As Stephen Colbert is Buried, He Buries the Iraq War

Forged in the horror and idiocy of America's longest conflict, the Colbert character tries to take it with him when he goes.

Iraqi supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr wave the national flag as they attend a rally to express their opposition to US troop presence in Iraq on September 20, 2014, in Baghdad.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

On the surface, it might have seemed strange that the final guest on “The Colbert Report”—not counting Thursday's guest, the Grim Reaper—was less a “guest” than a “physical manifestation of mortality and loss.” No offense to Phil Klay, an Iraq war vet who won the National Book Award for “Redeployment,” a book of short stories about the war, but: this is your big sendoff? Where’s Billy Crystal dancing Colbert off into the sunset? Or Bette Midler singing to him? Or even Will Ferrell and Beck playing “Freebird?”  And Colbert picked a mild-mannered, literary sort who has written for Granta as his last guest?

But in Colbert's universe, it made a lot of sense. Of all the storylines that needed to be wrapped up—particularly on a night where he had a yard sale outside his 54th street office—there probably wasn’t much he needed to wrap up more than Iraq. The whole ascendance of the Colbert character, and the show, came from Iraq. The show began as the war was beginning to truly collapse into madness, and Colbert began using his persona as a way to savage the adminstration’s steadfast insistence that everything was going as everything around us burned.

Never mind just the famous correspondent’s dinner speech. The character is a creation of the media world we live in, but he was born out of the fire of the Iraq war: In many ways, he was as close to a protest proxy as a stunned populace could muster at the time. The rage and sorrow we felt at the chaos of what was happening in Iraq was almost too much to articulate: Colbert’s straight-faced satire was our totem, a way to vivisect the tortured logic that brought us there in the first place from within. Ever since Iraq faded from the national conversation, the real Colbert slowly emerged on “The Colbert Report,” and why not? The height of the Colbert’s character’s prominence, and importance, was during the Iraq war; after that, he could never be quite as powerful.

The war is also a flashpoint for the real Colbert: His trip there for a week of shows in 2009 is one of the highlights of the program, and obviously a pivot event in Colbert’s professional life. (He has been as supportive of soldier’s causes as anyone in entertainment.) So it made a ton of sense he’d use Klay’s appearance to close that chapter in the show’s run. When the average viewer thinks of “The Colbert Report,” Iraq will always be near the top of their mind.

The soft-spoken Klay made for a useful contrast with the Colbert character, who doesn’t understand how Klay could have come up with 12 different stories about the war, instead arguing for just three: Chapter One, We Kicked Ass; Chapter Two, We Took Names; Chapter Three, Mission Accomplished. After Klay, in his understated way (the interview accomplishes the primary goal of an appearance like this, which was to make me desperately want to read the book), explained how the war affected the lives of everyone involved in it in different and devastating ways, Colbert cut to the core of how we deal with our wars and those who fight them.

“Oh, I didn’t go [to Iraq],” the Colbert character said. “I was busy being here, using the troops as a cudgel against people I disagree with politically.”

Shortly after that, though, the real Colbert emerged, talking with Klay about his own visit to Iraq, about the oppressive heat, about how soldiers often ate nothing but bacon as a sort of silent (and delicious) protest. And the conversation focused once again on Colbert’s specialty: The people fighting, and what their lives were like, and how it will follow them forever, rather than the political movements moving them to and fro. “The Colbert Report” will always be linked to Iraq, and in wrapping up his nine years of grabbling with it, the real Stephen Colbert and his writers made sure we remember that we all always will be.

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