Academic journal article American Studies

M*A*S*H, the Longest Yard, and the Integrationist Imagination in the Postsegregation Era

Academic journal article American Studies

M*A*S*H, the Longest Yard, and the Integrationist Imagination in the Postsegregation Era

Article excerpt

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Toward the end of Richard Hooker's 1968 satirical novel M*A*S*H, the soldier-surgeons of the 4,077th unit of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) compete in a football game against another team composed of US military medical personnel-the Evacuation (Evac) Hospital of the 325th division. At the time of the contest, both units are actively deployed in providing medical aid to wounded combatants during the Korean War-a harrowing and horrific task that is made (somewhat) more bearable by the dark humor Captains Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce, Augustus "Duke" Forrest, and "Trapper" John McIntyre adopt as they go about their job of reattaching severed limbs and removing shrapnel from human flesh. Participating in a football game might seem to offer a welcome diversion from their bloody employment. The surgical team of unit 4077, however, does not treat their game against the Evac Hospital squad as mere recreational amusement. For Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper, as well as their commanding officer, Colonel Henry Blake, beating the team of division 325 is a serious affair. The Evac Hospital possesses the veritable football powerhouse of the Far East war theater, and to upset General Hammond, the coach of the 325th, and his squad, Hawkeye plots to bring in a ringer: Dr. Oliver Wendell Jones, a black army neurosurgeon who, as a civilian, played professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles.1

The outlandish conceit of Jones living a double life as a pro football player and neurosurgeon, while attesting, in no small measure, to the ironic aspects of Hooker's work, serves a practical purpose in the novel: it draws attention to a salient issue of military racial politics-and, by extension, American racial politics in other contexts-during the 1960s. The seriousness with which Hawkeye and his unit approach the game underscores Hooker's commitment to exploring racial integration in the armed services as it pertained to black participation in recreational activities with their white comrades. In this way, M*A*S*H evokes an integrationist imaginary, which derives its significance from the potent forms of racism that persisted in the mid- and late 1960s in the military and other institutions, despite the American political system's and the military's avowed commitment to ensuring racial equality. Following the passage of the Johnson administration's Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, formal racial segregation was eliminated across the country. The question for civil rights advocates and racial liberalists changed in the aftermath of these landmark pieces of legislation: once united in battling racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, civil rights proponents wondered how, with formal segregation dismantled by congressional law, equality might be achieved.2 What civil rights proponents, along with those sympathetic to its cause, discovered was that it was easier to change the laws regarding racial segregation (no minor task in the 1960s given the intransigence of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress opposed to the passage of civil rights) than to change white attitudes about race, which led, in turn, to various kinds of informal racial segregation outside the purview of the law.

The American military provides a fascinating point of reference for the conversation that emerged between the dismantling of formal segregation and the persistence of informal segregation in the 1960s. In a RAND Corporation (an important global policy think tank in California) study commissioned in mid-1990s, and eventually published in 1998 under the title Foxholes and Color Lines: Desegregating the U.S. Armed Services, researchers Sherie Mershon and Steven Scholssman offer a history of integration in the military that demonstrates both the achievements and the failures of this American institution in enacting racial equality before the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Mershon and Scholssman's work describes the events that led to the desegregation of US combat forces during the Korean War; although some experiments in integrating black and white troops were initiated in the European theater in World War II (WWII), the major coup in military racial policies came later, with the issuing of President Truman's Executive Order 9981 in 1948. …

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