Concerning Mark Twain’s ‘War Prayer’ and the ‘Right to Life.’

Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images.

‘In every presidential election for the past several decades we hear a hue and cry from the citizens who represent the “right to life” movement.’
By Dr. S. R. Keister
/ The Rag Blog / October 30, 2008

See ‘The War Prayer’ by Mark Twain, Below.

Frequently over the past seven years I have read and re-read Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” and was impressed by the parallel of the congregation in that bit of Twain’s masterful later writing, and the attitudes of the American public at large at the present time. As I recall, Twain wrote this essay during the Philippine Insurrection and the publication was held up for many years because the publishers deemed the then unrecognized masterpiece to be “unpatriotic.” One wonders now how many living Americans even know of the Philippine Insurrection and the development of “waterboarding” as a technique of interrogation at that time.

But I digress……..

In every presidential election for the past several decades we hear a hue and cry from the citizens who represent the “right to life” movement. Let us look further into this appellation in its political context.

In the late 1940’s I was a resident in a Pittsburgh hospital. Part of the three year program was a year working in pathology, where I, as the other residents, was required to do the autopsies. In that one year I did three post-mortems on women who had died of septic, i.e.”coat-hanger” abortions. All three had died a terrible death of sepsis from the gas-gangrene bacillus. Antibiotics were then in their infancy; hence, there was no specific treatment. These corpses lying on the autopsy table were distended from the gas in the tissues, they were a dark blue color, with black spots of gangrene mottling their skin. As one cut into the tissues there was a hiss as the fetid gas was released. Why? Why? Why?

After the Roe v Wade Decision I felt that at last there was some degree of justice for a woman caught in an untenable situation. After all, abortion was nothing new, as it in all probability had a history going back to when early man was in the hunter-gatherer period and was able to sharpen a twig with his bronze knife. I did not recall any specific admonitions in Matthew 5-7 regarding abortion; although, there was a steady reference therein to the sanctity of life and the admonition not to kill. Later, in the Middle Ages, largely in the 14th and 15th Centuries, during the period of the Papal Schism, the recurrences of the Black Death, the various and many internecine wars, there was depopulation of the face of Europe. More serfs were needed to work the baron’s fields, more men-at-arms needed for the various armies.

Thus, edicts were put forth to regenerate the population, i.e. edicts to encourage conception or to avoid the interruption of pregnancy.

I wish to underline that I am not philosophically in favor of abortion. Abortion is not a substitute for contraception. I do feel that abortion is justified in the event of rape, incest, or in situations where continued pregnancy will prejudice the life or health of the mother. In Western Europe, where there is ongoing learning regarding sexuality in the schools’ ciricula, i.e. health & hygiene, biology, and social studies, there is a much lower incidence of teen pregnancy, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases. There is, however, an underlying cultural difference between us and the Europeans, and that is their lack of the anti-intellectualism inherent to the United States. They accept education and do not relegate ‘sex-education’ to the parents who by-in-large do not know the difference between a Fallopian Tube or vas deferens and have no comprehension of the physiology of insemination. Thus I feel that Sen. Obama, with his program to reduce the needs for abortion, makes sense. If a woman is not put in a situation that forces her to make a decision, society will be largely absolved of the overall problem. If she chooses to carry the pregnancy to term, help will be provided for her and the infant. Never will she be told “not to have an abortion” and thereafter be left in limbo for the long term.

The major problem I have with the “right to life” movement, is the fact that it has nothing to do with the right to life. These folks, who I am sure, are absolutely sincere in their thinking, are in reality a movement to preserve the fetus. I find a few of them demonstrating against capital punishment, but totally invisible at antiwar rallies. I do not find them in the front-lines demonstrating for the child once born — rallies against child poverty, child abuse or for child health insurance. I do not find them complaining aloud about the bombing of thousands of Iraqi children. I do find them at Sara Palin rallies where the audience in general behaves as a crowd at a bull baiting or public flogging. Here they are enveloped in the mass that cries with delight when the candidates call for the bombing of Iran, or military action against Russia.

Why the inconsistency?

In the Inferno Dante placed the hypocrites in the sixth circle of the lower ranges of Hell, where they walked slowly along in fine golden capes and hoods lined with lead.

It would seem that the Republican Party leadership does not want to interfere with the Roe v Wade decision, for as long as it is the law it can be used to whip up the energy of that 30% of the population that has interest in the sanctity of the fetus, thus, assuring their attendance at the polls. If this were no longer an issue, where would all of this energy be directed? Surely not into the anti-imperialist movement or for the preservation of civil rights.

In the total morass of Republican politics today I am reminded of the statement by Josef Goebbels: “There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger and this will always be ‘the man in the street.’ Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not to the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.”

The War Prayer
By Mark Twain

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 cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings 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, the 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 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!”

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 for 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 servant’s 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 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 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, 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.

[Twain apparently dictated it around 1904-05; it was rejected by his publisher, and was found after his death among his unpublished manuscripts. It was first published in 1923 in Albert Bigelow Paine’s anthology, Europe and Elsewhere.

The story is in response to a particular war, namely the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, which Twain opposed.
Transcribed by Steven Orso.]

Source /

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