I came across this article about Mark Twain’s anti-war writings. Did you know that Mark Twain was an anti-war activist? I didn’t. This article explains why history has forgoten that part of his life. When I mentioned this to a friend who as reading Lies My Teacher Told Me who told me other startling lapses in my (and I’d guess other’s) knowledge of U.S. history. For example, did you know that Helen Keller was an active radical socialist and helped found the ACLU? Nope. Neither did I.
Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialism, Then and Now by Jim Zwick (2004).
The article has many links to actual essays and letters by Twain.
On February 18, 1991, the entire back cover of the progressive weekly newspaper In These Times was used to reprint an excerpt from Mark Twain’s story, The War Prayer. Illustrated down the side with dropping bombs, the excerpt from the story featured the aged stranger’s translation of the congregation’s prayer for victory. As thousands of bombs were being dropped on cities and military installations in Iraq, Twain’s story, written in 1905, seemed surprisingly appropriate:
O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! 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 wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children wandering and unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land.
The congregation had simply prayed for God to support their soldiers and help them to victory. The aged stranger revealed the unmentioned results that follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it by repeating the prayer in those terms. The congregation ultimately decides that he was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.
First published in 1923 and widely circulated during the war in Vietnam, The War Prayer has become a classic piece of antiwar literature, but few people seem to know about the story’s origins and history. In both a 1980 film adaptation of The Private History of a Campaign That Failed and a War Prayer Oratorio that premiered in April 1995, the story was presented within the context of Twain’s Civil War experiences. But the story was inspired by a later war, one in which Twain himself questioned the results of victory and emerged as one of the country’s most prominent and outspoken opponents of U.S. imperialism.
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