Klaatu Obama Nikto
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
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
"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
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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