My favorite television show during my youth and early adulthood was M*A*S*H. Set during the Korean War, the show followed the exploits of Alan Alda’s character, Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, and his colleagues at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. I was with the show from episode one through the record-breaking series finale. The surgeons and staff of the 4077 gave me many laughs over 11 seasons, but also taught me some lessons I’ll never forget.
1. War is not glamorous. About eight years after the final episode was aired, I was deployed to the Persian Gulf War. I went into this conflict with my eyes open to the reality of war, thanks in part to watching M*A*S*H. Before U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, our leaders put many young men in harm’s way on the Korean Peninsula. M*A*S*H pointed out the human costs of making such decisions.
2. If a conflict arises between your conscience and “the rules,” follow your conscience. Hawkeye, B.J., and Trapper were not good soldiers, but they were great human beings. If Army regulations conflicted with these characters’ moral compass, they did what they believed to be right and faced the consequences of their actions willingly.
3. Don’t rush to judgment. M*A*S*H was one of the first hit shows that experienced significant turnover in its original cast. Every time a major character left the show, whether it was Trapper, Henry Blake, Frank Burns, or even Radar, I would always hear someone say, “It won’t be the same show without him.” These people were right; it wasn’t the same show. The quality of the show remained high, though, despite the changes. The show may have changed, but it remained great.
4. People can surprise you. A couple of the show’s characters displayed surprising growth over its run. “Hot Lips” evolved from a rigid, by-the-numbers tyrant into a sympathetic, compassionate, and surprisingly human character. Klinger transformed from a cross-dressing con man into a responsible and valuable member of the unit. Every person has the potential for growth, and these characters illustrated this ably.
5. Quit when you’re ahead. M*A*S*H never “jumped the shark.” Although its ratings were in decline in its final seasons, it remained a solid hit for CBS. The final episode remains one of the most highly rated shows in TV history. M*A*S*H was one of the few shows with the commitment to quality and integrity to exit gratefully, rather than limp along to cancellation.