Open Mic

An Open Letter to Stephen Colbert

Danny Schechter Posted June 16, 2009 at 3:24 PM

Tags: Stephen Colbert

Dear Stephen Strong:

Welcome home, soldier. Your week in Iraq is all over, but the war, of course, isn’t. At least your presence there reminded us that Americans troops are still there. I am sure your presence gave them something fun to do, but hey, Nation, shouldn’t we think a little deeper about this fused exercise in military promotion and self-promotion?

Your shtick as the conservative counterpart, as an O’Reilly wanna-be, to Jon Stewart aside, you were not the only one flattered and enabled by the nominally apolitical USO to entertain the troops. These exercises to promote troop morale are part of “selling” as well as “telling.”

Al Franken went on such a tour when Bush was in command, although I noticed that W appears along with other former POTUS’ to endorse your cheerleading for our “service members.”

What are they really serving?

How will history regard this war born out of so much lying and responsible for so much killing?

Needless to say, these issues were not raised in four days of entertaining programs that gave presidents, candidates, military commanders, an Iraqi politician, movie star Tom Hanks and only two grunts, each chosen — carefully to represent a category — Arabs and women — face time in the coolest recruitment special targeted at war age teens.

The Pentagon was delighted and this effort was consistent with the “AAU” mantra that governs news coverage (AAU stands for all about us. ) The Iraqi people and their suffering were no where to be seen on The Colbert Report, just as they are usually invisible on the news.

You joked, “Iraq is so nice, we invaded it twice.” Good line — but it seemed to be said with approval. There were, of course, no anti-war sentiments allowed, no criticism of the president who got into your hair cutting stunt, no INFORMATION, really, other than we are there to “help” and it’s too early to proclaim victory.

While your show went out with its subtext of strengthened security, many Iraqi lives were being lost in new rounds of insurgent attacks by people who see the US as there to stay and only going through the motions of withdrawal. At week’s end, you thanked and genuflected to the bravery and beauty etc., etc. of the troops who sang us the ARMY SONG.

You may not know, Stephen Strong, that this song was originally written by field artillery First Lieutenant [later Brigadier General] Edmund L. Gruber, while stationed in the Philippines in 1908 as the “Caisson Song.” Six million Filipino’s died in that Vietnam before Vietnam, as brutal an intervention as any in our history. And today, totally forgotten!

Verse: Valley Forge, Custer’s ranks, [THE WARS AGAINST THE INDIANS!] San Juan Hill and Patton’s tanks And the Army went rolling along Minute men, from the start, Always fighting from the heart, And the Army keeps rolling along. (refrain)

Verse: Men in rags, men who froze, Still that Army met its foes, And the Army went rolling along. Faith in God, then we’re right, And we’ll fight with all our might, As the Army keeps rolling along. (refrain)

“Faith in God, then we’re right”… no doubt what the “enemy” sings too. “Allah Akbar” is how they put it.

This official anthem, led by that gung-ho Sgt. Major reminded me of all the anti-war songs that were never sung on a USO show, but also buoyed GIs in anti-war coffee shops/activism, and even today, in the ongoing GI resistance to war movement that never made it on your show or in the news. Where were the Iraq Veterans Against the War? Or for that matter, all the in the military critics of stop-loss orders, poor equipment, mercenary contractors, military “justice,” sick Veteran’s hospitals, unpunished war crimes, etc. etc.

As I laughed at your chutzpah and clever repartee, I was also weeping about the seeming co-opting of one of the few beachheads on TV for real satire and social criticism.

 Stand up comedy can be cool, but standing up for something that does not 

conform with ‘thank you for your service’ clichés is even cooler. Did we 
really need to hear how superior these top 3% “fighting men and woman” 
are to the rest of us, as they continue the occupation of a sovereign 
country? Have you forgotten that Saddam was originally our guy? Our 
complicity helped build that palace.

Mission accomplished or aborted?

Back in 1985, I was connected to a movement of artists opposing 
celebrities participating in injustice overseas. In that case, the issue 
was the cultural boycott of South Africa adopted by the UN’s 
anti-apartheid committee. Many big names in music played in South Africa 
and a resort called, “Sun City,” nominally based in an independent 
“homeland” that was, in fact, created and controlled by the apartheid 
regime. Those struggling for freedom then felt foreign artists were 
giving aid and comfort to their enemies. They wanted to isolate the 
regime, not cheer it on.

In response, 54 artists of conscience, including Little Steven, Peter 
Gabriel, Bono, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis, — 54 in 
all— stood up against their own industry, and even some of their 
friends/colleagues, with a song that called on artists not to play Sun 
City; not to put an entertaining face on Apartheid, to boycott!

The song became a big hit and is still respected today as an example of 
artists standing up for justice and freedom. Real freedom, as in 
self-determination, not propagandistic “Operation Enduring Freedom,” 
satirized accurately as “Operation Iraqi Liberation [O.I.L.].”

Yes, Stephen, you made some funny jokes, and made fun of basic training 
and discrimination against gays in the military. But that was easy to 
do. It stirred no controversy, challenged no policy, made no politician 
uncomfortable as your gutsy speech at the White House Correspondents 
Dinner did years back.

As the NY Times pointed out, the troops there have every entertainment 
device we do. Your shows, says the Gray Lady, were “designed to hold 
easily distracted audiences at home.”

And, so they did.

Admit that they also promoted an unpopular war by 
humanizing/depoliticizing the warriors who, at least according to many 
opinion surveys, don’t know the war on Iraq is not only about “payback” 
for 9/11. The last time I read surveys of Iraqis, they don’t want more 
American help from the back of a Hummer or the bottom of a B52. They 
want us to get gone. No one likes foreign occupation.

And yes, you’re proclaiming, “Victory,” may be a way to make that happen 
as was suggested by Senator Aiken in the Vietnam daze:

“The best policy is to declare victory and go home.” — George Aiken 
(1892-1984), a Republican politician from Vermont, with respect to the 
Vietnam War.

In that case, we learned the hard way that most politicians and Generals 
live in fear of being accused of “Losing Vietnam” or Iraq or name your 
country as they probably do at the misnamed Camp Victory.) During the 
Vietnam War, Stephen, there were gutsy counter-USO actions including the 
“FTA” (Fuck the Army) tour in which Jane Fonda and other stars and 
entertainers appeared. See for more! Your Golf Club 
aside, I would like to think you would have been part of that effort at 
the time, not on Bob Hope’s patriotic crusade. Nation, you can be 
pro-soldier and anti-war at the same time as the Iraq Veterans Against 
the War prove every day.

Your most trenchant comment: “I thought the whole Iraq thing was over. I 
haven’t seen any news stories on it in months.” (Yeah, and unfortunately 
if you did, what would you learn?) See my books Embedded: Weapons of 
Mass Deception (2003) and When News Lies: Media Complicity And The Iraq 
War (2006), or my film WMD. I was not the only one, even the only former 
network TV producer, pointing out how flawed the coverage on TV has 
been. We have gone from around the clock miscoverage to virtually no 

Maybe we need more USO shows here at home for misinformed Americans. How 
about that, “Nation?”

Don’t mean to be so PC or morally superior, BUT these questions must be 

Your turn.