Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Many Casualties of War

MASH was on the air for 11 years, and it was always walking the tightrope between comedy and drama.

That could be challenging enough when you were dealing with the casualties of the battlefields of war, but 35 years ago tonight, it examined a different kind of casualty.

When the episode began, Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) was cranky because he had the mumps. His disposition was made worse by the fact that Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) had them, too, and the two of them would have to be quarantined together.

That created a shortage of surgeons so a request was made for a temporary surgeon, and Dr. Newsome (Edward Herrman) was quickly dispatched.

Dr. Newsome seemed to fit right in with everyone else at the 4077th, but he cracked up under pressure when the casualties started pouring in, and he just walked out of the OR.

"The blood won't come off," he said to Hawkeye and B.J. when they caught up with him in Potter's tent — but, really, he said it to no one in particular. "No matter what I do, it just stays there. See? Never gonna go away. No matter how many times I wash or how much I scrub, it's gonna stay there. Where do they come from? What do they expect me to do? I can't. I can't."

I don't recall if they were using the phrase post–traumatic stress disorder in 1980, but it has always seemed to me that that is what this was about. A more severe case than most, I would say. Modern viewers know about war veterans and the PTSD they must fight, but stories are never told about the Army surgeons who wash out under pressure.

PTSD, of course, is the same disorder whichever name you choose to use for it — and the name changes in every war. In World War I, they called it shell shock. In World War II, they called it battle fatigue. In the conflict in Korea, they called it operational exhaustion.

It was during or after America's long involvement in Vietnam that the health community began calling it post–traumatic stress disorder; I just don't remember when the use of that phrase became the widely accepted one for that condition.

I am sure the same thing happens in the civilian world on a regular basis. People who work in a big–city ER, where there is a lot of gang violence and other types of violent crime, may have a lot of medical talent, but some, perhaps many, will be discouraged from pursuing a career in the health field, perhaps because of an episode that was similar (albeit less extreme) than the one Dr. Newsome experienced.

MASH was always reminding its viewers of the human side of war. In its own way, it acknowledged that there are times when war is necessary, no matter how much we may hate it. But it is never neat and clean, and there are all kinds of casualties.

Thirty–five years ago tonight, it reminded its viewers that there are wounds that can't be seen and casualties who never spent a second on the battlefield.