Thoughts on Mark Twain's 'The War Prayer'
At the beginning of the twentieth century the United States was engaged in a long and brutal war of aggression against the Philippines, which led to between 200,000 and 1.5 million civilian deaths. It was a colonial war against independence fought by the US with patriotic zeal and of course, the claim that God was on our side. To be against the war in that jingoistic era was considered tantamount to treason. Hence it was a brazen act of effrontery for author Mark Twain to have made a statement denouncing the acts of brutality that accompanied this war. In his short story, The War Prayer, he portrayed a priest who, with fervor, called upon God to bring victory to a supposedly just cause, irrespective of the horror inflicted on the "enemy," a poor and downtrodden people trying only to assert their freedom after centuries of colonial oppression.
Following an invocation from the Old-Testament and an enormous blast from the organ “that shook the house,” the priest closed with,
"Bless our arms,
grant us the victory,
O Lord our God,
Father and Protector
of our land and flag."
It was then that attention shifted to an old man walking slowly down the aisle. With his eyes fixed on the gaunt face and long white hair of the approaching stranger, who was wearing a white robe that reached to his feet, the startled minister yielded his place at the altar. The strange interloper stood there for a time, seemingly unaware of the people sitting spellbound before him in the pews.
With eyes that showed an “uncanny light, he then said in a deep voice:
I come from the Throne --
bearing a message from Almighty God.
These words were of course shocking. He continued:
He has heard the prayer
of the servant your shepherd
and will grant it
if such shall be your desire
after I, his messenger,
have explained to you its 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 that he pause and think. (Emphasis added)
For in truth there are two prayers embedded within any prayer for success in war, the spoken and the unspoken. The spoken word is a prayer for victory, but the unspoken prayer is asking for many unforeseen but terrible consequences. In granting the first, the second must follow in the form of “unmentioned results.” It is to these that Twain's God had instructed the stranger to draw attention. It was to the second hidden prayer that the people needed “to listen.”