[spoilers of M*A*S*H Season 3 finale ahead]
It was a Friday night in the second year of the pandemic, and I was up late, drinking beers, watching old reruns of the comedy-drama series M*A*S*H. I pressed play on an episode where Colonel Henry Blake receives an honorable discharge and gets his orders home. He makes a round of heartfelt goodbyes to everyone in the unit, especially his trusty sidekick, Radar, before departing. In the last moments of the show, we learn that Henry’s plane is shot down over the Sea of Japan, and there are “no survivors.”
I saw this episode at least once before as a thirteen or fourteen-year-old in the mid-eighties, but a lot of time has passed since then. In the intervening years, I served in the Navy as a helicopter pilot. My memory of this M*A*S*H episode was hazy, but this time around, the anguished look as Radar read the telegram, the intense silence in the O.R. after everybody heard the news left me thunderstruck.
During my time in the service, I served a one-year tour in Iraq where two friends and co-workers, T and M, were killed when insurgents blew up their vehicle. Just like Henry, they were here one day, gone the next. What I felt on that pandemic Friday night was familiar: loss, sorrow, regret—but I also wondered what I’d felt all those years ago when I first learned of Henry’s death.
In some ways, by modern standards, M*A*S*H doesn’t hold up well. Problems include the nearly all-white/male cast, Hawkeye’s constant womanizing, and the troubling ways in which local peoples are treated as second-class citizens, often in need of rescue. Yet the series also went out of its way to subvert and undermine traditional heroic and wartime narratives and show there could be power in being the underdog. As a teenager, I suppose it was this last idea to which I was most drawn—Hawkeye Pierce’s quick wit in the face of authority, his irreverence. But I always liked Henry, too. I identified with his bumbling mannerisms and common-sense attitude, so I was distraught at seeing his “death” again.
In a stunned daze, curious, having just watched Radar read that telegram again, I utilized a little Google-Fu to dig deeper. I discovered this was the Season 3 finale entitled “Abyssinia, Henry” (Abyssinia is a comic corruption of the phrase “I’ll be seeing you”). I also discovered that many viewers were shocked at Henry’s death. Hundreds of fan letters poured in asking why killing Henry was appropriate for a comedy series. This was despite the fact that the series was set in a war zone and death was not uncommon.
When faced with questions about Henry’s death, series producer Larry Gelbart and his staff hand wrote letters to the fans explaining their reasoning, but also pointing out that the same week in 1975 when Henry “died,” a planeload of Vietnamese children taking off from Saigon to come to America crashed, killing everyone on board. Gelbart said he hoped viewers felt the same way about the loss of the Vietnamese children as they did about Henry.
As a teenager, I never wrote a letter, but I identified with the anger of the M*A*S*H fans. The question was: What purpose did Henry’s death serve? Henry’s death felt like a stunt, a way to draw a sharp emotional response from the audience. Henry had done his duty. He’d earned the right to go home to his family—only he never got to go home to his family.
I think, underneath it all, I bought into the idea that heroic sacrifice breeds significance. I believed we had a human desire for death—even the deaths of fictional characters—to carry some greater meaning, to reveal hidden truths about our natures. The character who stepped in front of a bullet does so to save his friend or to defeat evil, and this makes the character heroic, the character’s death meaningful.
But this lesson in heroics was not borne out by my own military experience. A week before his death, T, that friend from Iraq, decided to return home after more than five years in-country. He’d had enough. He never made it home. M was due to return home to see his six-month old son, whom he’d yet to meet in person. He also never made it home. These were great people, heroic people even, but there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t wonder what their sacrifice meant. What greater good did their deaths serve?
On that pandemic Friday last year, I saw what Larry Gelbart and the M*A*S*H crew were really after when they engineered Henry’s death. They showed us the senselessness of war. They showed us how, when the people we love and respect die, there are rarely any easy answers.
As you read this, you may be asking a different question: After two years where over a million Americans have died of Covid, after months and months of being stuck inside with our families, fearing for our lives, why on this Friday night was I seeking refuge in crack chest-cutter “Hawkeye” Pierce and the gang’s antics? Maybe it was their dauntless humor in the face of unspeakable horrors. Maybe it was their insistence on dignity and respect as a response to the absurdism and hopelessness of the real world.
But watching that final harrowing scene again, I saw something else. I saw the faces of Frank and Margaret and Father Mulcahy and Klinger and Trapper and Hawkeye, their grim reactions to the death of their friend, someone they’d loved and respected and admired. I saw that, despite this terrible news, the senselessness of it all, they’d find a way, some way, to carry on.
JP Goggin is a speculative fiction writer and retired Naval Aviator living in San Antonio, Texas. He’s a graduate of the Antioch University – Los Angeles MFA Program (Fiction) and an adjunct professor teaching in the English Department at Northwest Vista College. He’s also editor-in-chief of the Lit San Antonio ( @litsanantonio) Twitter account, supporting Texas writers, poets, and writing organizations.
JP’s work has appeared in Reflex Fiction, Versification, FlashFlood (as part of National Flash Fiction Day 2021), 50-Word Stories, Moondottir Magazine, FronteraFest Short Fringe, the Cohen New Works Festival, Prospectus, and elsewhere. He’s currently at work on his first novel, and coffee is his favorite junk food. Find him online at jpgoggin.com or on Twitter @writerjpgoggin.