These days, as politicians tend to furiously distance themselves from the Iraq war, it's hard to remember back to 2003, when everyone wanted a piece of it. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz weren't the only ones, after all, itching to give Iraq an ideological makeover. Some celebs seemed disappointed they had missed the chance to lead the invasion themselves, and, after Saddam Hussein's statue fell, more than 50 of them poured over the border with the USO. Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped the troops' adrenaline with a screening of Terminator 3. Conan O'Brien staged a push-up competition with a Marine in Kuwait. Toby Keith captured the mood of the nation with his country anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue": You'll be sorry that you messed with the U S of A/'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way. And then there was Bruce Willis, who swung by to offer a $1 million prize to the lucky kid who caught the deposed dictator. In exchange, Willis requested only a quick Hollywood-style face-to-face. "If you catch him, just give me four seconds with Saddam Hussein, " Willis explained.
Four years later, Willis has still not doled out his reward (his rep clarified to People that it had been intended for a person "outside the realm of the Armed Forces"), and no one in Hollywood wants to take a meeting in Baghdad. When I checked with the USO in February, the list of entertainers who had gone to Iraq since the New Year contained only a single name: David Alan Grier. Grier is most famously an alum of the early '90s sketch comedy show "In Living Color," though he has also appeared in several movies, including Jumanji and Baadasssss! His is a more muted kind of patriotism. "At the end of the day, I feel sorry for all these soldiers," he tells me over the phone after returning from the three-day trip. "But you can't tell them Bush is wrong, this war is wrong, because they're being shot at."
There are many ways to gauge the failure of the U.S. experiment in Iraq. But one way is through the shrinking roster of the USO tours. In 2004, as the battle for Falluja heated up, about 30 celebs, including James Gandolfini from "The Sopranos" and the rapper 50 Cent, made the trip--a bit less wattage than Bob Hope and John Wayne brought to Vietnam in their day, but still pretty A- list. In 2005, as sectarian violence intensified, the number of visiting stars dropped to 20. (And, although Willis offered another reward that year--this time for Osama bin Laden--he did so from the safety of Los Angeles.) By 2006, it was clear that America's entertainers had decided this wasn't such a kick- ass war after all: About 15 celebs showed up--none of them the type who would be permitted to cross the rope line of the Vanity Fair Oscar party. Our men and women in uniform were left to make do with the likes of action hero Chuck Norris and his "Walker, Texas Ranger" co-star Marshall Teague.
But, just as the troops soldiered on with subpar body armor, so, too, have they soldiered on with subpar entertainment. Patrick Campbell, who served near Baghdad's airport in 2005, remembers his excitement over hearing that a USO tour including Dean Cain, the actor who played Superman in the mid-'90s series "Lois & Clark," was coming by his base. But, thanks to communication snafus, Campbell was forced to chase Cain and the rest of the C-list talent through the desert. "They told us he was at this camp, so we walked over there, and then they said he's at another camp," Campbell recalls. "So we walked over there, and they say, 'No, no, he's back where you were.' All in all, we walked about five miles, and they never showed up. I got stood up by Dean Cain."
The USO blames transportation difficulties for the declining number of tours. Henry Rollins, the former lead singer of the '80s punk band Black Flag, who visited Iraq on a 2004 USO tour, can testify to the logistical difficulties. "To basically go across the street in the Green Zone, we get the multi-Humvee caravan," he explains. "It took like a half an hour to get it going for a seven- minute ride."
According to Donna St. John, vice president of communications for the USO, sometimes the military even tells the organization that it won't accept tours. Iraq has undoubtedly become more dangerous: Newly declared Senate candidate and comedian Al Franken, who has been on four USO tours to Iraq, says on his most recent visits he noticed a depressing increase in fortified outhouses. But, even if A-listers are now more likely to survive a trip to the john, they may still not want to visit such an unpredictable war zone. Stevie Benton played for the troops with his band, Drowning Pool, on the fifth anniversary of September 11. "We were visiting troops in the hospital," he recalls, "and all of a sudden alarms start going off. Somebody was firing mortars. We ended up signing names inside a bomb shelter."
There are other, less expected, dangers for performers, too. The World Wrestling Entertainment women are part of a small but stalwart bunch of red- state talent--including Keith, professional sexy person Leeann Tweeden, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders--who have continued to visit since the initial invasion, both through the USO and its sometimespartner Armed Forces Entertainment. But, on their last tour, Torrie Wilson--a wrestler who performs moves like the "swinging neckbreaker" in bra-and-panties matches--nearly lost her most valuable assets after taking target practice with the troops. "I'm forgetting the name of the [gun], but you know the ones that just shoot like crazy?" she tells me. "I shot one of those, and you know, the bullets kept flying up, and I had a low cut shirt on, and they were going down in my shirt and burning my chest."
Singed bosoms aside, things could be looking up for the USO. Although they may not score 50 entertainers in six months, like they did in 2003, they have upped the number of celebrity acts to three. When I checked back in March, they had added the Jamie Kennedy hip-hop comedy tour and some football players to David Alan Grier on their list. But Bruce Willis may be less willing to make the sacrifice, especially since Saddam is no longer taking meetings.