From the M*A*S*H Library 1: M*A*S*H

What is it?

Hooker, Richard. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1968.

Why should M*A*S*H fans care?

Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H is the book that started it all. In the book we are introduced to Hawkeye, Trapper John, Hot Lips, Radar, and the whole gang at the 4077th. More importantly, we are introduced to the horrors of the Korean War and what doctors and nurses of MASH units were subjected to day after day.

As a M*A*S*H fan, what part of it should I read?

All of it! The entire novel follows the experience of Hawkeye and Duke during the tour of duty in Korea.

TL;DR Review

Hooker’s novel is genesis for M*A*S*H, but if you have seen the Robert Altman film and watched the series, you have read the novel.

Full Review

When I had to select a book for the first From the M*A*S*H Library post, there was only one choice…M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker. The novel is what started it all. Without its publication in 1968, there wouldn’t have been a film in 1970 and a television series in 1972. Truth be told, I had never read the novel until I started working on the website, so I was excited to dig in. I have two copies of the book in my collection, one from 1968 and a modern copy. I opted to read the 1968 Book Club Edition because I felt it was more authentic to the time it was released. This review will not be a comparison to other military fiction or war dramas, instead I will focus on how the novel relates to the series.

Dr. H. Richard Hornberger was a doctor at a MASH unit during the Koran War. When he wrote about his experience in novel form, he used the pen name Richard Hooker. In the introduction, he hints at his service briefly discussing the pressure surgeons were placed under at the units. Of the doctors at the MASH units he states, “A few flipped their lids, but most of them just raised hell, in a variety of ways and degrees. This is the story of some of the ways and degrees. It’s also a story of some of the work.” It is a very strong opening to a novel that introduces some characters you immediately aren’t sure whether you’re supposed to like or not.

In the opening pages we meet several familiar characters. Radar O’Reilly from Iowa is listening to Colonel Henry Blake request two surgeons from General Hamilton Hammond. After some coaxing, the general sends two captains, Benjamin Franklin Pierce and Augustus Bedford Forrest. Known by their nicknames, Hawkeye and Duke, they are unlikely pair, but shortly after their arrival at the 4077th MASH, they begin raising some of the hell Hooker alludes to in his introduction.

Hoping to have a tent to themselves, they quickly dispose of their tentmate, Major Hobson. After Hawkeye and Duke convince Henry that they need a chest surgeon, a new doctor arrives at the camp. It takes awhile, but Hawkeye finally recognizes Captain John McIntyre as Trapper John. Both played football in college and knew of each other then. Once the three of them are together, the hell raising really begins. There are several episodes in the early chapters that really make you question whether you should like Hawkeye, Duke, or Trapper. In fact, you may not. They are bossy, undisciplined, unprofessional, and in some cases, downright cruel.

In one scene, the three of them are unhappy with the camp’s Protestant chaplain. He has the unfortunate habit of writing to wounded patients’ parents without consulting the patient’s doctor, and some patients have died after the parents are assured their son is fine. After intercepting such a letter, they take matters into their own hands by binding and gagging him, tying him to a cross, surrounding the cross with straw and sticks, and make him think they are going to burn him by tossing in a Molotov cocktail. They do not use a flammable liquid, but the scene is pretty disturbing. A few chapters in, you question whether they are the heroes of the story or the villains.

That changes as you read on, however, and you begin to get into the thick of the war. Chapter nine, for example, focuses on a deluge of wounded soldiers that lasts for at least two weeks. This is powerful chapter as it is the first glimpse of the true horrors of war to which the reader is introduced. The skills of the surgeons, the nurses, and the corpsmen all shine through. But then, it is back to the lull, and the hijinks continue. It is understandable why the surgeons struggle in their free time. When you are in surgery saving a man’s life, that demands 100% of their focus. But in the off hours, the mind tends to wonder and question the purpose of the war and their place in it, thus they act out.

We then meet two other familiar characters, Major Margaret Houlihan and Captain Frank Burns. Burns is a doctor that does not get along with the group now calling themselves the “Swampmen,” named after their tent “The Swamp.” Burns and Hawkeye particularly do not get along, and it is after the appointment of Trapper as chief surgeon of the unit that Burns and Houlihan become the Swampmen’s next target. One has to go. Burns is ultimately sent stateside after attacking Hawkeye in the Mess Tent in front of Henry, although the whole event was provoked and staged by the Swampmen.

The closing part of the book is a football game arranged between the 4077th and the 325th Evac Hospital. Hawkeye convinces Henry to request Oliver Wendell Jones, Spearchucker, be transferred to the unit. Not only is he a skilled neurosurgeon, but he is also a professional football player. They use Spearchucker as a ringer to fix the game in hopes to cash in big on the outcome of the game. Following the game, Hawkeye and Duke are near the end of their tour. They come and go as they please, a theme throughout the book, but they train their replacement surgeons in the art of “meatball surgery” before going home to their families.

Many of the scenes in the book would not have worked on 1970s television, but they did work well on the big screen. However, some scenes from the novel did make it into the show despite Larry Gelbart saying that the movie had used all of the storylines from novel. Let’s begin with M*A*S*H: The Pilot. In the series, Hawkeye and Trapper come up with the idea to raffle a weekend with a nurse in Tokyo to raise money to send Ho Jon to college in the United States. This also happens in the novel, but with some minor differences. In the novel, Ho Jon was drafted by the South Korean army and wounded. After he is treated by the doctors of the 4077th, they raise the money to send him to college by selling pictures of Trapper dressed as Jesus. The photos are “autographed,”, and the scheme raises over $6,000.

There are some other storylines used by the series. Hawkeye and Trapper in the novel are avid golfers, and of course, the opening scene of the pilot shows them playing golf. Golf is also a running theme in the early seasons. There is a scene in the novel where Father Mulcahy has to help Hawkeye with a surgery. We see this in the series in the episode “Carry on Hawkeye” (02×11) when Mulcahy has to help when the rest of the camp is sick. In another chapter, Ugly John is upset that British and Australian units give their wounded tea, and this is identical to Hawkeye’s disagreement with a British colonel in “Tea and Empathy” (06×18). When Hawkeye is appointed chief surgeon in the episode “Chief Surgeon Who?” (01×04), General Barker isn’t happy when he finds Hawkeye playing a poker while a soldier is being prepped for surgery. The exact scene plays out in the novel between Hawkeye and a temporary commander of the 4077th. In fact, some of the dialogue from the show is word-for-word from the book.

The novel has some differences from the series as well. Frank Burns in a captain in the novel and is only around for one chapter. Duke is not present in the series at all. Several characters such as Spearchucker, Ugly John, and Ho Jon are in the series at first, but then disappear (for various reasons as explained by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds). Perhaps the most glaring difference between the novel and series is the difference between Hawkeye and Trapper. Hawkeye was skilled in abdominal wounds and general surgery, and Trapper was a specialist in chest surgery. This is why Trapper, not Hawkeye, is made chief surgeon in the book. There have been rumors that this was why Wayne Rogers left the series after season three. He understood Hawkeye and Trapper to be more equal, but Hawkeye was made the more prominent character in the series.

By the end of the novel, you empathize with the Swampmen, but you may not like them. I am still not sure I like “book Hawkeye.” Thankfully the characters were softened for the film and the series, otherwise I do not think either would have been successful. In the end, however, Hawkeye said it best as he and Duke left the 4077th for the final time when he said, “Well, when you live in this sort of situation long enough, you either get to love a few people or to hate them. I don’t know. I do know that nothing like this will ever happen to us again. Never again, except in our families, will be as close with anyone…I’m glad it happened, and I’m some jeezely glad it’s over.”

That’s the first From the M*A*S*H Library post, and I hope it encouraged you to read the original novel, if you haven’t already! As part of the first week of The M*A*S*H Historian, tomorrow will be the first MishM*A*S*H post. Check back as we travel to the Smithsonian Institution.

One thought on “From the M*A*S*H Library 1: M*A*S*H

  1. Great post! Keep up the good work. I just reread the book after having read it in high school around 1980. Have you seen the play adapted from the book? Like the movie, it alters certain elements. The most annoying is that Radar’s last name is Reilly instead of O’Reilly for some unknown reason. Note that they combined Capt. Frank Burns and Maj. Hobson into one character for the movie, and then on the series, which turned Frank into more of a religious hypocrite than he actually is in the book.

    Liked by 1 person

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