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An Explanation of the Klinger Defense

by on September 28, 2011

So, in Torts class last week, we arrived at the category of torts known as Negligence. Our first negligence case dealt with an explosion.  There are a lot of torts cases that deal with explosions;  it’s a fun class. I’ve already had a discussion with my classmates about whether Spider-Man or Chuck Norris would have to adhere to a different standard of care than the usual reasonable person. Someday, I think I will write a book on potential superhero liability. It’s a subject just waiting to be explored!

But, I digress. At one point the professor is talking about a certain rule that is supposed to deter people from faking a mental illness, and he makes reference to the Klinger defense. There is a short pause. Only a few people react. And I suddenly realize that not everyone in my class knows who Corporal Max Klinger was, or perhaps they know vaguely where he’s from but they don’t really get the whole context. This is a bit of a shock. I had assumed everyone was familiar with M*A*S*H. Wikipedia assured me that it’s one of the greatest TV shows ever, and we all know that Wikipedia is perfectly true and totally reliable (he said, ironically). Then later I was reading a TVTropes article on pop-cultural osmosis (great website, that) and they made a good point about our generation’s cultural habits. Back in the 50s, 60s, whenever, people had a lot more references in common, because there was so much less to watch. You had, what, three TV channels? If MASH was on Tuesday night, you’d have only two other choices, so odds were you were going to watch MASH, or Dallas, or I Love Lucy, or whatever.  So when Dallas had that thing about “who shot J.R.?”, everybody wanted to know who shot J.R.   (Who did shoot the poor chap, anyway? I never heard. Then again, I’m not entirely clear on who J.R. was, let alone why anyone wanted to shoot him.).

Now, we have a thousand TV channels, plus DVD and Blu-Ray players, not to mention the wonderful mystery that is the Internet. I don’t even have a TV at home, myself, because I get all my entertainment needs met through Netflix. Er, sorry, Qwikster. (Don’t even get me started on that one. Oy.)  What that means is that everyone isn’t watching the same thing anymore. If I’m having a conversation about personal hygiene, and I go, “I don’t wash my hands….because I’m EVIL!”, the only people in that group who’ll get it are people who’ve seen the fourth season episode of Justice League where the Flash switches minds with Lex Luthor (it’s hilarious). Conversely, if someone says something to me about Jack Sparrow, I’ll have no idea who he is or why he’s inquiring about the location of his rum. For all I know he’s a kindly yet absentminded rum merchant who has misplaced his barrels and is trying to find them so he can raise money to attend his daughter Genevieve’s wedding in Dublin. I have never seen those movies, and as I’m still trying to work through Star Trek: The Next Generation on The Site Formerly Known as Netflix, I probably won’t see them for a while.

All that to say that I can understand why some of my classmates wouldn’t have known about Klinger. Thusly, as a public service, I will attempt to explain. (Of course you could just look this up on Wikipedia, but would Wikipedia have the alternate theory of Jack Sparrow as a kindly yet absentminded rum merchant? I think not).

Basically, Corporal Max Klinger was one of the many iconic characters on the equally iconic T.V. show M*A*S*H, short for “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”. Set during the Korean War and aired during Vietnam, it followed the activities of a band of Army doctors as they struggled to keep their sanity amidst the constant horror of war, trying to save as many wounded soldiers as they could. The main character was Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alan Alda, who made constant wisecracks and rarely took anything seriously except when he was in the operating room. There were lots of other characters too, an abundance of wit, and some really hilarious moments, like when Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan first said that classic line “I’m not as think as you drunk I am.”  Then there’s this memorable exchange from a sixth season episode called “The Grim Reaper.”

Hawkeye: “What is that stuff?”

Major Charles Emerson Winchester (the Third): “Haven’t you ever seen truffles before?”

B.J. Hunnicutt: “Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen.”

Cue the laugh track.

Corporal Klinger was one of the wackier characters, though he did take it down a notch towards the end. Klinger was from Toledo, Ohio, and desperately wanted to go back. Unfortunately, he had gotten drafted into the Army, and was therefore stuck in that M*A*S*H unit in Korea. Ah, but Klinger had a plan. He knew that if he could convince the Army that he was crazy, he could get a Section 8 discharge and be sent home. So he very diligently set about acting crazy, ranging from the Invisible Camel scheme, to announcing that he had been proclaimed Zoltan: King of the Gypsies, to a brilliant reverse-psych ploy where he acted as though he loved the Army, so much so that he applied to West Point (which meant he would have to go back stateside to attend the academy. Sadly, his clever plan was derailed when he couldn’t pass the entrance exam.) His main shtick, though, was that he constantly dressed in women’s clothing (or, on a few memorable occasions, not even that). The point was that Klinger was never actually crazy; he was only pretending to be crazy so he could get back home to Toledo. Now you know! And in the memorable words of G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle.

  1. Ahh! I was raised on MASH. We even had a Trivial Pursuit game of it, at which my MOTHER. ALWAYS. WON. And yes, there was the need for capitals there, lol. I got back at her by later stealing her then vintage MASH tee with “Hotlips” scrawled across it in red lipstick-looking letters, and then the “Best Care Anywhere!” motto. Wore it to peices. 😦

    Favorite character was the visiting Col. who was a spy of the CIA. No, that’s what he told the NSA. But he was really from the FBI. Or at least, that’s what he told the MP’s. So they wouldn’t get suspicious. Because they might be commies, and you got to throw them damn commies off your tracks. What was his name… *wracking brains*…can’t remember. Now he, he was the crazy one.

    But I digress. What was the Klinger defense?

    That was actually the whole point of this comment, but as usual I got sidetracked, lol.

    • Ah, Colonel Flagg. or as he once signed himself, “your loving son, Queen Victoria”. 😛
      Very, very briefly, there’s a principle in negligence that people generally have a duty to other people, which is that they should act as a reasonable person would act, under the circumstances. the whole debate then is what the circumstances are, and who counts as a reasonable person. if you have a physical disability, like if you’re missing a head, then the rule changes: you only have to act as a reasonable headless person would act. on the other hand, the rule doesn’t change if you have a mental disability. even if you are mentally impaired, you still have to act as a reasonable person would act. there’s a lot of policy arguments for this (and a lot against it), but one is that it deters people from pretending that they’re mentally impaired so they don’t have to meet the higher rule. that’s where the Klinger defense comes in. and now you know the rest of the story. 🙂

  2. What an awesome post. M.A.S.H rules!

  3. Alan Plessinger permalink

    How does wearing a dress make a man crazy? Isn’t that very insulting to women? Dr. Friedman wanted him to sign something that said he was a transvestite and a homosexual. You can’t get out of the army for being a transvestite, but you can for being a homosexual. A psychologist should know that the two terms are not synonymous. I think he was just blurring the categories as a favor to Klinger, and making it clear that, OK, you want out, fine, but this is what it’s going to take.

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