Kristian Williams’ recent article on “Sacrificing Others: Watchmen, Fail-Safe, and Eichmann in Jerusalem” is a worthy read but it does require some suspension of belief concerning the narrative logic of Watchmen.
Right at the outset, Williams ask his readers:
“Why are our reactions to these characters so different?”
The characters in question are Ozymandias from Watchmen and the President of the United States in Fail-Safe. Williams suggests that the answer lies in
“…their different attitudes toward that responsibility. The President is uncertain, reluctant. He looks for alternatives; he asks for a reprieve. Ozymandias is perfectly confident, perfectly clear. He is entirely resolute, unwavering in his agenda.”
“…the President, unlike Veidt, does not feel that it makes him good. He has not, in other words, lost his sense of humanity, and when it comes to questions of character that sense may be more important than mere morals.”
In this I’m afraid Williams is quite wrong. The reason we judge Ozymandias is because the nuclear holocaust in Watchmen is imminent but not inevitable—an existential threat which our world still lives under. In contrast, the nuclear holocaust in Fail-Safe is a virtual certainty requiring decisive action (possibly within minutes). Ozymandias’ response to the threat of nuclear war therefore mirrors the policy of preemption which characterized the disastrous wars of the Bush administration. This is anathema to liberals of Moore’s ilk but sweet music to all others.
More importantly, our antipathy for Ozymandias is made absolute by the nature of superhero narratives. These are narrative which contain palpable gods where none exist in reality. This is a decisive flaw and shatters any suppositions that the world of superheroes mirrors our own; for there are always alternatives to human action in such comics. This is something which Jeet Heer alluded to in his dissent concerning Watchmen‘s canonical status some years back.
The destruction of humanity is not a certainty when a god (albeit a fickle one) is on your side. This results in the (apparent) narrative confusion which underpins the central plot of Watchmen where the smartest man on earth—with presumably the best intentions—arranges for the departure of the single person who can prevent the destruction of mankind. As Williams indicates, it is Ozymandias’ actions which trigger the departure of Dr. Manhattan and hence the possibility of a nuclear conflagration. Like Prometheus he has seized the mantle of the gods for man, and his fate is just as inevitable. The deck, in a sense, has been stacked against Ozymandias.
One possible apology for Ozymandias’ seemingly illogical actions would be to propose true far sightedness on his part. He is afterall still a man and of limited years. Foreseeing the departure of that solitary god at some point in the distant future (well beyond his own lifespan), he preempts this departure to fashion a final solution to the nuclear problem. He foresees no other human being capable of this act of calculation. It is not manifestly true that “he wants at least as badly to be the one who saves [the world].”
Williams seeking to magnify Ozymandias’ hubris further suggests that
“…he leaves the remaining Watchmen alive, though they also know his secret. His brilliance requires admirers. They are no less likely to reveal the truth than his servants were, but they do not share in the victory… He leaves them alive, because he has proven himself superior, and they have accepted it.”
But I feel this is in error. Ozymandias leaves them alive eventually because Dr. Manhattan intervenes quite decisively to save them. It is impossible to say what he would have done following his defeat of them and the customary (for such genre pieces) explanations concluded. He certainly had no compunction about murdering the Comedian and assorted other obstacles who were similarly helpless and “did not share in his victory.” No one doubts Ozymandias’ arrogance but this is always overseen by cold arithmetic. One might say that the very name he has chosen for himself suggests an awareness of his own human frailty. When Williams states that:
“Moore, by invoking Shelley, recalls both meanings. Veidt’s works, which we witness directly in the chapter following, are indeed dreadful. And the peace they produce, Moore’s allusion suggests, cannot last.”
…he fails to mention that it is not only Moore who chooses this name but Veidt himself. And surely the smartest man in the world would be quite familiar with the various readings of Shelley’s poem. This might be a case of authorial failure—the choice of a name at odds with a character’s behavior throughout Watchmen. If taken in context, however, it suggests both vanity and doubt on the part of Veidt. Is it so hard to believe that Veidt would choose a name for himself which would call into question the very edifice which he has built? Or is he the megalomaniacal pulp villain proposed by Heer in his dissent?
* * *
There is another problem with elevating the morality of the protagonists of Fail-Safe over those in Watchmen. The comic posits a world controlled by self-centered failures if not madmen. Fail-Safe, on the other hand, attributes the destruction of humanity to human error, not human intention. In fact, it elevates—for quite obvious reasons—the President of the United States to a bastion of morality.
In contrast, an examination of the respective attitudes of Kennedy and Khrushchev to this same question would suggest considerable doubt as to the balance of morality and concern for the fate of mankind. All will be familiar with the standard narrative of Kennedy’s finest hour but at least one other version of events suggests a man willing to play “roulette with nuclear war”:
“Premier Khrushchev told President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey.”
These were Jupiter missiles with nuclear warheads…These were obsolete missiles, already slated for withdrawal, to be replaced by far more lethal and effectively invulnerable Polaris submarines. Kennedy recognized that he would be in an “insupportable position if this becomes [Khrushchev’s] proposal”, both because the Turkish missiles were useless and were being withdrawn anyway, and because “it’s gonna – to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade.”
“The two most crucial questions about the missile crisis are how it began, and how it ended. It began with Kennedy’s terrorist attack against Cuba, with a threat of invasion in October 1962. It ended with the president’s rejection of Russian offers that would seem fair to a rational person, but were unthinkable because they would undermine the fundamental principle that the US has the unilateral right to deploy nuclear missiles anywhere…”
One might say that it is the author of Fail-Safe who is deluded as to the true nature of man and of his elected leaders; and that it is Ozymandias who represents the true calculus of nuclear poker. As Chomsky relates in a recent interview:
“The Kennedy planners were making very dangerous choices and pursuing policies which they thought had a good chance of leading to nuclear war, and they knew that Britain would be wiped out. The U.S. wouldn’t, because Russia’s missiles couldn’t reach there but Britain would be wiped out…right at that time a senior American adviser said in an internal discussion that the British shouldn’t be told, that the U.S. can’t trust the British.”
If we find Ozymandias obviously evil, it is because we recognize ourselves in him. And if the President of the United States in Fail-Safe seems less reprehensible, it is because he represents nothing less than a righteous wish-giving pixie in a fairy tale.