Could army doctors actually get away with Hawkeye-like behavior?

Pretty much what the OP says. I’ve been watching a lot of MASH lately and I keep thinking, “Sure, Frank Burns is a jerk, but I can’t imagine that a captain (or captains) in the army can really get away with so much blatant insubordination toward a superior officer.” I have always thought of the military as a very rigid and rule-bound institution. On the other hand, MASH was originally a book by an actual military doctor. Did/do doctors get unmilitary behavior overlooked because their skills are so specialized and in demand? Or was the novel (and subsequent movie and TV series) just wish fulfillment by proxy of what the author would have loved to do to the Frank Burns figure in his unit, if he were not afraid of vacationing in Leavenworth?

(and yes, I know the Movie/TV character of Frank Burns is named differently in the book, sort of. But there was a guy like him)

The guy who pulled my wisdom teeth way back when was an Army surgeon during the Korean Conflict and lived in a MASH unit. He told me that the books were very accurate.

As I recall, Hawkeye, Trapper and BJ never disobeyed a direct order and never really dissed Burns in front of enlisted personnel or patients. Blake, and to extent Potter, didn’t much care about the pranks and insults as long as they didn’t affect the unit’s performance.

Potter did occasionally warn Hawkeye to calm down. Hawkeye did listen to Potter.

I always thought Potter was a smart and accurate Colonel. He had over 20 years military. In a regular unit Potter would have been stricter. He was smart and adapted his command style to the more casual MASH wartime situation. But, Potter was in complete control of his command.

Repeat after me:

In the book Hawkeye and Duke discuss the situation on arrival and try to strike a balance. They have a service they are to deliver, to the best of their professional abilities and they figure that as long as they do that job well, a certain amount of unconventional behavior on their part will have to be tolerated by Blake.

They are very clearly doctors first, bored young men a long way from home second, and army personnel a very distant third.

There is a part where Hotlips has had enough and complains to Blake’s superior. They manage to meet with him first and convince him that Blake is doing a good job of managing the situation.

I took it as fiction.

My uncle was an Army doctor in WWII, Korea, and on up until the Vietnam era (when he was giving physicals to draftees).

He never worked in a MASH unit but thought it seemed realistic enough, based on what he knew.

I was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy from '77 to 97, and yep, the medical department is far more lax in several areas. Most of the Navy followed orders from BuPers (Bureau of Personnel) but we followed regulations from BuMed (Bureau of Medicine). We even had hair grooming standards different than the rest of the Navy, allowing us a 1/4 inch more here and 1/2 inch more there.

So, yeah, active duty in medical was a whole different ride than a tour in the fleet Navy

HM - Skate Rate, see my skate key? (Point to caduceus)

I never watched MAS*H but the saucy and irreverent military doctor is pretty much a staple character in any remotely military-themed fiction.


  1. Star Trek - Leonard “Bones” McCoy
  2. Battlestar Galactica - Doc Cottle

I’m not 100% clear on military rules, but surely it’s an important fact that while Major Burns outranks Captain Pierce, he is not his Commanding Officer.

Can you be charged with insubordination just for pissing off someone of higher rank when they aren’t even in your chain of command?

In the real military? Absolutely. For surgeons drafted into service, not so much. I recall one episode when Blake is giving Haweye some shit and Haweye says ‘so fire us, Henry.’

College and medical school educated people are going to be a lot more difficult to handle than young men right out of high school, even if they are drafted. They know how to think and that isn’t drummed out of them for purposes for which doctors are used: their own judgment. They are not drafted to follow orders that may result in their own deaths. That’s what the young draftees (and recruits) are put through basic training to do: follow orders immediately, without question and with follow through.

Sure, but they’re trainable enough to address someone as “sir” instead of “ferret-face” when the alternative is prison or dishonorable discharge.

On the TV show, Hawkeye struck Frank Burns on at least one occasion. One wonders if the looser discipline actually includes assault on a fellow doctor and superior officer.

OTOH, in the movie, Burns attacks Hawkeye and is sent home in a straitjacket.

IRL, striking Burns would certainly get a doctor in trouble (unless it was one of those macho things where Burns didn’t mention it). But the army at war needs doctors, so whatever punishment would be something that didn’t keep the doctor from working.

If you haven’t already, read the book and see the movie. They are darker, funnier and much more realistic than the sappy TV series.

I’m not sure if there’s a GQ-type answer to this, but if there is, I think we’ve got it.
Moving the thread to Cafe Society…

There’s a whole episode about it. Hawkeye was arrested, and would have faced a court martial, but by the end of the episode, Hotlips (the only witness besides Trapper), got pissed at Frank and changed her story to claiming that Frank tripped.

There was a show on the History Channel called *History vs. Hollywood * that considered this. According to medical Korean War vets, someone with training (not just doctors–pretty much ANY kind of medical training) could get away with a lot more than most any soldier. AWOLs and the like were politely dismissed as long as they did their jobs. I’m not sure this extended to some of the wilder stuff from the show, but the whole “Pros from Dover” thing would have probably flown.

Hawkeye is also Chief Surgeon, so while Burns has he higher military rank, Hawkeye “outranks” him in the O.R. It complicates things a bit more than straight military rank.