Column: 'M*A*S*H,' 'Dad's Army' and the ethics of war comedies

Actors Joan Van Ark (left) and Alan Alda are seen during an episode of M*A*S*H, "Radar's Report," which aired in 1973. (Classic Film/Creative Commons)

When asked to think about war, people become somber. They think of the pain and loss of violent conflicts. If someone laughed during the exercise, people would be appalled. Yet, many television shows and movies manage to turn these situations into the basis of comedies. They tell tales of relationships between characters and their mutual support to provide a glimpse of hope through the context of war’s trauma.

While dealing with fields of ethical questions, quality war comedies manage to communicate messages of community, survival and hope during tragic times.

The ethics of both comedy and war are complicated subjects that are often debated. Some people say it’s morally wrong to trivialize complicated and difficult matters such as war into a comedy. That is neither the intention nor the result of these shows.

For example, “Dad’s Army” is a show based in World War II, and its writers, David Croft and Jimmy Perry, were both soldiers in the war themselves. They understood how to joke about the war without making light of it. Another show, the television series “M*A*S*H”, researched its early shows through interviewing MASH surgeons from the war. The shows were researched and written carefully to ensure that the serious matters they covered were handled appropriately.

Claiming that comedies must trivialize their subject matter underestimates both the abilities of good writing and the mental capabilities of the viewers. The television series “M*A*S*H” critiques gender roles through satire. It also was a commentary on the Vietnam War, which the United States was involved in when the series first aired. A comedy does not insinuate mindless humor, and these shows evidently did not only want to make their viewers laugh, but also think.

Producers of war comedies are aware of ethical questions that arise with war, and they use this knowledge to shape the shows. For shows based in controversial wars, like “M*A*S*H” in the Korean War and Bluestone 42 in Afghanistan, the characters normally are people who unquestionably do good.

“M*A*S*H” follows doctors and Bluestone 42 is based around the lives of bomb disposal experts. Both show their characters working to save people, and that dissolves some of the ethical questions, at least around the story they are telling. 

Often times, these comedies are based in past wars. There are many contributing factors as to why this is favorable. First, with historical wars, viewers already understand the ending. Viewers know that the conflict ended, and that is important in a show based around war. The message of hope is that it will end. Many shows about war are also based in the conscription era. This makes the characters closer to the viewers as they know that if they were of age in that era, they might have been drafted as well.

Shows about conscription era wars comfort viewers by displaying the great friendships and communities that form from difficult situations. Using past conflicts to display hope and friendship is not a negative endeavor, but it is important to know that the aspects of war displayed through these shows do not display the entire story of the conflict.

When watching these war comedies, it is important to understand that the show’s purpose is to entertain, not to educate. The shows follows small groups of characters and most of the time, they focus on an aspect of the war separate from the fighting. For example, “Dad’s Army” follows volunteers in a Home Guard and “M*A*S*H” follows doctors. This does not display the true environment of the war. Viewers should know not to use these shows as a basis for information on the events that they portray. 

It is important to be concerned about what is morally acceptable in comedy. Viewers should not support shows that trivialize important matters or treat social issues like jokes. However, most war comedies do neither. Instead, they entertain while providing messages of hope and community. As long as viewers understand that their main purpose is entertainment, the shows offer great tales of friendship while also encouraging their viewers to think about the ethics of war.


Alyssa Luis is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.