Book Reviews By Mike White. Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America by James H. Wittebols It could have been brutal...

Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America by James H. Wittebols
It could have been brutal. Fall in my first year in the dorms was an awkward time. Away from my friends and family; surrounded by a plethora of strangers. It was time to find some common ground. As luck would have it, one evening as a bunch of us did the Gen-X thing and started talking television. Having a conversation that would have made TV Land programmers proud, we skipped from one program to another. It was when we got to “M*A*S*H” however, that the discussion became heated. Like those losers in Reality Bites, we started rattling off reminiscences about one episode or another.

“Remember the one where Hawkeye and Trapper sold Henry’s desk to get some penicillin?”

“How about when Trapper ordered the pinstripe suit and the stripes ran the wrong way?”

“Or then there was the one all shot from the soldier’s point of view—the one without a laugh track?”

“Wasn’t that the black and white one with the reporter?”

And on it went... That is, until one of the guys volunteered the information that back in his room he had a copy of the final episode of the series, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.”

Within minutes his room was occupied with a dozen or more eighteen year-old college freshmen paying rapt attention to the two and a half hour special that ended the eleven year run of one of television’s most popular series. Sure, we talked and kidded around, continuing our earlier jawing on about favorite episodes but, believe me, you could have heard a pin drop when things started getting serious. Each one of Hawkeye’s flashbacks to that bus hushed the room with proper gravity.

Most of us were born in the year that “M*A*S*H” began and grew up with the program in first-run episodes (until we were eleven) and syndicated re-runs (which continue today). To say that “M*A*S*H” shaped my childhood is a bit of an overstatement but I would not hesitate to state that the show holds a place in my heart unrivaled by the majority of its contemporaries. In retrospect, I would concede that television played a major role in my development, though, until reading James H. Wittebols’s Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America (ISBN: 0786404574), I hadn’t given much thought to what was going on in the “real world” during those years to influence “M*A*S*H”!

In his work, Wittebols uses the extended run of “M*A*S*H” (beginning in the war-torn throes of Viet Nam and ending under the choke-hold of Reganomics), to demonstrate the life of a popular prime time show, and how the “world of the show” (that is, Korea in the ’50s) metamorphosed in accordance with the United States in the ’70s and ’80s. Certainly, I had been aware of modifications in the show, such as the departures of Frank Burns, Trapper, Henry Blake, and Radar but I never felt cognizant of the thematic shifts that occurred over its eleven-year run.

In support of his arguments regarding how “M*A*S*H” reflected the sociopolitical upheaval occurring in the ages of Vietnam, Watergate, Disco, Moonies, and Iran-Contra deals, Wittebols describes the topics covered in “M*A*S*H” a few seasons at a time; comparing and contrasting the attitudes of the show with ongoing events. Luckily, Wittebols states in no uncertain terms that television follows societal changes; it doesn’t create them. In this way, he doesn’t empower the boob tube with a force it does not have. In other words, the decline of Hawkeye’s rampant womanizing did not bring about the attitudes of the women’s liberation movement but vice versa.

More than a detailed analysis of one of my favorite television shows, Wittebols’s book is an invaluable document of history and the general public’s reaction to news of the day. “The public” is represented by the show in Wittebols’s book as the author contends that a program contradictory to mainstream mores would not be able to garner the ratings “M*A*S*H” consistently scored. Little humor would be found in a character like Colonel Flagg, the ultramilitaristic CIA spook, if Americans weren’t tired of being exposed to the odd (and often fanciful) exploits of the CIA from sources like Phillip Agee’s Inside the Conspiracy: A CIA Diary (ISBN: 0883730286). This logic would also help explain the reversal of a character like Max Klinger from an ardent oppositionist of the military, constantly bucking for a section eight discharge, to the stand-up military man he becomes late in the series, when the U.S. was ready to re-embrace militarism via the skirmishes supported by Ronald Reagan.

Wittebols’ recounting of American history feels well encapsulated and thoroughly researched. Likewise, it’s obvious that Wittebols is more than passingly familiar with “M*A*S*H”. His knowledge of the show is especially apparent in the wonderful episode guide that completes the book. Wittebols wins praise from me in his detailed accounts including notations of discrepancies that crept into the show over the years such as Hawkeye’s missing mother and sister (to whom he sends greetings in the first season but who are dead or never existed in later seasons). Wittebols succeeds in what could have been a disastrous undertaking-he enriches “M*A*S*H” and America in his examination of a show that, obviously, has had long-standing effects. For ordering information visit

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flatnessisgod by Ryan McGinness
I don’t think of myself as a very creative person. I try my best to come up with designs in CdC or on the web that are bold and exciting but usually end up sacrificing style for substance-making sure items are more legible than they are beautiful. That said, I think that I have a real appreciation for creative people if only out of envy for their talent!

Initially appearing Dadaist in its approach, Ryan McGinness’s flatnessisgod is an eye-opening and inspirational tome. Subtitled “art + design + process + picture plane theory + x, y,” flatnessisgod (ISBN: 1-887128-34-4) is a hefty study of not only the creative process but also the method by which images are interpreted. Often images are presented in order to provoke a visceral response for the reader to reflect upon. flatnessisgod is light on text and heavy on images that build upon one another; studies of line, shape, contrast, (and all the other buzzwords to be found in design manuals) are present but the reader is forced to examine items in practice more than theory. Laid out more as a puzzle than a textbook, McGinness frequently instructs the reader to refer to other pages for expansion on a current idea, as if to invite different interpretations of the material depending on the order in which it is read.

After demonstrating the basic concepts of design, McGinness begins to give the reader a privileged look into techniques of invention. McGinness delineates his appropriation of images around him (like graffiti) into his work. He also traces the evolution of logos or layouts that he’s done in the past, showing the multitude of variations that a theme can take. Tying into the greater theme of the book of the power of symbols (such as letters), the reader can ponder what an investment a logo has to be. The various incarnations of each logo can be judged by the emotional and mental response of the reader; what does this symbol mean to me (if anything) and do I relate it to a product?

Of course, looking at this book often makes me want to bang my head against the wall in hopes of jarring loose some creative juices but more than making me jealous or frustrated, flatnessisgod makes me appreciative of the fluidity of thought and its relationship to design. For ordering information visit

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The Big Book of Conspiracies by Doug Moench
While I don’t adhere to every conspiracy theory, I’ve always been fascinated by both their existence and their contents. For as long as there has been an accepted history, voices of dissent have presented alternate versions of “the truth.” Often, seemingly too-strange-to-be-true tales have borne the test of time and made their way into the formal written accounts of world events. Yet, there are still a myriad of “offbeat” and “way out” stories that remain historia non grata.

Most of the tales told in this book concern the last fifty-odd years of United States politics. I used to think I had an open mind about the various postulates surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy but The Big Book of Conspiracies contains a boatload of suppositions and reports that I’ve never heard before. Moreover, the murder of JFK is woven into the greater scheme of things-from the stocking of the Central Intelligence Agency with Nazis to the repercussions of the CIA’s “MK-Ultra” program to today. In other words, the passing of the eternal torch of collusion that’s older than Masonry, Christianity, and perhaps even history itself.

Yes, the events in Dealey Plaza play a major role in Moench’s tome, spilling over the confines of the one chapter wholly dedicated to Kennedy’s death. However, there are six other chapters in the book that deal with everything from theories surrounding alien influence on human development, the dirty deeds of William Randolph Hearst, and the startling ties behind other government-backed hits. The most thought-provoking area of the book has to be the stories dealing with CIA-funded mass hypnosis experiments (à la The Manchurian Candidate and Telefon). Not only is it said that Guyana’s Jonestown was the location for mind-control testing, but that the early versions of the techniques perfected there may have explained the glassy-eyed, calm demeanors of Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Herman Bremer, and Lee Harvey Oswald (along with post-Jonestown “lone nuts” like Mark David Chapman, John Hinkley Jr., et al.).

All of the stories are presented in easy-to-read, stunning to behold comic book form which does little to add to their credibility but much to provide a more dynamic impact for their inherent insidiousness. Published in 1995, a few of the tales presented have already been “proven” as true, such as the connivance surrounding James Earl Ray and his role in the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the incendiary role played by law enforcement officials in the storming of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas.

The Big Book of Conspiracies is a wonderful primer for folks interested in broadening their horizons and an invaluable appendix to candy-coated mainstream history books. This and other entries in “The Big Book” series are available via Essential Media (

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