Stephen Colbert in Iraq

Stephen Colbert takes a lot of grief from my side of the aisle for his partisanship but his USO trip to Camp Victory in Iraq deserves nothing but praise. Here’s Campbell Robertson‘s NYT writeup from a couple days back:

War, as things go, is a fairly unironic exercise. Sure, there are endless incongruities to be found and parodied in the speeches about war from politicians, generals and heads of state. But war itself — the dirty, dangerous business of soldiers on the ground — seems to be about as earnest a trade as you can find.

Into this comes Mr. Colbert. He is taping four episodes of “The Colbert Report,” the Comedy Central show featuring his egotistical, fake-macho, nationalist blowhard alter ego, in Baghdad this week. It’s the first time in the history of the U.S.O. that a full-length nonnews show has been filmed, edited and broadcast from a combat zone.

The week of shows, taped a day or two before they are broadcast, is called “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando,” and it has a pretty fancy guest list (in addition to General Odierno, and the president, whose appearance was taped ahead) that includes Iraq’s deputy prime minister. But there is also something kind of meta about the whole thing. Mr. Colbert’s entire career is based on being gleefully insincere, a man who literally wraps himself in the flag to the screaming of majestic computer-generated eagles.

On the other hand he is unquestionably a real supporter of the troops, raising money through for school supplies for children of soldiers, through his WristStrong bracelets for the Yellow Ribbon Fund, which helps injured veterans, and by donating to the U.S.O. proceeds from iTunes downloads of this week’s episodes.

So it was easy to wonder if, given the setting, he would be a little less mock Bill O’Reilly and a bit more risk-free Rich Little.

Any doubt was dispersed the minute Mr. Colbert ran out onstage wearing a business suit made of Army camouflage and, shortly afterward, declared himself the only person man enough finally to declare victory in Iraq. (General Odierno, whom Mr. Colbert compared to Shrek, diplomatically talked that declaration down.)

Mr. Colbert himself does not seem to be fazed by this seemingly tricky balancing act. Neither he nor his character knows what it’s like to be a soldier, he said in an interview here Saturday night. Only, his character thinks he knows.  “Think of certain reporters who lose themselves in their own self-importance and accidentally give away troop movements and get kicked out of the country,” he said in a not particularly oblique reference to Geraldo Rivera.

“The best way I can show gratitude is to do my show the best I can and make them laugh,” he said. “If I tried to tailor my material to people in the Army, there’d be two things. A, that’d be patronizing. And B, I’d be wrong.”

I watch the show via DVR-delay and am thus always a night behind.  I watched the first episode last night, though, and think he got the tone exactly right.  Getting a military haircut from Gen. Odierno was fairly amusing and a big hit with the troops.

As Robertson noted, Colbert proclaimed that only he had the “balls” to declare that we’d won the war in Iraq.  That was, of course, a joke — false bravado by Colbert’s character.  But for a liberal comic known to be opposed to the war to go to the war zone and submit himself to the brutal scrutiny of young soldiers takes a set as well.  It’s on par with Johnny Cash going to San Quentin and proclaiming, “I think I understand a little bit about how you feel about some things. It’s none of my business about how you feel about some other things. And I don’t give a damn about how you feel about some other things” before singing a song describing what it’s like to be there.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    But for a liberal comic known to be opposed to the war to go to the war zone and submit himself to the brutal scrutiny of young soldiers takes a set [of cojones] as well.

    From what I saw, Colbert was pretty well received, as was the president, esp. when he made the joke about his ears.

  2. James Joyner says:

    From what I saw, Colbert was pretty well received, as was the president, esp. when he made the joke about his ears.

    That was my impression. Soldiers are pretty gracious to USO entertainers and commanders-in-chief. And for all I know Colbert’s show is popular with the troops, ideology or no. (I like it, even though I’m not on his side on most issues.) But it’s not the same thing as, say, putting on a show at Harvard.

  3. Matthew Stinson says:

    Even though he’s a liberal pinko, Colbert’s a good egg.

  4. Steve says:

    I like Colbert as he is, but even I was glad he changed his act for these shows. I don’t think it would have been appropriate for him to be his usual character. And it was still damn funny.

  5. Rob says:

    Most troops are the demographic age of Colbert’s audience, troops are not all uniform conservative automatons who have no sense of humor, BTW.

    Peace or wartime, big-time celebrity or lesser known act, I’ve always appreciated those that came to visit the troops in the fields or the war zones. A big HOO-AH to Stephen Colbert for doing something he surely does not need to do in order to make a lot of people laugh in a place where you need to laugh, because crying is unseemly.

  6. HiItsNino says:

    Its funny that you assume troops are all conservatives. I don’t understand where that stigma comes from. Additionally, I don’t think Colbert is a liberal,more of a librarian which is more closely aligned with what real conservatism is supposed to be. Yes, he mocks so-called conservative idiot O’Reilly, but that because of the ridiculousness that is O’Reilly.

  7. Mithras says:

    In fact, Colbert is a founding member of the Librarian Party.

  8. sam says:

    Re troops: I was just watching a YouTube of The Guess Who’s “No Time” and I found this comment:

    Soldiers fighting in Vietnam, this song playing everywhere, we were in our teens. Very innocent, not aware of the bad side of life. Seeing Woodstock festival and wondering what was happening.

    Vietnam. 1969. Not aware of the bad side of life. My God, all those young boys.

  9. Furhead says:

    In fact, Colbert is a founding member of the Librarian Party.

    LOL, they sound pretty smart, I’d like to join.