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The Implausibility of Watchmen

I recently read Watchmen, and while it was quite enjoyable, I found the ending implausible. (I'm not much of a movie person, so I doubt I'll see the film, though from what my wife says, I think much of my concerns would apply to the movie's somewhat different ending as well.)

[Spoilers follow]

I know, I know -- a graphic novel that has a radioactive superman, a psychic alien monster, and a three-term President Nixon, and I'm complaining that it's implausible? But Watchmen's appeal is supposed to be its gritty social realism. And what I find implausible about the ending was on a sociological level.

At the end of the novel, we learn that Adrian Veidt -- the alleged smartest man in the world -- has carried out an elaborate plot to bring about world peace. The centerpiece of this plan is teleporting a psychic "alien" into New York City. The threat posed by this creature, Veidt says, will unite the world against it, thus eliminating the Cold War arms race and threat of nuclear annihilation. All of the characters appear to believe this will work -- even Rorschach, who feels bound to expose the plot despite its success. And there's not much left of the book's intended moral dilemma if the plan doesn't work.

It's true that there's a "unite in the face of a common enemy" effect. So it's believable that the appearance of the alien would have caused the Soviet Union to suspend its invasions of central and south Asia. That alone isn't much credit to Veidt, since he caused those invasions in the first place by provoking Dr. Manhattan -- source of the US's deterrent power -- to leave for Mars.

The problem is that the "unite in the face of a common enemy" effect doesn't last much longer than the very immediate threat posed by the common enemy. Once the imminent danger is gone, the parties who had united begin to squabble over their response to the threat, and recall their past grievances with each other. Take, for example, what happened in the US after the September 11 attacks (obviously the writers of Watchmen wouldn't have known about this particular example in the mid-1980s). Immediately after the attacks, Americans -- and indeed, most of the world -- united in opposition to al-Qaida. But as time went on, with no more attacks on US soil, the old divisions between liberals and conservatives began to open up again. There was enough residual unity to help put Bush over the line in the 2004 election -- but by 2006, the administration's handling of the al-Qaida threat had become a net political liability. The US became as deeply polarized over terrorism as it had been over anything pre-9/11. And it's not as if al-Qaida has gone away or has stopped wanting to attack the US. But when the attacks are not in immediate memory, their ability to create unity is much more attenuated.

Thus, for Veidt's plan to work, he would have to teleport another alien into a major city every year or two in order to keep the US and USSR focused on the alien threat rather than attacking each other. There's no indication in the book that he has the means or intention to do so. Nor does the cost of his plan look so plausibly acceptable when he has to repeat the stunt multiple times.

But even if Veidt's plan worked to end the Cold War, I find it implausible that it would achieve his underlying goals. Veidt isn't just concerned about Americans and Russians blowing each other up. He's concerned about the wider ramifications of militarization, such as the way it sucks up resources that could better be used for social programs and the environmental effects of relying on nuclear technology.

I don't see any way that the response to the threat of alien invasion would be to beat swords into plowshares and implement single-payer health care. Instead, the response would be to beat plowshares into swords and raid health care budgets for military funding. The threat of alien invasion demands more militarization, a cooperative ramping-up of arms, space, and intelligence programs by both superpowers in order to have the capability to fight back. (An alien invasion could result in demilitarization if the aliens could show up and make demands that humans disarm -- but Veidt's creature is dead on arrival, and all the Watchmen are convinced that the plan would be ruined if Veidt's role, and hence his demand for disarmament, were ever to become known.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, having seen the movie, I think your concerns don't apply nearly as much. Dr. Manhattan is a plausible and ongoing threat, and as Laurie points out at the end, 'As long as people still think Jon is watching us', the peace will continue. There is no way that a nation could develop the technology to defeat Dr. Manhattan, so they're less likely to waste resources trying, especially given the implied threat of his 'attacks' occuring only to countries with nuclear weapons capability.

One fan actually suggested the best thing for Veidt to do would have been to set himself up as a supervillian and make the threats explicit, but I don't think it would have worked - he would be too much of a target, and a target that combined world powers could actually reach. The USA and USSR would team up exactly as long as it took to kill him, probably less than a month, and then go back to status quo.

12:31 AM  

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