Religion as Identity in M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H: A Rundown

Cast of M*A*S*H , found on Google

The balance between comedy and seriousness is a hard line to keep. A show that has proved to be a great example of keeping that balance is M*A*S*H. The showfollows the lives of the residents—doctors, nurses, patients etc.—of the 4077th MASH unit throughout the Korean War. The show effectively entertained and provided thought provoking themes with many episodes in the early seasons airing in the midst of the Vietnam War. Because of this, they toed the line between creating a commentary on the both the Vietnam/Cold War and outright criticizing it. This show was notable then due to its “[…] most pronounced generic characteristic” the “[…] use of dark comedy to deconstruct sacrosanct or taboo subjects (like death, religion, and sexual promiscuousness) while mocking the military brass as well as the political elite.”( Diffrient, David Scott. M*A*S*H) And this episode does not differ. “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” premiered on November 7th, 1975. It was the tenth episode in the fourth season and while it follows the same traditions of previous M*A*S*H episodes, this one takes a closer look at the cross section of war and religion and its effects on identity.

M*A*S*H has a cast of religious characters that range from the overtly Christian but extremely hypocritical Margaret Houlihan and Frank Burns, to the pious Father Mulcahy. These characters range up and down the spectrum of faith and Christianity. But playing opposite the characters of faith are residents of the 4077th such as B.J. Hunnicutt or Hawkeye Pierce—once endearingly described by Father Mulcahy as a “crazy agnostic”— who’s “blasphemous” jokes and mockery of faith often upset some of the more religious characters (generally Margaret and Frank). Hawkeye and Hunnicutt are not military men, they are doctors, and as such hold an avid distaste for war and their place in it— as Hawkeye said, “It goes against my training to say take two aspirin and go get yourself killed (M*A*S*H S4E10)

“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”

M*A*S*H “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” Season 4, episode 10.
20th Century Fox

The beginning of “Quo Vadis Captain Chandler?” starts as many episodes of M*A*S*H do, a bus carrying wounded has arrived at MASH 4077 and the doctors and nurses immediately spring into action. Amidst all the chaos, the company clerk Radar is attempting to get information of the injured and comes across a wounded soldier with no dog tags calling himself Jesus Christ. This leads to something akin of a tug-o-war over where this delusional man belongs. Margaret and Frank compare his claim to blasphemy and accuse him of trying to Section 8 himself out of the war. They call in Colonel Flagg—a neurotic, paranoid, and patriotic CIA agent—to get to the bottom of things. Hawkeye and Hunnicutt see a broken man and call in Dr. Sidney Freedman, a fellow liberal leaning psychologist. It is revealed that Jesus Christ is actually Captain Arnold T. Chandler, a bombardier who was shot down four days before arriving at the MASH unit. He is suffering from battle fatigue, and maybe something more severe. His records show that he has flown fifty-seven bombing missions and has earned most of the medals and commendations that are available. But Captain Chandler is no longer there.

It is clear throughout the episode that Captain Chandler is a broken man. Fifty-seven bombing missions is far from “inconsequential” as Colonel Flagg attempted to make it seem. But has he lost his mind, or reclaimed it from war? When Dr. Freedman is asking Captain Chandler about his past, Chandler is distraught, in tears at the thought of hurting anyone, let alone killing them from a B-29 high in the sky. Perhaps his mental lapse into the identity of Jesus Christ is a reclamation of the Chandler that existed before he was pulled into the nightmarish world of war. Dr. Freedman gives his diagnosis near the end of the episode: “Colonel, some men lose an arm or a hand or a leg. Chandler lost himself. He’s not playing a game. He spent two years dropping bombs on people who never did anything to him until finally something inside this kid from Idaho said “Enough. You’re Christ. You’re not a killer. The next bomb you drop, you drop on yourself”( M*A*S*H S4E10). War upsets the nature of identity and turning to religion can heal that at times. Captain Chandler lost himself when he began to bomb nameless and faceless North Koreans from his plane. The audience isn’t meant to believe that Chandler’s fugue state is anything more than that. But that is not the important aspect. What is important is that Chandler is leaning into the identify of the ideal pacifist as a way to deal with his trauma. Many characters in the show say they are good, blue-blooded, Christian Americans. It is part of their patriotism. But the moment someone arrives taking a (subconscious) stand against the war just as Jesus would have done, his is deemed unpatriotic, cowardly, and crazy. The horrors of war have broken Captain Chandler and Christ is the only one he can turn to, or rather, turn into. With some help he’ll become Captain Chandler again, but he will never again be a killer.

A pastor in Maryland emailed the writer of this episode when wanting to use it as basis for a sermon at his church and wanted to know the inspiration behind the Captain Chandler story line. Bert Prelutsky responded the next day: “I think the message was fairly simple and straightforward. We all share a common humanity, whatever our religion is… Chandler, of course, represented the Christ, the spark of the divine, that resides in most of us” (Not From this World). Though never outwardly stated, with Chandler taking up the role of the ultimate pacifist, Jesus Christ, the show is saying that the war isn’t Christ-like—in fact it goes against the teachings of Christ. American involvement in the Vietnam War started small but began to pick up over time. While not a direct parallel, M*A*S*H can be seen as a response to the war. For a nation fixated on maintaining “Christian values” as much as the U.S. loves to do, it is interesting how wars—especially those that gain so much criticism for being “unjust”—seem to pop up so often. It was Saint Thomas Aquinas a Catholic philosopher and theologian who followed the idea that living as a pacifist was ideal philosophy but that direct action should be used to maintain peace. The idea of a war that is “just” and a war that is “unjust” comes out of his philosophy.  Many can and do argue that the war in Vietnam was not a just war and the involvement of the United States was in direct violation of the ideas of just war, thus, making it a war going against Christian ideals.

The episode ends with Captain Chandler loading onto a bus that will take him to a proper psychiatric hospital, as he’s about to leave Radar stops him and asks if he’s really who he says he is. Upon conformation he asks him to bless his teddy bear which Captain Chandler does before blessing both Radar, and the rest of the camp. Whether or not Radar truly believes that Captain Chandler is Jesus he has hope by having him fulfill his Christlike duties. Hope is something that is hard to come by in the middle of a war, especially one that seems hopeless and never ending from the view of the healers in the middle of it all. The simple act of a broken man blessing a bear marks the end of one of the most memorable episodes of M*A*S*H and shows that even in times of great violence, love and hope can be found.

Bibliography

Diffrient, David Scott. 2008. “M*A*S*H.” In M*A*S*H, by David Scott Diffrient. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Ewing, Samuel “The Ethics of the Vietnam War” The Kabod 3, no. 2 2017 (2017). Liberty University Digital Commons

M*A*S*H, “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”Directed by Larry Gelbart. 1975.

“Not From This World”. 2018. Georgia Preach. https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2018/11/25/not-from-this-world/’.

Prelutsky, Burt. 2006. “Captain Chandler & Me”. Townhall. https://townhall.com/columnists/burtprelutsky/2006/12/04/captain-chandler–me-n1355445.

 Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler. Accessed March 14, 2019. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0638393/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1.


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