Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Dr Strangelove For Our Times

Warning: the following post contains significant spoilers about the film The Watchmen. Those still interested in seeing this film should consider themselves forewarned.

Threat of nuclear holocaust looms over Watchmen

As time passes since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have drifted further and further from the human imagination.

Since the prospect of nuclear holocaust has become a thing of the past the perceived relevance of nuclear weapons to international affairs has diminished.

The recent release of The Watchmen -- originally written by Alan Moore during the Cold War -- may inspire the reemergence of nuclear weapons back into the human imagination.

The ticking of the doomsday clock hangs heavily over The Watchmen. Woven immaculately in with the film's plot against the hunt for a hero killer is a plot about an alternate history Cold War in which the fate of the world hangs over jockeying between the United States and the Soviet Union over Afghanistan.

In this history, Richard Nixon has been elected President for three consecutive terms -- despite the unconstitutionality of the proposition -- the United States won the war in Vietnam, and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) keeps a protective vigil over the world, wielding powers that conceivably allow him to avert a nuclear war.

Dr Manhattan essentially represents the ultimate Doomsday weapon. Throughout the film, he is credited with preventing the Soviet Union from carrying out the full extent of its ambitions for fear of the United States launching a nuclear reprisal with near impunity.

To emulate the language used in Dr Strangelove -- and reiterated by Freeman Dyson in Weapons and Hope -- Dr Manhattan presents both a doomsday gap and a superhuman gap which the Soviet Union cannot fill. The United States even uses him to win the Vietnam war -- many of the Viet Cong insist on surrendering to him personally, believing him to be a god.

This sentiment is echoed by a nuclear scientist in the film who insists that "...'God exists and he's American'."

However, he takes that sentiment to a logical conclusion when he adds, "If that statement starts to chill you after a couple of moments' consideration, then don't be alarmed. A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane."

In many ways, the existence of an interventionist God could -- and maybe even should -- terrify even the most faithful religious believer. The notion of God as a citizen or even partisan of any particular country should be considered even more terrifying.

The film presents Dr Manhattan as humanity's only hope -- the one thing that prevents the two most powerful forces on the planet from unleashing nuclear armageddon upon the planet. Dr Manhattan replaces the doctrine of MAD -- Mutually Assured Destruction -- with a doctrine of Unilaterally Assured Protection.

Yet the principle of Unilaterally Assured Protection does nothing to avert nuclear proliferation. If anything, UAP encourages further proliferation. As a fictional version of Eleanor Clift notes at the start of the film the idea that Dr Manhattan will prevent nuclear holocaust provides both Cold War beligerents with the motivation to make an open-ended commitment to nuclear proliferation.

The United States can do so secure in the notion that, if a nuclear war were to occur, they could expect Dr Manhattan to protect them first. The Soviet Union can be expected to do so out of fear -- hoping that they can build enough bombs to overwhelm Manhattan and the United States in a preemptive strike and destroy the entire American nuclear arsenal before it can be launched in retaliation.

(Although it's imporant to note that the nuclear doctrine of each country -- Soviet doctrine allowing for first strike but not first use of nuclear weapons and American doctrine allowing for first use of nuclear weapons but not first strike -- could have been expected to prevent such an outcome, provided they do not change.)

Even under Manhattan's protection, as Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) notes, there are no guarantees. Even if Dr Manhattan stops 99% of the bombs, the remaining 1% would still kill every living thing on Earth.

It's worth noting that Dr Manhattan's promise of Unilaterally Assured Protection renders him akin to the Strategic Defense Initative -- the United States' proposed anti-nuclear missile shield. Freeman Dyson noted that techologies such as SDI led to three possible futures: an arms control future, a technical follies future, and a "live and let live" future.

In the real world, American commitment to the SDI led to enhanced tensions between the United States and Soviet Union that led to renewed commitment to anti-proliferation and arms reduction treaties.

In Watchmen, however, Dr Manhattan -- the god-like missile shield in human form -- upsets the delicate balance of power maintained in the real-world Cold War. Yet what emerges isn't an arms control future, a technical follies future (the extent of Dr Manhattan's power renders him immune to technical folly) nor a "live and let live" future.

Instead, Dr Manhattan's existence leads to a desperate future in which each side measures their ability to sneak enough atom bombs through the protective shield to annhiliate the other side.

The existence of the ultimate deterrent -- Unilaterally Assured Protection -- does nothing to reduce tensions.

But protection which is unilaterally assured can also be unilaterally withdrawn. Resultingly, humanity would be faced by a continuing need to ensure that Dr Manhattan continues to care about humanity. But there is no guarantee that anything that powerful would continue to care. It most certainly wouldn't need to.

When Dr Manhattan and Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) split up, Manhattan retreats to Mars where he indulges himself in the watch building exploits of his past.

With his last human link to the world severed, Dr Manhattan seems to feel no more motivation to protect the world. The protection he once unilaterally assured is now unilaterally withdrawn.

In the absence of the ultimate deterrent, the Soviet Union makes their move on Afghanistan. In response Nixon sets a two-day deadline for Dr Manhattan's return -- something considered akin to setting a deadline for God's intervention -- after which Nixon will give the order to launch a nuclear barrage of the Soviet Union.

In the end, Adrian Veidt seems to conclude that the only way out of the dilemma is to convince both sides to become united in their terror of Dr Manhattan -- something akin to uniting rival believers in terror of God. Oddly enough, Dr Manhattan reaches agreement with him. One could only wonder if an interventionist God would be so generous.

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