An Open Letter to Stephen Colbert

Jun 16, 2009

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 www.sirnosir.com 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.


  1. Every episode of the Colbert Report to date HAS been a USO show for misinformed Americans! Stephen did the troops and us a great service with these shows, and talked much more about getting them home safe then even a glimmer of recruiting. This weekend I passed a convoy of soldiers in tanks rolling through Yucca Valley, CA and because of Stephen I felt more affinity for them then I had at any time in the course of this sad, indulgent, wrong-headed war. The troops near silent reactions to G. W. Bush and Palin’s taped moments spoke volumes, as did their laughter at many of Stephen’s potent jokes. I can not imagine ANY performer (much less any bloviating pundit) who could have done this with as much grace, wit, empathy and sincerity as Colbert.

  2. Oh, come ON.
    Colbert was there under the auspices of the USO, to entertain the troops. Of course he didn’t get into the big issues of the war and why the U.S. is still there. In case you hadn’t noticed, he deals with the more pointed issues rather a lot on his show already. And give him a chance; he might deal with them more now that he’s back.
    As for the idea that his week there will have upped recruitment numbers – that’s laughable. If more college-educated kids are joining the military, it’s because of the economy cratering, not because a guy who gets, max, about 1.5 million viewers per night spent a week in Iraq.
    And by the way, yes, the lyrics to that Army song are disturbing. But so’s your country’s national anthem. “Bombs bursting in air” anyone? What next, no more Star Spangled Banner at baseball games?

  3. Are you forgetting that Jane Fonda’s visit did more harm than good to our fighting men?

  4. According to who?
    Right Wing Politicians?
    Conservative Presidential Candidates?
    Bloviating Right-Wing Talk Show idiots?
    According to who?

  5. Danny was referring to the 1971 FTA (“Free the Army”) Tour of Asian US military bases. A wonderful documentary made of the tour was just re-released last year on DVD. Details here…
    I’ve seen it and own a DVD copy.
    In the film, Fonda and Sutherland and troupe are very entertaining AND at the same time very upfront and direct with their audiences about their opposition to the US War on Vietnam and their reasons for their opposition.
    And what really blows me away is how upfront and open their military audiences (yes, they played to audiences packed with soldiers, sailors, and marines) are about their own opposition to the war they were involved in and DID’T WANT to be part of. There are off-stage interviews with anti-war US soldiers that are eye-opening.
    See the film. Inform yourselves. THAT’S what actual opposition to an imperial war looks and sounds like.
    Compared to “FTA”, Colbert’s Iraq shows really were just Bob “I love the US War on Vietnam” Hope recycled and updated for a cool cable TV generation. I found that “edgy” Bob Hope golf club slung over Colbert’s shoulder and Colbert’s camoflage dress suit pretty sickening– not funny. I remember Bob Hope’s cheerleading war boosterism during the US War on Vietnam. Treating all that as just a “campy” cultural reference that even the Pentagon approves of is just not what opposition to a war looks or sounds like. Just the opposite.

  6. tl;dr gasbag.

  7. This viewer, not a teenager, mind you, heartily disagrees. Stephen Colbert has had the head of IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) on his show. Both men were trying to make sure that troops that were stop-lossed got paid, among other things.
    Camp Victory’s stress unit was in the news in May, if you’ll remember, although it hadn’t been in the news, like most things to do with our soldiers, for ages, as Colbert pointed out. Camp Victory needed a little attention.
    Some of today’s soldiers may have access to computers with DVD players, etc., but if there’s no one here at home to send them DVDs or games to play, what good is it?
    This doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t break for the Iraqis, or that I didn’t vote for Obama, or that I’m misinformed.

  8. “How will history regard this war born out of so much lying and
    responsible for so much killing?”
    Please explain. Who lied, exactly? Certainly not W. He may not have been articulate, but he didn’t lie. Nor did your other sworn enemy, Dick Cheney. If either did, please demonstrate.
    By the way: If you voted for Obama, either you were duped or you’re a Socialist. There is no middle ground. I’m willing to forgive the former; if it’s the latter, I’m afraid you’ll have to go.

  9. Did Bush or Cheney lie about Iraq? Worse. They subverted and corrupted the US Government in order to manufacture the war of aggression they had wanted long before 9/11/2001. Read Seymour M. Hersh “The Stovepipe” (The New Yorker 10/27/2003)

    Since midsummer, the Senate Intelligence Committee has been attempting to solve the biggest mystery of the Iraq war: the disparity between the Bush Administration’s prewar assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and what has actually been discovered.
    Part of the answer lies in decisions made early in the Bush Administration, before the events of September 11, 2001. In interviews with present and former intelligence officials, I was told that some senior Administration people, soon after coming to power, had bypassed the government’s customary procedures for vetting intelligence.
    A retired C.I.A. officer described for me some of the questions that would normally arise in vetting: “Does dramatic information turned up by an overseas spy square with his access, or does it exceed his plausible reach? How does the agent behave? Is he on time for meetings?” The vetting process is especially important when one is dealing with foreign-agent reports—sensitive intelligence that can trigger profound policy decisions. In theory, no request for action should be taken directly to higher authorities—a process known as “stovepiping”—without the information on which it is based having been subjected to rigorous scrutiny.
    The point is not that the President and his senior aides were consciously lying. What was taking place was much more systematic—and potentially just as troublesome. Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council expert on Iraq, whose book “The Threatening Storm” generally supported the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, told me that what the Bush people did was “dismantle the existing filtering process that for fifty years had been preventing the policymakers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership. Their position is that the professional bureaucracy is deliberately and maliciously keeping information from them.
    “They always had information to back up their public claims, but it was often very bad information,” Pollack continued. “They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn’t have the time or the energy to go after the bad information.”
    The Administration eventually got its way, a former C.I.A. official said. “The analysts at the C.I.A. were beaten down defending their assessments. And they blame George Tenet”—the C.I.A. director—“for not protecting them. I’ve never seen a government like this.”

  10. It’s important to remember exactly WHY the Star Spangled Banner is patriotic. The poet was stuck in the middle of a battle. He was terrified and didn’t think he or the fort would last the night. Yet as the dawn broke he looked up and saw the flag waving in the breeze undamaged. The image moved him to write. The lyrics aren’t disturbing. They are beautiful and a reminder that no matter how bad things get we can withstand and thrive.

  11. (Posting anything really thoughtful in the comments section of a general interest website is a little like mailing a letter by leaving it in a street gutter. Why do I bother doing it, I sometimes wonder? Because I want to, I suppose. Cheers!)

  12. Get real and grow up. You’re both phonies

    Steve, you are one funny dude. “FTA” stands for “Free The Army,” as much as “SNAFU” stands for “situation normal all FOULED up.” As anyone who has ever been in the army knows, when things are “F’ed Up,” the F is neither Free nor Foul.
    But thanks for the laugh.

    Steve, you are one funny dude. “FTA” stands for “Free The Army,” as much as “SNAFU” stands for “situation normal all FOULED up.” As anyone who has ever been in the army knows, when things are “F’ed Up,” the F is neither Free nor Foul.
    But thanks for the laugh.

  15. You’re welcome to the laugh.
    Watch the film and you’ll learn that the “F” in FTA meant both the expletive and the liberatory and was used by anti-war GIs in both senses.
    See the film and you’ll see what I mean.

  16. “FTA” orginally stood for the initials of the US Army 1960s recruiting slogan “Fun, Travel, and Adventure” (FTA). US GIs (GI = WW2 slang for a soldier as “government issue”) then “repurposed” the FTA aconym into “F*** the Army”. Then the US anti-war movement picked up what US GIs were already saying among themselves.
    It’s all covered in the film…

  17. Hey there, great post! Have you ever thought of including more videos to your blogs to keep the readers more amused? I mean I just read through your entire articles and yes it had been quite informative but simply because I’m really a visual learner,I think it well be more helpful. well let me know how it turns out! I really like what you guys are always up to. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the great works guys I’ve bookmarked your site and I most certainly will visit your blog regularly for some latest post. : ) Cheers

  18. Better to understand a little than to misunderstand a lot.

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