Nov. 11, 2010
America’s fight against al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates is why we persevere in Afghanistan, where major development assistance from India has improved the lives of the Afghan people. We’re making progress in our mission to break the Taliban’s momentum and to train Afghan forces so they can take the lead for their security. And while I have made it clear that American forces will begin the transition to Afghan responsibility next summer, I’ve also made it clear that America’s commitment to the Afghan people will endure. The United States will not abandon the people of Afghanistan — or the region — to violent extremists who threaten us all. — Barack H. Obama (Nov. 8, 2010)
So, we’re there for the long haul. I suspected as much in 2008.
When I read these words, it all sounded vaguely familiar. I had heard this before. But where?
Then it came to me. It was a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1951. I had just watched 8 cartoons, a serial, and a black & white B-western. That took care of morning. Then came what I had been waiting for, after a traditional Saturday lunch of popcorn and a Butterfinger: The Day the Earth Stood Still. That was the big payoff for my 25-cent ticket (plus 50 cents for two-way bus fare).
The movie had it all. There was a flying saucer that had this long plank that melted into the side of the ship. Now you see it; now you don’t. There was a skinny guy from outer space with a British accent who could open locked doors with his bare hands and do really advanced math. And there was a robot.
I had never seen a robot like that robot. Nobody had.
It was tall: NBA center tall. It had no eyes. It had no mouth. But it had a kind of metal eyelid that concealed an elongated pulsating beam of light. When the lid opened, we soon learned, it was best to get out of the vicinity. Zap: a beam of light shot out of the little beam, and everything it hit melted. It turned tanks into piles of molten metal. This was a no-nonsense robot.
It had a name: Gort. The name said it all. “Don’t mess with the robot.”
It didn’t move fast. But with that ray blaster, it did not need to move fast. Smart people got out of its way. Early.
The key scene was when the robot went after the heroine. She had been told by the skinny guy exactly what to tell the robot: “Klaatu barrada nikto.” We never did find out this meant. But when a 7-foot cyclops robot is walking toward you, and its ray-blaster metal lid has opened, you had better say it. You can run, but you can’t hide.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” was an instant success. It has since become a classic film. The plot was a grabber. The governments of the world are run by men whose proclivity for war is unstoppable — by anything on earth, anyway. So, a visitor from another planet arrives to warn earthlings to find a way to make peace. The world beyond the atmosphere will not tolerate aggressive people with atomic weapons at their disposal.
In 1951, in the midst of the Cold War and the Korean War, that message made a lot of sense to kids. A year later, the first hydrogen bomb was exploded. The movie made even more sense.
In the film, the government of the United States would not let the visitor speak to representatives of other governments. So, he made other arrangements. He would speak with scientists.
Back in 1951, the American public did not know that most scientists by then were on the payroll of some government, or soon would be. The military was a major source of the funding. It still is.
Klaatu was a peacenik. But he was a peacenik with advanced technology. The most advanced technology was the robot.
Gort didn’t say much, not having a mouth. But it saw a lot for a machine with no eyes. It knew what was happening all around it. And as soon as Klaatu was dead, it took action. The action was violence. “There is no limit to what he could do,” Klaatu had warned the single- mom heroine.
The main message of the movie was clear: we cannot trust governments to bring us peace. It was a peacenik movie. It may be the most popular peacenik movie in American history.
But there was a problem with the plot. The script only hinted at it. In Klaatu’s speech to the scientists, he briefly mentions the nature of the peaceful world beyond the atmosphere. The people of the planets have created a race of robots to keep order.
In the original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” the robot talked. Its name is Gnut. As the robot prepares to leave earth, alone, Klaatu having died, the protagonist speaks to the robot. He tells the robot what to say to the masters beyond the atmosphere. The reply is the key to the story. “You misunderstand. I am the master.”
The movie has governments at loggerheads, ready to fight. The world beyond the atmosphere offers peace. But it is a special kind of peace: a peace without liberty. The movie makes it look as though Klaatu is in charge. He isn’t. He is the representative of the robots. The robots are in charge. They have the ray-blasters.
The movie really was about gun control and its corollary: a one-state world government with a monopoly over weapons.
There was no limit to what it could do.
HAVE ROBOTS, WILL TRAVEL
Today, we are told that the United States is the world’s only superpower, which has become a single word. What is a superpower obligated to do? Exercise super power.
The government of the United States ever since 1898 has taken on the role of the head robot in charge. It has gone looking for conflicts to solve. In principle, the government will not tolerate conflicts beyond its borders. It puts up with such nonsense only because, at any time, there are two dozen to three dozen wars in progress.
The media cover only two or three at a time. The American public goes into guilt overload if it is told about any more. After all, when you have a monopoly on the robots, you have a lot of responsibility. But there are more conflicts than robots. With only a dozen aircraft carriers, and with so many wars inland, we have to limit our reach. We can handle only a couple of conflicts at a time. The “care and feeding of robots” is expensive. The movie never went into this. It did not offer a detailed discussion of TANSTAAFR. Robots break down. They need upgrades. Technology marches on. In order to get their upgrades, they must be sure that taxpayers pony up the money. The taxpayers always do.
American taxpayers are content to send their robots hither and yon, bringing peace and freedom to quarreling tribes around the world. But there seem to be a lot of monitoring devices here at home. The robots use this information to keep things peaceful here at home.
There also seem to be more calls to pony up more money to keep the robots in good repair.
Robots brought peace to Iraq. Yes, there are daily explosions, but there are not Saddam’s explosions. “Peace” is defined so as to include “non-Saddam explosions.”
Robots are bringing peace to Afghanistan. President Obama made it clear to the Indian Parliament that India will get in on all the fun that has hitherto been confined to NATO and Pakistan.
But a problem has arisen for the robots. It arose in Vietnam a generation ago. Robots do not move fast enough. Also, it turns out that they are not immune to low-cost explosive devices.
Several million fellows in black pajamas forced out the robots in 1975. Now an unknown number of fellows with turbans are trying to do the same thing.
THE WARNING IN 1920
America’s greatest military visionary in the twentieth century was Fox Conner. He was an obscure brigadier general. In 1919, he encountered two colonels under his command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. They were taking apart a tank. He asked them why. They said this would be the weapon of the future. They did not need to tell this to Gen. Conner.
He took Eisenhower under his wing. In a three-year tour of duty in Panama, Conner taught Ike military history.
In 1920, he told Ike that there would be another war with Germany within 20 years. It would be settled by tank warfare in Northern France.
He told Ike something else. He set forth a law of American warfare. The law is this: Americans don’t like wars. It had three corollaries.
1. Don’t fight a war without allies.
2. Don’t let it go on very long.
3. Fight it with everything you’ve got.
Mark Perry describes all this in his book on Marshall and Eisenhower, Partners in Command.
We have been fighting in Afghanistan for almost a decade. Our allies are resigning from active duty, nation by nation. We are not fighting it with everything we’ve got.
The American people tolerate this because the war is not on the evening news. (The evening news is dying.) It is not front-page news. (Front pages are dying.) It is like Muzak: it plays, but no one pays much attention. The war is an afterthought for Americans.
It is not an afterthought for men in turbans in Afghanistan.
The symbol of this war is Osama bin Laden. He is still at large. He could run, and he could hide.
In September 2001, I began to write a series of articles on why America could not win in Afghanistan. This was before the war began. I pointed out that no invading army has ever held Afghanistan: not Alexander the Great, not the Mongols, and not the Soviet Union.
The fellows with the turbans are the real robots. They melt into the environment the way that the plank melted into the side of the saucer. Now you see them. Now you don’t.
They have no allies. They don’t need allies. They have no time limits. As defenders, their motto is: “As long as it takes.” They give it everything they’ve got.
REVISING KLAATU’S MESSAGE
In thinking about The Day the Earth Stood Still, I have come up with an update of its message.
1. If you don’t want to be ruled by robots, get out of the superpower business.2. Robots are expensive.
3. Robots do not move very fast.
4. Robots can be blown up, cheap.
5. There is big money in robot manufacture and maintenance.
6. There is a constituency for robot manufacture and maintenance.
7. If an ally with robots starts a war with its robots, pretty soon we will need to commit more robots.
This message does not resonate with the Tea Party. It does not resonate with Obama. It does not resonate with most blue collar Democrats. It does not resonate with people in the pews. If it did, we would not be in Afghanistan.
So, the war will go on. But there will come a day when the checks begin to bounce. The care and maintenance of robots will become more expensive than planned, just as it did in Germany in 1945, just as it did in Great Britain in 1947, and just as it did in the Soviet Union in 1989. Being a superpower is expensive. The voters will finally decide to stop paying.
In the final analysis, we are the masters — not the robots.