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Mark Twain’s ‘The War Prayer’

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclone of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams – visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, and surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

– “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness, With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne-bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! Lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray from the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servants prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor – and also you in your hearts – fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘ Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them – in spirit – we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hears of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

(After a pause) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

From the wikipedia entry on Mark Twain:

“During the Philippine-American War, Twain wrote an anti-war article entitled The War Prayer. Through this internal struggle, Twain expresses his opinions of the absurdity of slavery and the importance of following one’s personal conscience before the laws of society. It was submitted to Harper’s Bazaar for publication, but on March 22, 1905, the magazine rejected the story as “not quite suited to a woman’s magazine.” Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish The War Prayer elsewhere; it remained unpublished until 1923.”

A World Without War

 From the WSPUS

Anyone who has paid attention in history class probably observed that the major periods in American (and for that matter World) history is divided up mostly by wars. Often the most studied and revered historical figures are those who led their people to victory in times of conflict. Since the dawn of civilization, brought on by the Agricultural Revolution, different groups of humans have waged war against other humans. The methods may have become more deadly and efficient over thousands of years, but the main cause for war has not, and neither have the outcomes – misery, death and destruction.

Why do humans continually wage war on each other, despite the constant efforts of diplomats and the development of ever more frightening weapons capable of killing millions? Typically, the people writing the history books assign the blame to at least one party (typically the loser) in every conflict; it is because of their evil nature, greed or foolishness that innocent people are attacked, and that more often than not, the bad guys are defeated by others who are good and wise and noble. Only when evil is finally eradicated, or super weapons developed that are so devastating no one would ever think to use them, can people finally live in peace. So says the narrative we all learn from a young age.

Actually, the cause of war is never found in the people that actually fight them. Throughout human history, wars have been fought and paid for by the wage earners and the poor, who ironically are the ones who always come out the loser of every conflict, no matter who claims victory. It isn’t even correct to blame the people who start the wars, the ruling or owning class, because even they answer to a higher authority which goads them to hurl bodies and bullets at their so-called enemies.

If you really want to understand why wars are fought, simply look at what is actually being fought over – the answer invariably ends up some form of Property. A concept devised when the first cities sprung up around agricultural areas, ownership of property gave birth to the class system we have today, and has been defended by laws and the threat of violence ever since. A few people owned all of the wealth and the rest owned none. This ruling or owning class, once made up of priests, kings and warlords, now consists of politicians, business owners and what’s left of the monarchies around the world. In order to preserve their positions of power, wealth and privilege, they must maintain the property system at all costs. Often, this means expansion, into new land, trade routes, resources, or even human minds. When that expansion infringes on the property of other members of the ruling class, wars are inevitable. So it has been for thousands of years!

The property system doesn’t just involve armies and wars over other people’s land and resources. It has a tremendous impact within any given society. Multiple layers of police and security forces exist to protect the countless laws that define and continue the property system. Often deadly force is used to protect them, placing the value of property above the lives of the people making up a society. But that is a discussion for another time.

Wars can be stopped forever by simply removing the reasons for their existence. A system where property law and violence separates people into two classes can be replaced by one in which all property, wealth, and land is held in common, and where the owning class no longer has the ability to sustain itself. This system is called socialism. True socialism does away with governments and private (as opposed to personal) property, freeing the sum of all the world’s wealth to be shared equally by all humans and removing the need to fight over anything. Socialism, and the end of all war, is not utopia or a lunatic’s pipe dream, but a real solution to many problems. Are you ready take the first steps to end war? 

Tony Pink