Although entirely fictional, `M*A*S*H' helped shape the public's perception of the Korean Conflict.

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Contemporary historians call it the Korean War, and that may be an upgrade of sorts. In the early '50s it was referred to as "a police action" -- when it was referred to at all -- but neither history nor the memories of its veterans have shaped our modern ideas of the conflict.

They come, instead, from "M*A*S*H," a CBS television series that chronicled the adventures of such colorful characters as Capts. Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre, Maj. Hot Lips Houlihan and Cpls. Radar O'Reilly and Maxwell Klinger.

They were among the members of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a Korean War unit with adventures and people so simultaneously bizarre and realistic that many veterans were certain they had to be drawn from their own unit.

But they weren't, says Larry Gelbart, who helped create the CBS series and remained with it during its first four years. "I had no one outfit specifically in mind," he says. "It was just a microcosm. Every outfit has its characters and military units never change and war never changes."

That, Gelbart says, is why he was surprised by the reactions -- and often the interpretations -- of "M*A*S*H." "We never foresaw its success. All we wanted to do was get our show in the can. We certainly didn't think the series would take off the way it did and we never figured our set would wind up in the Smithsonian Institute."

Neither did he figure that the show would be considered a diatribe against the still-raging Vietnam War when it first hit the small screen in September 1972. "I suppose some of it was," Gelbart says. "But that was not the specific intent, because to protest against a war is to protest against every war, and it is hard to say that any war is a good thing."

For a while it was also hard to say that "M*A*S*H" was a success. Its initial ratings were low, which Gelbart attributes to the 8 p.m.Sunday time slot CBS gave the series. "People were still remembering the sermons of a few hours ago and here we were doing all sorts of `adult' things." But the network stayed with the show that spotlighted Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers in the lead roles, backed by Loretta Swit, Gary Burghoff, McLean Stevenson and Jamie Farr.

It also began moving it about its schedule several times before locking into 9 p.m. Mondays, where it remained from 1978 to its celebrated 2 ½-hour finale on Feb. 28, 1983, playing to what was then the largest audience ever to watch a single television program.

Gelbart sees several reasons for the series' eventual popularity. "I think we struck a responsive chord, something viewers could identify with to a degree. We put people in a place they didn't want to be, doing things they didn't want to be doing."

And there was the careful combination he tried to put into every episode. "I mixed the laughter with the heavy stuff," Gelbart says. "I didn't want just funny stuff because this was a war and terrible things were going on. So, I pulled back because that is what life is about. One minute you're laughing, the next you're terribly unhappy."

There was little to laugh about for those who saw the horrors of Korea firsthand. "I know it's been referred to as the forgotten war," Gelbart says. "But I'm not sure that's accurate. How can you forget something you never knew about in the first place? So many people don't even know where Korea is, how many Americans were killed and captured, how many are still there. I doubt that one in 100 people even know about the war."

Gelbart says he learned about it quickly, especially after doing the series and traveling to the country with Bob Hope on one of his troop entertainment tours. "But no, `M*A*S*H' wasn't my experience," he says. "I was never a doctor and, while I was in service -- it was from 1945 to '46 in the Army -- I never saw any combat. I was stationed right here in LA. I served exactly a year and 11 days. Those 11 days kept me from being drafted when the Korean War broke out."