Open Letter To Stephen Colbert On His Shows From Iraq

Stephen Colbert was recently on a USO tour of Iraq to entertain the illegal occupiers of the country.  The show however went far beyond entertainment, and verged on pro-war propaganda.  Among other things it included interviews with Ray Odierno, the fellow whose units according to Thomas Ricks were responsible  for much of the abuses in the initial phase of the war, and with the Kurdish boot-licker they have installed as Iraq’s deputy prime minister, a truly execrable creature. Surprisingly, no one has spoken out against this supposed enlightened ‘liberal’ whitewashing Bush’s genocidal war. That is, until now. Here is Danny Schechter, the News Dissector’s open letter to Colbert.

Operation Iraqi Stephen
Operation Iraqi Stephen

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 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’s 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?

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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 is all about US. )The Iraqi people and their suffering were no where to be seen on the 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! DS) 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.
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.

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

These songs reminded me of all the anti-war songs that were never sung on USO show but that also buoyed GIs in ant-war coffee shops, and even today, in the GI resistance to war movement that never made it on your show or in the news> Where were the Iraqi Veterans Against the War? Or for that matter, all the critics of stop-loss orders, poor equipment, mercenary contractors, military “justice,” sick Veterans 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 in a “homeland” controlled by the apartheid regime. Those struggling for freedom then felt those 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, Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis 54 — in all— stood up against their own industry, and even some of their friends, with a song that called on artists not to play Sun City; not to put an entertaining face on Apartheid.

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, propagandistic “Operation Enduring Freedom,” formerly “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 the warriors who, at least according to 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, your proclaiming, “Victory,” may be a way to make that happen as was suggested by Senator Aitken in the Vietnam daze. In that case, we learned the hard way that most politicians live in fear of being accused of “Losing Vietnam” or Iraq or name your country as they probably will 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, not Bob Hope’s patriotic crusade.

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 if you did, what would you learn?)

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 asked.

Your turn.

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Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

12 thoughts on “Open Letter To Stephen Colbert On His Shows From Iraq”

  1. I was disgusted and insulted by the whole ordeal. I watched from time to time his show but the ones from Iraq were very patronizing. Why is he and the US soldiers in Saddam’s old palaces, don’t they belong to the people of Iraq now? The people have to live in cr*p outside with no electricity or water and they stay in a palace? And what is up with declaring victory? The nonsense about his hair and don’t get me started on the Iraqi guest.

    They have no sense of respect to the Iraqis or anyone, as if they own the place.

  2. It’s so interesting that many hardline conservatives feel the exact opposite about Stephen’s Iraq shows. They feel he disrespected the troops and his support is insincere. I find it fascinating that both harder-core conservatives and liberals are confused by this. It all reminds me of the LA times interview when Stephen was “thrilled” by finding out that conservatives, in a OSU, actually thought that he was one of them. He said, “From the very beginning, I wanted to jump back and forth over the line of meaning what I say, and the truth of the matter is I’m not on anyone’s side, I’m on my side.” So remember, he’s nobody’s dancing bear not even yours.

    1. Many hardline conservatives feel the exact opposite about a whole lot of things. That is the nature of reactionary politics. Fortunately we don’t have to set our course by where they or anyone else stands. Some basic principles suffice. It is an illegal and immoral occupation. And to ‘support our troops’, even if they are operating against constituion and international law, is merely to support the breach of both.

      Of course he’s a dancing bear, for America, right or wrong. Great spectrum of opinion amongst his guests eh? Everyone appeared to be bringing freedom, and everyone appeared to be thanking the soldiers for their ‘great service’. I’d have found your squatting-in-the-middle wishy-washyness more convincing if you could show me an instance where the word Abu Ghraib came up. Plenty of jokes about Saddam hussein, his spider hole and his palaces though. Brave!

      1. The folks at “the Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” have to be careful about what they say. Not saying I support that, I’m just saying that’s what they do. Why do you think Jon Stewart after apologized when he called the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a war crime? Or why didn’t Stewart called John McCain out on his show when McCain said “Israel doesn’t torture?”

        Now that’s just Stewart. Colbert on the other hand does this silly tour of duty and he won’t go into the subjects that matter.

        I give credit to Stewart for questioning Israel’s role in December and January, as well as Colbert who eviscerated the White House press in 2006. But that’s it.

      2. Sorry, he’s still not your dancing bear. You’re just going to have to accept that he didn’t do the show you wanted him to do. Just because he dissed Bush in 2006 doesn’t mean he agreed with yours or anybody else’s world view or political agenda. Wanting open disclosure (which the Bush Administration failed miserably to provide) is not the same as taking a specific political position. You thought he was totally on your side. You were wrong.

        1. We are talking of a principle here, not of whether it aligns with one person or another’s opinion. If you can’t tell principle from opinion, then you are an arse, unworthy of a reply.

          1. ** If you can’t tell principle from opinion, then you are an arse, unworthy of a reply. **

            : )

            1. Since when are you the arbiter of principles? Somebody disagrees with you and say they don’t have principles. And by the way, you did respond to my post. Am I worthy now?

  3. I looked fwd to reading this, so much to unpack about the US presence in Iraq extending to our pop culture, not only our military and policy presence. Instead, I’m shocked to see Schecter weilding the same narrowness of logic belabored by commentators on the right. Schecter screams for a single frame of reference, one that would disallow comedy (in this a USO show) that wasn’t sufficiently “principled”? Screw that. Count me out of whatever “left” you’ve got in mind right now.

    There are multiple modes of reference and believe it or not, Schecter is no uber anthropologist who can perceive them all. Schecter stoops so far as to blame Colbert for the comments of one of his guests. Are you kidding? And he wanted the soldiers present to be schooled, made to squirm, not distracted and treated as the twenty year olds they are (for Schecter, solely a target demographic), or the culture of their lives there in Iraq to be represented as the disciplined, formalized, institution of lethal force that it is.

    I can see where a conservative would see Schecter as wanting to deny airtime to members of the military He sems to want the only speech about the occupation to be his speech. Uuh… earth to boring guy.

    Schecter’s condescension in lecturing a master jester like Colbert about political rhetoric (particularly ironic as he’s clearly writing the letter in expectation of a little airtime on Comedy Central) reminds me of what Colbert’s show really accomplished; namely a rare moment of class conflict represented in a medium that is carefully crafted to avoid, or ever acknowledge, class at all. Colbert’s impressive wit was out of its comfort zone, *he* squirmed, not the soldiers, removed as he was from his hooting yuppie audiences.

    Yeah, I’d love to see Schecter squeak his truths out of his shrinking neck as he told the assembled troops that their country sucks back to 1906. Not any earlier Schecter, the American genocide is not principled enough or too principled? Take your time, comedic timing can hold for your disquisition. In the process you’ll make blunders similar to Colberts asking a soldier how she “won” her medal because it seems an awful lot like you and he operate within the same class of American culture.

    And the thing is, these soldiers likely know just a little something about American atrocities. May even have seen some first hand, not the same as greatest hits froma textbook but… it makes no sense to demean either world of knowledge, the journalist schecter, the comedian colbert or the perspective of any of the soldiers there present. Schecter comes across as politbureau wannabe, deeming what humor is appropriately weighty. Terrifying crap, not to mention a cliche criticism of the left. His notions of standing down the military betray a strident, juvenille rage. I dunno, the kind you’d expect of a tyrant.

    1. It takes a special kind of genius to use so many words and say absolutely nothing. Imagine a scenario where a saxophonist visits a rapist to entertain him while he violates his hostage. You can then imagine decker and his ilk denouncing anyone who finds this quesitonable since, after all, the rapist is only someone’s son, brother or father, who is merely following the orders of his libido.

      1. I am no doubt a close-minded idiot who doesn’t have the patience to read an opposing viewpoint that makes sense. And your analogy is laughable. You just proved the point of the previous post. Changes are, the picture you and Schecter are painting is not the full picture. There’s more than one narrative to what’s going on in Iraq, but you only want to hear the one that fits your worldview. By the way, I also oppose the Iraq War, but I look at the complexities. Something you seem to lack. You are just as rigid as the idiots who started this war in the first place.

        1. There’s more than one narrative to a rape. There is always the rapist’s. That’s why they have the law, to judge the relative merit of the competing narratives against. And being rigid in defense of law is mark of principle, something you evidently don’t know much about.

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