The War Prayer (1905)
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
To Dan Beard, who dropped in to see him,
Clemens read the “War Prayer,” stating that
he had read it to his daughter Jean,
and others, who had told him he must not
print it, for it would be regarded as sacrilege.
“Still, you are going to publish it, are you not?”
Clemens, pacing up and down the room
in his dressing gown and slippers,
shook his head.
“No,” he said, “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.”
From: Mark Twain, A Biography by Albert Bigelow Paine
Harper & Brothers, 1912
This recollection serves as the Forward to The War Prayer by Mark Twain. (Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens; Dan Beard was an illustrator who work on several of Twain’s books.) Reading The War Prayer one can understand Twain’s hesitation. This powerful short story represents a carefully crafted indictment of the feverish righteousness and thoughtless jingoism that leads to the glorification of war, and that can bring forth cheering crowds of soldiers, their loved ones and also their envious “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.”
In the story, Twain turns the tables on these cheering masses as they gather in church before the troops head for the front, where the preacher beseeches God to watch over “our noble young soldiers and aid … them in their patriotic work; … [and] help them to crush the foe.” As the preacher finishes his rousing speech “an aged stranger” enters the church, and ascends to where the preacher stands before the crowd. After some moments silently staring down at the crowd, he announces to them “I come from the Throne --- bearing a message from Almighty God,” and proceeds to describe to them the “full import,” the “unspoken” in what they have asked of God. He lays bare for the crowd the gruesome reality behind their requests to God, the horror of the war for which they cheer so mightily.
Based on what I’ve learned, the story was originally written in 1905, but not published until 1923, after Twain’s death. The Perennial Library edition I have logs in at 85 pages, but the story is really only a relatively short text, spread out among many illustrations, with sometimes only a few words or lines per page. The illustrations were created by John Groth in 1968, and are hauntingly arresting ink drawings that complement the story perfectly; the book cover, pictured above, shows an example. One can easily imagine the impetus for these drawings, and the reprint of the book itself, arising out of the growing anti-war sentiment of the late 1960’s. The book is as brilliant and concise an anti-war statement as can be found.
Other reviews / information:
For another amazing anti-war piece, see the short story The Dog of Dürer in Marco Denevi's Falsificaciones (Falsifications).
A sentiment similar to that expressed by Twain in The War Prayer appears in a novel from 1938 by the German writer Erich Wiechert, The Simple Life (Das einfache Leben; my review here). In that story, a man who finds himself lost in an existential crisis in the wake of his experiences in the first world war seeks out a new life of simple labor in the countryside. Finding profound and compelling meaning in the work and natural surroundings of his new life, he begins to reconsider the meaning of the faith he grew up with. Questioning the character of God, or perhaps more precisely, the commonly accepted image of God held by his fellow countrymen, he decides:
...I will find a different face [of God]. Not one that is to be beseeched, and not one that is to be thanked. Not one before whom people will begin shouting: “Now thank all ye God!”, if they have just beaten to death a thousand or ten thousand men. Because then must the others clearly be shouting: “Now curse all ye God.” (241)
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf