Dear God, Save Us From Ourselves: Thoughts on “The War Prayer” by Mark Twain

Before I begin relaying my thoughts on this short story by Twain, I want to make it clear that I am writing this very late at night and am just going off the top of my head. If you’re looking for a refined piece of writing, keep looking.

I had never read this piece before, although I think I had heard of it somewhere. Ironically, I heard it mentioned in a Youtube video and decided to give it a read. I really want to start blogging regularly so I thought this would start me off.

This story was dictated by Twain in the latter years of his life and was not published until several years after his death. It was actually rejected by his publisher. He created it shortly after the Spanish-American War in the early 1900s.

The story is about the sending off of young volunteers to an unnamed war.  I do not want to describe its plot fully because I think it is something everyone should read (it is linked below). However, suffice it to say that the story is about the Sunday right before the new soldiers are set to leave and consists primarily of two prayers.

The first part of the story that struck me was Twain’s description of those who opposed the war. He writes that:

“…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.”

This was the first real relevance I found for modern society.

We tend to pump ourselves full of nationalism and patriotism to the extent that we exclude and even threaten those that disagree with us. Many of us continue to do so even when the expeditions that our trumped up nationalism supported have fallen flat.

That’s a real problem. We have this idea that dissenters are somehow disloyal or unpatriotic. But the truth is that patriotism isn’t defined by one’s adherence to the current regime’s line of thinking. Patriotism is the dedication to the founding ideals of the nation and to fighting for the implementation of those ideals for all citizens equally. Disagreeing about how those ideals are implemented or what they mean is not unpatriotic, it’s the very nature of democracy.

A key example of this would be the idea of “Supporting the troops,” which is not at all the same thing as supporting the war in which those troops are engaged. One can pray and hope for the safety and well-being of the troops while also opposing where the state has sent them and the purpose it has given them.

Moving on, the second important takeaway comes in the climax of the story, during the second prayer given in church that Sunday.  Take this example, given by Twain through a character:

“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.”

The point being made is that our success often comes at the expense of another person. This is obviously true of war.

The implications of this idea are radical. Not only does it call into question the effects that a victorious war has on the losing population, but it also delves into deeper theological and psychological questions about people’s ignorance of the consequences of their actions, or even of their hopes.

The war that Twain was likely inspired by was the Spanish-American War, which was the first conflict that established the United States as an imperial power. We captured Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, The Philippines and other territories during this encounter.  It was a war that many then and today believe was unnecessary.

The same is said by some of the more recent wars our country has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but where you fall along that debate really isn’t relevant to the topic at hand.

The question we have to ask ourselves, the question Twain is begging his audience to ask of itself, is: “How will (or has) our victory affected our enemy and the innocents caught in the crossfire?”

A great many Christians prayed for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Did we realize that our potential victory would result someone else’s defeat? And that many of the people affected by war are the people who just happen to have been born in that part of the world?

Twain’s story uses vivid language to describe what the people in the story have prayed for, including soldiers reduced to “bloody shreds,” “the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain,” and wringing the hearts of “unoffending widows with unavailing grief.”

I hope you read this story for yourself. I think Twain’s point is not that war is always wrong or that nothing is worth fighting for.

I think his point is that we should be aware of what war really is. We shouldn’t treat it as something to get pumped up for like a football game (“drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping”).

We treat war like the old cliché tells us too. It is hell. And we should be aware that our victory in war always comes at the cost and devastation of other real-life human beings.

Victory does not happen in a vacuum. Nothing that we hope or pray for does, and we must think about the real-world effects of what we want.

Be careful what you pray for.

Here is the link for the story. Please read it (it’s actually very short) and let me know what you think.