The Indispensable Man


Watching Robert Altman's “MASH”, I was enthralled by the casual insubordination shown by nearly every character in the movie, from Hawkeye and Trapper John to even the most minor scene-filling extra. Called “anti-war” by nearly all of its creators, “MASH” must have seemed like a strong gesture of hands-in-our-pockets defiance in 1969, the year of its release, when the end of Vietnam was not yet in view. It works so well because Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland brought their own intelligence to already smartly-written roles, as Altman notes in the DVD extras. “MASH” documents an unusually potent mixture of disillusionment and rebellion among the highly skilled and the well educated, giving it a different sort of meaning than, for example, the working class resentment of the grunts in “Platoon”. The doctors in “MASH” come from an elite class of professionals, and to an elite class of professionals they will return when the war is over. They draw an explicit, contemptuous distinction between themselves and the “regular Army” types represented by Nurse Hoolihan. Much of the film's deadpan laughs come from this culture clash.

Just how much can our heroes get away with? The first scene of the movie answers definitively. Hawkeye and Forrest steal a jeep and head off to their MASH unit, leaving an officer flailing in the mud under the heavy grip of two MPs. Although the officer is right in screaming that Hawkeye and Forrest are thieves, they are allowed to escape while he is restrained by the MPs. This reflects the usual Sixties view of the military: murderous and insane, but oddly mindless, too, a blind, stupefied giant as likely to turn on its own as it is to crush the rest of us. The joke is completed when Hawkeye and Forrest arrive at the MASH unit. Blake says he's been alerted they've stolen a jeep. Hawkeye brushes him off. “No, we didn't steal it, it's right there”. Blake simply says “Oh” and moves on. Crime and punishment have no place in this little corner of the world.

Hawkeye and Forrest recognize Blake as one of their own by signal and subtext, just as they recognize Trapper John as one of their kind when he produces a jar of olives from his jacket to round out his martini. The doctors form an unspoken league among themselves, in defiance of the regular Army, but always in service of the Army, too. Altman never follows his wayward malcontents for long before returning us to the operating room, where we are forcefully reminded of how dedicated they are when they are needed. As cruel as their prank on Hot Lips may be, they also show considerable nobility later on in treating an unwanted Japanese-American infant. Their unassailable value as doctors is precisely what allows them to sidestep with hilarious indifference the rigid protocols of the Army. Trapper John knows Blake cannot throw him in the brig for fighting. Who would operate on the dozens of wounded men arriving every day?

In a sense, “MASH”, for all its grim humor and blood-spattered disillusionment, reveals an interesting relationship between the doctors and the Army. The striking irony at its core-- a hospital in a war zone-- gives tremendous value to the class of people who are otherwise not involved in the fighting. “MASH” shows off the power of the civilian class. The Army has the power to draft them and drag them to Korea, but on the other hand the Army depends on the expertise, the brains, and the honor of the men and women who keep the soldiers fit and fighting. The typical Vietnam (or quasi-Vietnam) film depicts the powerlessness of the men who are little more than cannon fodder. “MASH” shows us a different group of people, much more like the rest of us on the home front, which possesses some leverage against the Army. The story is unrealistic on a basic level, because the surgeons would not have their druthers so freely, but it is true in a deeper sense. The Army is nothing without the rest of us. Every unpunished transgression reinforces this. The characters of “MASH” are disengaged from what's happening around them—aside from aiding the wounded—but they are emboldened with unspoken knowledge of their own power, too. The squares in the Army can't do without them, and they know it.

The resistance of Trapper John is a gruff, snarky, and probably unfocused sort, and he might turn his nose up at the idea of marching in a hippie protest, but it's resistance nonetheless. Still, while I thrilled to the film's deep cynicism, I also reflected on how optimistic “MASH” seems in 2007. Again embroiled in a war to liberate a foreign people and bestow upon them the fruits of democracy, our institutions have proven no less clumsy, crazy, and crushing than they were then. Missing, though, is the sneaky solidarity of power that the doctors of “MASH” enjoyed. The professional, educated class represented by the 4077th doctors is marginalized and silenced now. In four-odd decades the Army—the state—has developed an immunity to these types, stubbornly insisting it does not need them. They are now called the "elite", and publicly scorned from coast to coast (even as politicians continue to court them privately for campaign money). “MASH” gives the usual pleasure of a counterculture satire on the Army, as rich and funny as (say) “Dr. Strangelove”, but it also draws a sobering contrast between then and now. In the Iraq war the professional class was ignored in a staggering display of cronyism, self-delusion, and fanatacism; the last bargaining chips civilians may have once had were swept off the table. In the new world created by George W. Bush the indispensable men and women of “MASH” no longer exist.

  Back to Essays page.