh realities of war may have seemed prudent. Either way it is reflective of a society’s own particular way of dealing with the memory of a war and its traumatic effect. Americans did not simply forget this war, but did use the setting as a way to cope and reflect on an even more brutal and divisive war. When the last episode of M*A*S*H aired in 1983, 106 million viewers tuned in to watch.

In this day and age, perhaps M*A*S*H can help us better understand and empathize with the way in which North Koreans view and remember the Korean War. War, no matter which side one is on or what one is fighting for, is traumatic to both individuals and societies. The M*A*S*H pilot reminds us not to forget this simple fact even a hundred years after a conflict. Today only 65 years removed from the armistice at the end of the Korean War and the real discussion of signing a peace treaty to end the war, perhaps the quirky personnel of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgery Hospital still have a role in healing wounds and placing life in context while providing a few laughs at the same time.

*It is interesting to note that the par 3 golf course, called ‘the most dangerous golf course in the world’, at Camp Bonifas on the south was established the same year as the M*A*S*H Pilot.

Updated 20 November 2018

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