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MASHed Perspectives
A "liberal education" through entertainment...
[Gordon Cucullu and Matthew Benoit] 2/9/06

One of the acceptable conditions of entertainment is that we typically accept the premise that the show offers in order to get into the story line. One has to suspend disbelief and accept a world of elves, wizards, and orcs, for example, or Lord of the Rings becomes a raging bore. Similar, but more insidious suspensions of belief are required for the more “serious” work that Hollywood produces. This is where “education through entertainment” gets dangerous. Most recently Stephen Spielberg’s Munich would have us accept Israeli Mossad agents as the moral equivalent to Palestine terrorist murderers. And the fluff-film Syriana, paints terrorists as handsome, sad, freedom fighters opposed by overweight, Southern-accented, US government/big business baddies. The only evil that typically exists for Hollywood comes with the Stars and Stripes insignia.

Gordon Cucullu

Former Green Beret lieutenant colonel, Gordon Cucullu is now an editorialist, author and a popular speaker. Born into a military family, he lived and served for more than thirteen years in East Asia, including eight years in Korea. For his Special Forces service in Vietnam he was awarded a Bronze Star, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Presidential Unit Commendation. After separation from the Army, he worked on Korea and East Asian affairs at both the Pentagon and Department of State as well as an executive for General Electric in Korea. His first major non-fiction work, Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin, is based in large part on his extensive experience in Korea and East Asia as a governmental insider and businessman. [website] [go to Cucullu index]

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Unfortunately, for decades Americans have had their perception of Korea and the Korean people similarly skewed by a seemingly innocent, bubble-headed sitcom, M*A*S*H. Originally a feature film set in a mobile army surgical hospital in the rear area of the Korean War, the film had its moments. It was anti-war of course, for such a position is de rigueur for the limousine liberals of Malibu. It was a dark comedy with some good lines and some touching moments. See it once, okay.

However, given a culture that deems it impossible to have too much of a good thing, MASH morphed into a horrid television sitcom that was broadcast to America for more than a decade longer than the war itself. The transition from film to TV was not kind to MASH. Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, both of whom know how to act, morphed into Alan Alda and Mike Farrell, who are truly painful to watch. It may have been the last big gig for both actors, much to the everlasting gratitude of that element of the American public left with good taste. Termination actually worked out well for Farrell and Alda since it gave them ample time to show up at “Save Tookie Williams” rallies and chant “We Hate Bush” at fundraisers.

The humor in the original film was gritty, but the lame, contrived jokes in the TV version were laugh-track-dependent and derivative. MASH had to be grossly embarrassing for those few in the cast with pride of profession. What gave the program legs was a viewer-ship that loved drivel and was eager to suspend disbelief regardless of the consequences. Thus, sadly, MASH for millions of Americans, became, and is today, Korea.

Was MASH really hit-comedy-for-hire, deliberately intent on brainwashing its viewers? That may be affording the director, producer, and writers too much credit. Did it attempt to push a leftist philosophy on the public? Certainly, though they would never admit it. Their perspective is that they wanted to capture the reality of the Korean War through understanding and gentle humor. If they were honest they’d admit that they also did it for the bucks. At least there they promote a good capitalist agenda. And it apparently worked. The thing has had more re-runs than Heidi Fleiss. Somewhere in Tibet, between Richard Gere replays, you can probably catch MASH most nights of the week on cable.

But how these mental midgets impugned a great country and a wonderful group of people with their trivial scripts! The portrayal of Korea as a bombed-out, worthless, shell of a country populated with odd, mascot-like inhabitants, did enormous disservice to American’s perceptions of Korea. Remarkably the caricature has had an adverse influence on relations between the US and South Korea, and skews perceptions of North Korea to this day. Many American people are incapable of taking Kim Jong Il seriously because MASH basically told them that Korean people are weird, but harmless.

The trick influenced many people who did not trouble themselves to learn differently. Those who knew better saw the reality of a program like MASH: leftist propaganda that belittled the US military and established moral equivalency between America and the communists. Replete with cross dressing, scatological references, adultery, alcohol abuse, and treason all wrapped in sappy comedy, audiences were told that these aberrations were acceptable forms of behavior, and, indeed, quite funny.

Wartime comedies are tough to pull off. Mr. Roberts, a classic of stage and the big screen was successful because it kept conflict focused on human relationships: friendship, pettiness, jealousy, frustration, loyalty, patriotism, sacrifice, and honor. It avoided shade tree geopolitical analysis, ideological composting, and attempting to summarize a great conflict of nations in vacuous dialogue.

Those standards were too much of a stretch even for the original MASH to meet, and could not ever have been seriously considered by the gerbils who wrote the television scripts. Instead the writers tried to gussy up their shopworn leftist politics and wrap them in the guise of a realistic portrayal of life during the Korean War. While the show did a great disservice, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a harmless trifle.

The creators of MASH successfully used our television sets to deliver their leftist, anti-military, anti-Korea line. With just a little imagination and some effort, it could have become a show that paid sincere and respectful tribute to those who served with honor, sacrificing so much to fight the communist takeover of South Korea. It could have reinforced the US-Korea relationship and expanded the borders of our understanding. Learning can be fun; one does not need descend to the level of the driveling fool to elicit a laugh. Shakespeare found time for humor in even his most serious historical dramas. Was it too much to ask MASH to have found time for a bit of level-headed seriousness among so many hours of drivel?

Many will read this and charge overreaction: how can an innocent TV program be credited with endangering the bilateral relationship between two great nations? One would like to think that is the case, and, in fact, the Hollywood left itself dismisses its most grotesque distortions in exactly that manner. This material, they say, is meant for entertainment, not education. That, however, is extremely disingenuous, because most of the group consciously attempts to influence public opinion through their “art.” Does any reader honestly think, for example, that Oliver Stone’s obsessive preoccupation with anti-American, anti-business, hyper-conspiratorial “historical” dramas is coincidental? Does it not chill educated people to realize that most Americans derive their understanding of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam from JFK and Platoon?

Simply because MASH is less hyperbolic does not mitigate the ill effects it has had. For many Korean War veterans and their families – as well as for subsequent generations for whom the Korean War is as remote as the Peloponnesian and Civil Wars – what they see on MASH is interpreted as accurately representing the actual situation. Though descending ever more to the vapid and absurd as time progressed, the program nevertheless has imprinted a perception of Korea on the American psyche.

To judge the real Korea by the Korea of MASH would be like watching Commander in Chief and thinking Hillary might make a good president. Fortunately, prime time has passed MASH by, replaced by more “cutting,” “edgy,” “gutsy” drama and comedy. From the banal and inane, entertainment television has descended to the lower circles of the tasteless and repugnant.

It may be too late to retrain multiple MASH-washed generations about Korea, but both the Korean people themselves and the GIs who sweat, bled, and fought valiantly to save them deserve a better shake, so we’ll make the effort here to set the record straight. Take programs like MASH – if you must – with a sufficient dose of antidotal reality. The human price of viewer laziness is too high. -one-

Curious about North Korea? Learn more in Gordon’s best-selling book Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin became the Evil Twin, Lyons Press available at bookstores now.

Matthew Benoit is a writer and commentator from western Massachusetts

copyright 2006 Gordon Cucullu




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