Originally published via Armageddon Prose:
My curmudgeonly grandpappy, who reveres Mark Twain and George Carlin and H.L. Mencken and people of that lovable cynic variety – or however you would characterize their philosophical disposition – put me onto The War Prayer back in the day.
This was in the days of innocence before 9/11 and the subsequent War of Terror, and so whatever lack of an impression it made on me at the time was remedied shortly thereafter by apropos events in the real world.
Twain, in his later years when his family had died and the cynicism became more malignant, would often write fiction in which a cynical protagonist would serve as a proxy for himself.
This is one such story; the “aged stranger” is Twain.
“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.
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 with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”
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 hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst…
It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”
― Mark Twain, The War Prayer
Twain reportedly caved to pressure not to publish the short story, as it was regarded by his family and publisher as too inflammatory for public consumption. Asked if he had plans to publish it, Twain answered: “No, I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.” At any rate, for whatever reason, it remained unpublished until after his death.
War is an ugly business, fraught with moral pitfalls – not to mention existential implications in the nuclear age. It might be necessary at times, but so are limb amputations. Both should be undertaken with all due discretion.
I’ll choose my own wars, not the ones the government or MSNBC or the ADL tells me to.
Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.
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