Why did human beings slaughter each other by the thousands during World War I, a conflict of unprecedented mass savagery in which an entire generation of young men decimated itself and inflicted atrocities on civilian populations full of women, children, and the elderly?
In the movie Wonder Woman, the heroic Amazon princess Diana believes that an evil god is to blame.
Ares, god of war, is the son of Zeus, king of the gods and creator of the human race. Ares loathes his father’s creatures and throughout history has striven to eradicate them by pitting humankind against itself in ceaseless, internecine wars. Before dying at the hand of his son, Zeus created the Amazons to thwart Ares and bring peace to humanity.
God of War
In 1918, Diana learns of the Great War from Steve Trevor, an American spy she rescues from drowning in the waters surrounding the hidden island home of the Amazons. Trevor immediately informs Diana that he is one of the “good guys,” and the Germans chasing him are the “bad guys.” Diana readily swallows this simplistic characterization of World War I, as do the filmmakers.
Diana becomes convinced that the Germans (and the Germans alone) are under the supernatural sway of the god of war. She resolves to fulfill the destiny of her people by destroying Ares, thus freeing the Germans, and humanity in general, from his baleful influence: from the grip of war. She believes doing so will end the Great War, which would truly make it “the war to end all wars,” as Trevor calls it, and as many of its real-world “progressive” proponents (including Woodrow Wilson and H.G. Wells) promised it would be.
Warning: Spoilers below.
Later, Diana’s worldview is shattered when she finally encounters Ares, and he reveals to her that he was never responsible for humanity’s bloodlust. The only part he played was to subliminally transmit ideas for new, deadlier weapons to key generals and scientists. He gave them the designs for weapons, but humans decided on their own to make them and use them on each other.
Humans, Ares tells Diana, are inherently warlike, because they are “selfish” and “weak,” which is precisely why he is hellbent on their extinction. Humans, he insists, are unworthy of Diana’s valorous protection; she should instead join forces with her fellow god to exterminate them once and for all. Then the earth, so long despoiled by mankind, will again belong to the gods alone and can be renewed as the paradise it was meant to be.
Although she at first despairs at learning the truth, Diana refuses his offer, proclaiming that whether humanity “deserves” her heroic help is irrelevant; she offers it out of unconditional love. She accepts that humanity may be forever warlike, but she will at least mitigate the harm it can inflict on itself by slaying the god who is whispering weapons schematics into their ears.
The big “lesson” of Wonder Woman resonates with a common tendency to identify weapons themselves as the key problem to be dealt with in matters of violence.
With violent crime, many blame the availability of guns, and so advocate domestic policies ranging from registration, to “gun-free zones,” to outright civilian disarmament.
And with war atrocities, many see the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as the problem, and so advocate foreign policies ranging from sanctions, to strikes, to invasions of countries that possess or seek WMDs.
In 2003, for example, the primary justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was the false contention that its government still possessed WMDs and was seeking to manufacture more. Hussein had long been cast as a Hitler-like villain for gassing rebellious Iraqi Kurds in the Halabja Massacre of 1988. After Saddam’s overthrow, his cousin, nicknamed “Chemical Ali,” was tried, convicted, and condemned to death for the attack. No such trial was held for any of the Reagan administration officials who had helped provide Saddam with the chemical weapons used in the attack in order to aid Iraq in its bloody invasion of Iran.
In more recent years, hawks have called for military intervention in Syria based on unproven allegations that its government possesses WMDs and has used them against rebels and civilians in that country’s civil war. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have declared the use of chemical weapons to be a “red line.” Obama nearly enforced that red line in 2013, after an alleged sarin gas attack by the Syrian regime, and in April of this year Trump launched airstrikes following another such allegation.
Gas weapons are also the chief threat throughout Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor’s mission from the beginning was to prevent the Germans from developing and using a new weaponized gas that can eat through Allied gas masks: a chemical WMD formulated by the disfigured scientist Isabel Maru (aka “Doctor Poison”) under the supervision of the evil General Erich Ludendorff.
While Trevor is focused on the WMD, Diana believes that the hostility inspired by Ares (whom she thinks is disguised as Ludendorff) is the underlying issue, and so wants to focus on finding and destroying him.
Later it is revealed that both Maru and Ludendorff got their weapons ideas from Ares. Thus, Steve and Diana were both right in a sense. Ares was largely to blame, but in his role as a weapons-provider, not as an embodiment of belligerence.
Bleeding Heart, Bloody Sword
As the film clearly depicts, Diana’s determination to destroy Ares and bring an end to war is motivated by a heart that bleeds for war’s victims. In an Allied trench, she learns of the suffering of civilians in a nearby German-occupied village. In defiance of Trevor’s insistence on continuing the mission without delay, Diana springs into action, leading an assault that overruns the German trenches and liberates the village.
Diana’s humanitarian intervention is reminiscent of the “idealistic” adherents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) foreign policy doctrine, who righteously denounce “realists” for refraining from intervening to prevent atrocities for the sake of long-term strategic objectives.
The most strident champion of this doctrine is Samantha Power, author of the R2P bible A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (which condemned America’s failure to prevent atrocities in Iraq, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere) and the Obama administration official who, along with Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, led the charge in Washington for America’s humanitarian war in Libya in order to prevent an allegedly imminent “genocide.” (See my profile on Power, “The Hell on Earth Paved by Samantha Power’s Good Intentions.”)
Wonder Woman, who throughout the film racks up quite a body count of conscripted German youths, is not so much a princess of peace as she is a valkyrie for “humanitarian” war: a Samantha Power with super-powers and a magic sword.
The moment in the movie when Diana’s heart bleeds most profusely is when she fails to prevent a German gas attack that completely massacres the village she had just liberated. The sight of the victims is tactfully obscured by gas clouds, but Diana’s anguish is nonetheless evocative of the all-too-understandable distress felt by Americans (including, momentously, Trump himself) upon seeing images of Syrian gas victims show up in their Facebook feeds.
These heartstrings are played with relish by a warmongering media that neglects to inform the public of Washington’s own role in bringing about these atrocities, or about the innocent suffering and death that would result from increased intervention: especially all the non-Sunni Muslims who would likely be beheaded and otherwise ethnically cleansed if the radical-Islamist-dominated, US-supported rebels were to overrun the entire country.
Responsibility to Regime Change
After beholding the bodies of those she had a Responsibility to Protect, Diana turns in anger on Steve Trevor. He had obstructed her at the last second from assassinating General Ludendorff, which she believes would have prevented the atrocity.
Similarly, real-life R2P hawks lay the thousands of victims of the Syrian civil war at the feet of the realists and non-interventionists who obstructed efforts to overthrow the gas-wielding butcher of Damascus, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. They seem to intentionally forget that after Saddam Hussein was hanged and Muammar Gaddafi was gunned down in the street, both Iraq and Libya descended into even greater war and chaos, involving even worse humanitarian disasters than what had transpired under their dictatorships: for example, the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Sunnis, a war of terror against Iraqi Shias lead by Al-Qaeda (and later ISIS), and anti-black pogroms and slave markets in Libya.
Blaming Peacemakers for War
The big twist in the movie was that Ares turned out not to be the bellicose German general Ludendorff who demanded war until the bitter end and even resorted to gassing his superiors when they spinelessly turned toward peace. Instead Ares had been masquerading the whole time as Wonder Woman’s benefactor, Sir Patrick Morgan: a British cabinet official who adamantly championed a negotiated armistice with Germany.
The filmmakers even put into Ares/Morgan’s mouth, “Peace at any price,” the slogan long-associated with much-derided promoters of appeasement, like Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister whose insufficiently-confrontational policies are often blamed for Hitler’s march through Europe and for World War II.
Ares’s diabolical plan was to negotiate an armistice that could not hold, and that that would somehow lead to even greater war and ultimately the annihilation of humanity. That’s right: a war god furthering war by seeking peace.
In actual history, there was no negotiated peace in World War I, but a policy of unconditional surrender and total war pursued to the bitter end. It was this warmongering, not peacemongering, that led to the immiseration and humiliation of Germany, the rise of Nazism, and an even deadlier World War: not to mention the communist revolution in Russia, the eventual hand-over of half of Europe to Stalin, and the advent of weapons truly capable of annihilating the human race.
And yet, the anti-appeasement “lesson of Munich” is to this day thrown in the face of those who resist fully confronting such modern-day Hitlers as Milosevic, Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, Assad, and Putin.
How to Stop War
In the movie’s climax, Steve Trevor sacrifices himself to destroy the entire stockpile of poison gas WMDs before it could be used on civilian populations, while Wonder Woman destroyed the villain responsible for such a wicked weapon. Anti-proliferation, humanitarian intervention, and eliminating a “Hitler” all coalesce in an eruption of digital pyrotechnics celebrating the triumph over war by… war.
Yet it was during one of the film’s quiet moments that the true remedy for war was hinted at. In an intimate interlude, Diana tells Steve Trevor that she has learned to speak hundreds of languages, as all Amazons do to fulfill their role as “bridges” between peoples and facilitators of peace.
This is fitting, because communication leads, not only to truces, but to commerce. And commerce establishes material interdependence and thus breeds civility and a mutual interest in peace.
It is true that humans are imperfect, as Ares says, and thus capable of war and atrocity. But such violent impulses cannot be countered by allowing the similar impulses of super-elites to run rampant under the self-righteous mantle of “humanitarian heroism.”
The urge to war can only be overcome through understanding the folly of indulging that urge and realizing the much greater prizes to be had through peaceful production and trade.
The answer to “bad guy” war is not “good guy” war, but communication and commerce, liberty and the arts of peace. Practitioners of these arts and champions of that peace are the true heroes of the world.
If the filmmakers had conceived of heroism as something more than leaping through the air and smashing "bad guys," they might have had Wonder Woman use her super-human translating ability, not to crack enemy cryptography, but to bridge the language divide between the young, frightened men in opposing trenches. They could have even had Diana facilitate the real-life Christmas Truce of World War I, depicted in a touching and beautiful ad by Sainsbury's.
Thankfully, the heroic lads of the Christmas Truce didn't need any super-human help to cross the barbed wire and the language barrier: just enough human sense, decency, and courage to defy their superiors and, at least for a day, to renounce "the war to end all wars."
Originally published at FEE.org.