Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Remembering Vietnam with the Watchmen

"What happened to the American Dream? It came true! You're lookin' at it." - The Comedian

Depictions of the Vietnam War in mainstream media during the 1980s derived mainly from film and television, but I've decided to focus on the landmark comic book series Watchmen. Written by DC Comics veteran Alan Moore and published during 1986 and 1987, Watchmen depicts an alternate history where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s, assisting the United States in winning the Vietnam War. With the country edging towards a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the comics echoed contemporary fears of the time with the added twist of costumed superheroes working for the government.

The Vietnam War was a conflict involving the United States roughly from 1965 to 1975; a conflict which was largely civil between the communists of North Vietnam and the democratic area of South Vietnam. Attempting to prevent another country from becoming a communist nation, the US intervened by sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam and approximately 58,000 of which did not come home. It is widely considered an unpopular war - one that generated much societal protest on home soil. In reality, it is generally held that the US lost the war as forces were withdrawn at the end of the prolonged conflict and its ally South Vietnam fell to the Communist forces of North Vietnam in 1975. In Watchmen however, the conflict is settled in only two months as President Nixon's dispatch of Dr. Manhattan ensures a US victory by 1971, and Vietnam later becomes the 51st state. Described by Soviets as an "imperialist weapon" within the comic, Dr. Manhattan is perceived by many North Vietnamese as some sort of deity as they expressed their desire to surrender to him personally. As Dr. Milton Glass states in the comic:

"I never said, "The superman exists, and he's American." What I said was,"God exists, and he's American.""

Coming from a comic, Dr. Manhattan's story of how he gained such a godly status is of course elaborate. After an accident involving a nuclear physics experiment, the then Dr. Osterman was taken outside the physical realm and returned with god-like powers including superhuman strength, telekinesis, the ability to teleport himself or others and control over matter. While his military backers branded him as a superhero and shaped him into something lethal - giving him the name "Doctor Manhattan" chosen for its ominous asssociations it would raise in America's enemies - he grew increasingly disinterested in human affairs and became unable to connect with others. Theoretically speaking, it is interesting to consider what would have happened if this was a reality: could Dr. Manhattan really have won the Vietnam War? Probably not. Such super powers as super strength, teleportation, telekinesis and indestructibility would have been irresistible in a standard main-force confrontation, but it is unclear as to whether they would have contributed meaningfully to the strategy that was critical to retaking control of the South Vietnamese countryside in the mid-60s.

Undoubtedly the most significant character in Watchmen, The Comedian (Edward Blake) fought alongside Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam.

"He suits the climate here: the madness, the pointless butchery... as I come to understand Vietnam and what it implies about the human condition, I also realize that few humans will permit themselves such an understanding. Blake's different. He understands perfectly...... and he doesn't care."

Interestingly, he is evil to the core and the only character who has no likable features. One reading of his character can be that his time in Vietnam gave him a governmentally sanctioned way to act without consequence and at one point Blake claims that he is merely teaching the public a lesson about the cruelty of the world by embodying it. The chaos and destruction in which he thrives on sets up The Comedian's biggest joke: the irony that the people Blake inflicts his cruelty upon are in fact the ones from whom he had obtained his license. During the closing days of the war, it is in Vietnam's capital city, Saigon that The Comedian drunkenly shoots a young Vietnamese woman whom he had impregnated during a physical relationship. The woman is hurt and offended by Blake's desire to leave her and the country behind so she attacks him with a smashed bottle, slashing his face. In his anger, he kills her before noting that as a witness, Dr. Manhattan could easily have prevented this murder. In another significant moment, Blake reflects on how "deliberately amoral" Dr. Manhattan is and that the conflict suits him which is a point which he should have also applied to himself. Seeing and doing the worst of things in Vietnam, Blake consequently was completely hardened against such terrible exposure, representing the triumph of evil human nature. However, Blake later saves himself and becomes human after all when he finally breaks down in front of Moloch, shattering the shell that surrounded him for fifty years: "It's all a joke..."

So why is the fictional universe of Watchmen so significant when remembering Vietnam through the 1980s? Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian may be fictional constructions, but like most characters in Watchmen, they represent personality disorder at the hands of US imperialism. The Vietnam War had a devastating effect on humanity, and The Comedian is the direct embodiment of that.

Taken from the faithful 2009 film adaptation of the comics, I'll wrap up with Zack Snyder's masterful opening montage of striking images which features The Comedian assassinating JFK and Dr. Manhattan shaking hands with JFK. It is truly a work of art, connecting Americans on many levels by showing snapshots of American history woven with the characters of Watchmen in an alternate history which creates a strangely patriotic nostalgia. It is fittingly accompanied with what was to become Bob Dylan's Vietnam War protest anthem, for the 'Times They Are A-Changin''...

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