Knowing The Stakes, Was Ozymandias Right?




I read a book this week titled Seven Eves by Neal Stephenson.  It is excellent, I recommend it fully.  In it, some astronomical phenomenon causes the moon to explode, which guarantees that life on earth will be extinguished within two years.  The plot of the novel is a chronicle of the attempts of the human species to survive and restore and repropagate the earth.

I bring this up because the plot of the book is a perfect example of an amoral and existential threat posed to the human race.  Humanity is faced with the near certainty of its demise. They sacrifice everything to have a chance at survival. It is the most pure example of the ends justifying the means that I have encountered. The alternative to any sacrifice is the end of the human species and all life on the planet.  Cannibalism, nuclear exchange, it’s all on the table when the threat is that existential and that imminent. 


It was great, it is also a heavy example, and it's off topic. 


However, I think it serves an important purpose in our discussion of this work.  At a certain point, the ends will justify the means when it comes down to human survival.  Once you reach that somewhat uncomfortable conclusion, the narrative of Watchmen becomes even more engrossing.  The reason is very simple, and it’s something that I find myself asking over and over as I read and critique this comic. Is Ozymandias  justified in murdering 10 million New Yorkers in 1985? The fact that the answer isn’t a simple, “no,” is telling in and of itself.  

According to Adrian Viedt, the smartest man alive, humanity is facing existential and immediate threats to their continued survival.  These threats have been exacerbated by the arrival of Dr. Manhattan, and the resulting changes his existence has had on the history of the Watchmen Universe. The US is in a vastly superior position over the USSR in comparison to our reality.  It seems to me that having Dr. Manhattan has the equivalent effect of about ten space races, while also reversing the result of the Vietnam War. This imbalance set off a chain reaction that causes the USSR to be much more aggressive in their handling of Afghanistan, and much more opportunistic in its dealings with the US after the disappearance of Dr. Manhattan.  The Soviets rightly see Doc’s disappearance as their opportunity to flip the dynamic of the Cold War, creating a crisis point.  

Ozymandias states that this threat to humanity is existential, whether brought to a head in this crisis point or not, that Global Thermonuclear Exchange, which would be an extinction level event, is inevitable.  This is the insight provided to him by the Comedian at the Crime Buster’s meeting. Ozymandias agrees with him, that if nothing is changed, he will end up as the smartest man “on the cinder.” Ozymandias is certain that these crisis points will converge at some point in the “mid 90’s” if left alone.


I know I need not recap the plot he hatches here, but it is the greatest charade in human history, but the end result is that the world is tricked into starting an interspecies conflict with a fictional alien race.  The plan is successful, at the cost of half of the population of New York City.


Ultimately the question of “Hero vs. Villian”  comes down to morality. Was this the right thing to do?  Ozymandias says yes. And he makes quite the case for it!

So what exactly does the blood of ten million men, women, and children buy the human race?  The sales tactic is that it buys eons of peace as humanity throws down the tools of warfare, and picks up the tools of collaboration, and preparations to defend the planet against a fictional species. The human race also is allowed to continue to exist! The planet is not made into some irradiated hunk of dead rock floating in space!  Dr. Manhattan doesn’t have to spend eternity alone, staring at atoms and waiting lead to turn into gold!

These are some pretty heavy duty benefits proffered by Viedt.  His vision for the future is quite prosaic. He even has conceived of an outlet for man’s natural paranoia.  

So what would have happened if he didn’t intervene? It seems that the alternative to this is the end of human civilization as we have become familiar with it.  So that would be a super bummer. (Unless Dr. Manhattan created some more human life, which he seems to be able to do. He could just make an exact copy of Earth without costumed heroes at some point in the future, so we could extrapolate the effects of a non-Veidt earth….)

We of course DO have access to a timeline free of all of this, and it is apparent that while Mutually Assured Destruction as a bilateral negotiating strategy was successful, the current world situation has devolved into a far less centralized situation.  Mutually Assured Destruction, may not hold as a successful negotiating strategy, because the capabilities of nuclear actors are asymmetrical. Global Warming, and Population increases are putting a strain on the planet as well, so I don’t think you can say that we live in a perfect resolution of the problems presented in Watchmen.  


Every product a sales person has ever sold always sounds amazing until you get to the price right?  And the price on this was high as heck. By my calculations, Ozymandias is one of the greatest murderers in history.  He’s right up there with the worst of the worst, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, The 2007 New England patriots, all of em.  The book forces us to see the victims of this tragedy the way Ozymandias claims to see them.  Face by face, person by person. You can really feel the weight of the cost of this action. It is horrifying.  It is unforgivable. But, it isn’t if these men, women and children would all have been dead within a fortnight from nuclear annihilation. Essentially, if he killed ten million ghosts, and not people with long term viable lives, it is an acceptable loss.


I call bullshit on this man.  


The thing is, that the crisis that essentially guarantees that Ozymandias is working with the requisite ten million dead people, is his own doing.  Dr. Manhattan’s absence is the precipitating condition for the nuclear crisis, and Ozymandias engineered it! Viedt had Doc embarrassed on national television.  Viedt gave all of the associates cancer, and plotted to have him exiled from the planet so he could do his bidding. If Viedt hadn’t forced Dr. Manhattan out,soley so he could murder 10 million people, and bring an end to intraspecies warfare, then there wouldn’t have been an immient need to murder those 10 million people. 

There were other methods that he could have employed.  Adrian says that these crisis points would converge “some time in the mid-90’s”  That is ten years from the present day of Watchmen. Ten years is a long time, and a guy like Adrian can do a lot in the span of ten years.  His entire business empire has been built in that amount of time. One imagines that the course correction of being legitimate, and at least making attempts at negotiating an end to the conflict between capitalism and communism would have been possible.  He could have held his ultimate plan in abeyance until the time came. It seems like those ten years, contained nothing further than the hundred or so million cumulative years of human experience that the “ghosts would have”, and Adrian ended up having to detonate his psychic monster in Manhattan in 1995, that would have been a preferable result to shooing away Dr. Manhattan and forcing a crisis point in 1985.


The ultimate evaluation of Ozymandias is up to the individual reader. I think he’s a monster.  I think that the reason for his monstrosity is egomania and narcissism, and that his plan will unravel because of Rhorschach’s journal.  Not only was the cost of his supposed utopia staggeringly high,far higher than he seems capable of recognizing, but he was ultimately ineffective.  


It seems obvious that he is yet another “great man” who ultimately failed at uniting the world under a common purpose or objective.  And like his idols, Ramses II, and Alexander, the common purpose or object was for his own purposes. Ozymandias’ plot was a selfish act.  It was horrifyingly evil, and even on its own terms must be considered a misguided disaster. His hubris leads to the needless deaths of ten million people, and all so he could consider himself the greatest man in history.



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