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So Long And Amen: MASH And The End Of The Korean War

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My mom called me when I was heading towards the treadmill.

“The Korean War is over,” she told me.

“What?”

“The Korean War has ended.”

“But didn’t it end sixty-five years ago?”

“I thought so as well.”

I mean, I remember when it ended. There was an announcement on the PA, Winchester looked like he was going to cry, Father Mulcahy didn’t hear right away so a refugee had to tell him what was going on…

Then it hit me: I wasn’t alive in 1953, and I was remembering the last episode of MASH.

The title? “Goodbye, So Long, and Amen.”

The show had been on for eleven years by 1983–longer than the actual Korean War itself. It was time to end; how many times could Klinger get in trouble? Or the doctors play White Saviors for the Koreans? It was time to go, time to end.

Of course, finishing the show meant the war had to stop.

But not in a dull half-hour episode.

They had to end the show and the war with a big splash. Hence, the two-hour finale.

It is summer, 1953 at the 4077. Rumors of peace abound, but people aren’t holding their breaths. They have to deal with wounded, refugees, prisoners of war, and they’re down a doctor: Hawkeye (Alan Alda) is recovering from a nervous breakdown and is under the care of kind but firm psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freeman (Allan Arbus). Through flashbacks, we find out what drove Hawkeye to his breaking point and we understand why Hawkeye both cried and cursed Sidney when he finally remembered what happened.

Eventually, he recovers enough to go back to the 4077th, with Sidney following him to make sure he’s okay.

The violence is escalating at the camp when they are hit by a mortar attack. Everyone runs for cover except for Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) goes to rescue the POWS in the cage they’ve been kept inside. As he does this courageous but straightforward act, a motor explodes, and he is knocked out unconscious. Later B.J. (Mike Farrell) tells him he has tinnitus and might lose his hearing.

In the meantime, Major Winchester has been teaching several P.O.W.s Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, wanting to share his love of classical music with others. Klinger (Jamie Farr) has fallen in love with one of the refugees, Soon-Li (Rosalind Chao) who is looking for her missing family. B.J. is downtrodden because he will be missing the second birthday of his beloved daughter. Margaret (Loretta Swit) is besieged by job offers for when the war is over.

It’s all a matter of waiting to hear what will happen next.

Finally, everything comes together in one scene. Charles wakes up to see his P.O.W. musicians are being taken away for a prisoner exchange. While they leave, they play Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in AK 581. He waves at them, then his face changes from despair to utter relief when an announcement comes on the PA: an armistice has been signed and hostilities will end in twelve hours. THE WAR IS OVER!!! Charles closes his eyes, and utter happiness is shown on his face. People are dancing around the camp, cheering.  Everyone is hugging one another and there’s dancing and singing: B.J. embraces Margaret, Charles hugs Father Mulcahy and Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) walks around, grinning.

This lasts about five seconds.

The wounded start coming. Everyone gets back to work.

Margaret says “Does this look like peace to you?”

Now here’s the thing: No one said, “Hey, the war isn’t over. Don’t worry kids! You still get to go home! It’s just that two countries will be in limbo for about, oh, sixty-five years!”

In other words, war is over sounds better than say, oh, The armistice has been signed and um, we really didn’t win.

The show did make it very clear that an armistice was signed. It was never a formal declaration. Just an armistice. But then, it wasn’t really a war in the first place. It was, in Klinger’s words in AfterMash, a “police action.” A police action that took away Father Mulcahy’s hearing, sent Hawkeye into several depressions, and made it so Charles could never enjoy classical music again after he finds out all the musician P.O.W.s were killed before the prisoner exchange.

The show’s writers wanted to make it clear that none of these characters would come back to the States the same people they were when they left.

So when I heard the Korean War was over, I thought of my dad who was a Korean war veteran. And I thought of February 28, 1983, the night the last MASH was shown, and I couldn’t watch it because it was on too late.

But for me and no doubt millions of people, that was when the Korean war really ended.

It shouldn’t have taken sixty-five years.

Or thirty-five years.

It was a police action that lasted way too long.

And no one’s been the same ever since.