Could Dr. Manhattan have won the Vietnam War? by mattsteinglass
February 18, 2009, 2:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I think the current wisdom among the ascendant counterinsurgency-theory crowd that is shaping strategic thinking in today’s US military would be “no”. Dr. Manhattan’s known super powers — teleportation, super strength, telekinesis, and indestructibility — would certainly have been irresistible assets in a standard main-force confrontation such as the siege of Khe Sanh. But it is unclear how they would have contributed meaningfully to the “clear, hold, and build” strategy that was critical to retaking control of the South Vietnamese countryside from the Viet Cong infrastructure in the mid-60s. And the idea that the appearance of a transcorporeal, levitating blue giant would have had a strong positive effect on the “hearts and minds” campaign for the sympathies of the Vietnamese population seems mystical and naive.

8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You are falling victim to framing effects. Just because the only panel you see in Watchmen shows Dr. Manhattan as a terrifying, enormous blue god doesn’t mean that is the only guise he appeared in.

I wrote a bunch of stuff, but I deleted it, because I think it is better to turn this around on you – if you, Matt Steinglass, had omnipotent power, and felt it was in your best interests to end the war in Vietnam with unconditional surrender of the NV, knowing all that you know about Vietnamese culture, do you think that you could have easily won the war?

Comment by jb

No! Definitely not.

I read Watchmen ages ago, in the late ’80s, so I don’t remember exactly how the US/USSR nuclear standoff shaped up in the context of Dr. Manhattan. But in general the whole Dr. Manhattan concept clearly reflects American technological messianism in the era of the primacy of particle physics. Yet the basic dynamics of counterinsurgency are not technological, but informational, political and economic. And the relevant metaphors come not from physics, but from biology. The fundamental problem that might be faced by Dr. Manhattan in trying to tackle control of the South Vietnamese countryside in the early to mid 1960s would have been one of information processing: tracking the social behavior of ten million South Vietnamese data points to discriminate and tease out activities involved in allegiance to the VC infrastructure. How? As with chess, there are two ways to approach a problem like this. One is the way humans play chess: clustering — a recognition of familiar patterns. This requires cultural fluency and talent, and here I see no way that Dr. Manhattan could be superior to Ho Chi Minh. The other would be “Deep Blue”-style brute force computation. If Dr. Manhattan can meaningfully address a game like the Vietnam War in this fashion, then his intelligence no longer resembles the human, and I see no reason why he would care, or why his calculations would not conclude that in the long run capitalism and the public welfare were not better served by the defeat of the Saigon regime – as, in practice, they probably have been.

Comment by mattsteinglass

teleportation, super strength, telekinesis, and indestructibility

And the idea that the appearance of a transcorporeal, levitating blue giant would have had a strong positive effect on the “hearts and minds” campaign

That’s not an accurate description of his powers. In particular he could make multiple versions of himself and analyze tremendous amounts of data. He could presumably gather a great deal of information and act upon that data instantly and in multiple locations at once. He could create string of victories without any causality to other American forces.

In terms of hearts and minds, the VC are depicted as viewing him as a god. Hard to say, what a realistic reaction would be to such a person, but it’s hard imagine it would be easy to recruit people to face an enemy that couldn’t be harmed by any known technology.

Comment by Christopher Colaninno

Here I am, talk as a Vietnamese. I was born in 1991 and havent seen Watchmen untill just now: 6/8/2016 but im sure that i know exactly what a Vietnamese think and do. We are not the strongest, bravest or most intelligent being. We are still affraid of war and dead but one thing we sure is “if we dont fight, we will dead”. And that logical come from our ancestor through thounsands years of history because if you read about our history you will know that our nation had been built on bone and blood of millions invader’s life and our own life (search wiki to read about these people: Hai Ba Trung, Ba Trieu, Trieu Viet Vuong, Ngo Quyen, Le Hoan, Ly Thuong Kiet, Tran Hung Dao, Quang Trung, Vo Nguyen Giap…). We might be defeated, captured, tortured and killed but in every mind of us, even a baby, we will never surrended before invader. Unless the invader kill all of us, we will always rise, fight untill we win and survive or defeat and dead, either way. If Dr Manhattan is truly awesome like describe in Watchmen, he will know about our thought and once he realizes that, he will never take part in this meaningless war.

Comment by Kaiba_1413

PS: We have no god to praise either (80% Vietnamese is non-religion nowaday). The only thing we praise is our ancestor and heroes will. And we do not praise for the protection or benefit. We praise that we can be strong like them, praise to be brave like them, praise to live and fight like them to protect our nation from all invader, both inside and outside.

Comment by Kaiba_1413

First, infinite energy. Imagine the Americans having zero energy or supply line problems during the Vietnam War. This is a big deal.

Second, intimidation factor. The Vietnamese looked on him as a god. On the hearts and mind issue, it would be better to be feared than loved. Plus, he might have scared the Cambodians enough to keep Vietnamese refuges and rebels outside their country, which could have all sorts of implications.

The fire power s negligible, but if Dr. Manhattan can change how scientist go about technology, this shifts a lot of power towards America, especially in the cold war era when money was being dumped on military research like crazy.

Then you’ve got crazy stuff, like, say the Vietnamese were hiding underground and Manhattan turned the ground into glass, or they were charging en masse and he turned the gun into vapor. Or he erected a fifty foot wall around vietnam, made a perfect blockade by freezing the water along the coasts, disintegrated the jungle terrain.

Plus, with Nixon as a popular president who doesn’t make people question the morality of the government, the US would have had the political will to keep fighting.

Yeah, I think we would have won.

Comment by Zaxser

Let me put it this way. Applications of Dr. Manhattan’s brute force powers run into the same problems as the use of nuclear weapons: they are genocidal. (Turning the terrain of Vietnam to glass would indeed make it possible to see people underground; it would also eliminate the country’s food supply.) On the other hand, if Dr. Manhattan has the omnidirectional sensory awareness and universe-crunching computational abilities he would need to apply his powers on a person-by-person, hamlet-by-hamlet, moment-by-moment basis, then not only can he see all of the fluid and covert activity being undertaken by the 1/3 to 1/2 of the country’s peasantry that supports the VC and predict how their sympathies and activities will be affected by various actions; he can also see that the Vietnamese Communists detest the Cambodians and the Chinese and will end up at war with them if they win the war, such that the “domino effect” concept of a spreading unitary global Communist front is nonsense. He can see the “tiger cages” of the South Vietnamese regime; he can see ARVN soldiers slicing the ears off of VC captives, and pushing them out of helicopters; he can see South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu demanding bribes from his generals and stockpiling gold. He can see that within a decade after unifying the country, the “Communists” in Hanoi will turn to capitalism, and that the regime they run will be more effective and less corrupt than that run by the Saigon regime. Given all this, he will not help the US win the Vietnam War.

But none of that latter scenario is the way Dr. Manhattan’s intervention is actually depicted in “Watchmen”. Dr. Manhattan is depicted as a blue giant walking through the jungle, pointing his finger at things and making them go “boom”. And the thesis is that the Vietnamese regard him as “a god” and are cowed into submission. Well, the US did in fact stride through the Vietnamese jungle from 1965 to 1972 pointing our fingers and making things go “boom”. We rained destruction from the skies. Our technological superiority over Communist forces in the South was so great as makes no nevermind. We could send Arc Light formations of multiple B-52s over the highlands of South Vietnam annihilating anything aboveground forever; the Vietnamese were powerless to shoot them down. And over and over throughout the war, each new level of technical escalation by the US was touted as the ultimate solution. Helicopter cavalry would do the trick. Okay, that didn’t do it, but now remote electronic sensors in the jungle would. Nope, okay, well, how about Agent Orange to eliminate the jungle. Hm, okay, here come the B-52s. Uh, let’s see, how about laser-guided munitions…Over and over, the technological gods failed. And the Vietnamese failed to be awed, to see us as “gods”. There simply was no technical solution to the US’s problems in the Vietnam War. The problem was politics: our side was politically weaker than theirs. Dr. Manhattan is an iteration of an old American dream, a Vietnam-era version of the Superman fantasy of WW2. It is a fantasy that, for anyone thinking clearly, should point out the limitations of the American technological imagination. The South Vietnamese government was an unsustainably corrupt hollow shell. No blue superman could have changed that.

Comment by mattsteinglass

Moore has an interview here you might like to read.

I take from it that Manhattan was really a way of poking fun at the naive American assumption that greater (or nigh unstoppable) force solves all problems, and that Moore basically agrees with you that it does not.

Comment by Thomas B.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: