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.

David Lindorff, Sr. was a Marine staff sergeant in World War IIDavid Lindorff, Sr. was a Marine staff sergeant in World War II

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.”

Help us
to lay waste
their humble homes
with a hurricane of fire.

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.

My experience is limited to life in the 20th and 21st centuries, in which the atom bomb has been the first awakening.  In World War II, when 30 million died, I wasn’t listening.  In Vietnam, when two million were killed, I listened but too late. As for the recent and present wars, which have killed more than a million people, I am trying now to listen. 
            President Kennedy famously said, “There will always be wars.” 
            Since this is  probably true for the foreseeable  future, we must strive to diminish the first prayer, and listen to what we are really asking for in the second when we pray for victory.

DAVID LINDORFF, Sr. is a retired electrical engineer, a Jungian analyst, and is author of Pauli and Jung: A Meeting of Two Great Minds (Quest Books, 2004). He lives with his wife Dorothy in Mansfield, CT, and can be contacted by email