The War Prayer: Mark Twain on the Realities of War That are Left Unspoken

“I don’t think The War Prayer will be published in my time. Only the dead are permitted to speak the truth.”

Mark Twain is known for his satirical writings on the topics of race, religion, and various aspects of culture; but one topic that he was particularly passionate about, and one of the areas of his work that I think is under-appreciated, are his anti-war writings.

His staunch anti-imperialism, his knowledge of the true impact that war has on the human race, was a significant driving force in the latter portions of his life.

He was greatly opposed to the Philippine-American War, for example, and it is a little known fact that he was the vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until the year of his death, 1910.

This is largely ignored, however, even by biographers who are well aware of these facts.

‘Why?’ writes Noam Chomsky, ‘The question answers itself. You don’t want people to explode the aura of benevolence in which we clothe ourselves.’

Twain did not identify as a pacifist, but he hated jingoism, or, what we self-righteously call patriotism today. He hated the blind support of war by those willfully blind to its true consequences.

…we have invited clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honor and blackened her face before the world.

In his short story The War Prayer, Twain contends that there is one prayer that is uttered aloud by those enthusiastic and supportive of war, and another that is left unspoken.

The half that is uttered aloud is, of course, the call for victory, the call for a glorious and clean-cut defeat of evil by our young patriots.

The War Prayer takes place at a church service, shortly before soldiers are being sent to fight for their country.

The scene is set by a preacher praying for victory.

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language.

The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory…

‘Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!’

As the prayer is spoken, an “aged stranger” enters the church and silently makes his way to the podium, walking with his eyes unwaveringly set on the minister. The stranger proceeds to notify the preacher of his presence, and to motion him to step aside.

The stranger takes the preacher’s place in the center of the stage. The stranger begins to speak.

‘I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!’

The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention.

‘He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full 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 he pause and think.’

The stranger represents the half of war that isn’t told, the half that is most significant: the effects that war has both on those who face devastating defeat, and on those who return home as the victor.

‘God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer?

No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not.

Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind.

If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time.

If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.’

The media utterly fails to show us this dark side of war, the side that all prayers for victory leave unspoken, and much of the population on the side of the “winning team” fails to acknowledge the dark side, as well.

They grasp for heroism while they ignore the everyday struggles of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives to fight when they’re told to fight. They talk vacuously about freedom while ignoring the fact that bombing a densely-populated civilian area doesn’t free anyone.

The stranger goes on to relay the unspoken half of the war prayer:

When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it.

‘Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.

O Lord our God, help us 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 drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it…’

This is the side we don’t hear. The call for victory is met with applause; but no one dares to point out what “victory” means in the context of war.

And further, we (we being the hawks, the media, and sadly, much of our intellectual culture) ignore those who call for us to pay attention to our victims, to recognize the suffering inflicted upon the weak and defenseless by the strong.

Not only does the media take great pains to ignore anti-war voices, it is largely responsible for the vehement condemnation of those who are opposed to their cherished war efforts.

Twain made clear that he recognized this fact, with the final sentence of The War Prayer:

It was believed afterward that the man [the stranger] was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Protestors and the vocal opposition are labeled anti-American, unpatriotic, soft, weak, and they are told to shut up and step aside.

The media and those who call for war as the first and only option don’t tolerate anyone who attempts to rain on their frenzied parade. They will fabricate, lie, and oversimplify; anything to engender support for the devastation that is to come.

…the whole nation – pulpit and all – will take up the war-cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open.

Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.


We glorify war, without full awareness of its consequences. We tell ourselves comforting lies and sweet justifications, pushing aside the truth. That is Twain’s message for us all.

There’s a war you see, and a war you don’t.

There’s a war that you hear about on the radio and on the news, and then there’s the real war, the war taking place behind the curtains, the war that no one wants to acknowledge, because to do so would be to shed light on the inconceivable facts.

Our attention is diverted from the misery directly resulting from war, to glorious and self-righteous thoughts about victory and liberation, to vague notions of freedom and democracy. But the real consequences of war are unspeakable.

No one wants war, in its brutal reality. And the media knows this, those who wage war know this. So they package war in a glorified, easy-to-swallow capsule.

People can’t be shown the slaughter of innocents, the destroyed homes and schools, the tortured prisoners, the soldiers dying in the name of American imperialism.

They can’t hear that our brave soldiers are never the same after they return home, or that they rarely get the medical attention they truly deserve.

We are beckoned to see the world through a one-way mirror, as if we are threatened and innocent and the rest of humanity is threatening, or wretched, or expendable. Our memory is struggling to rescue the truth that human rights were not handed down as privileges from a parliament, or a boardroom, or an institution, but that peace is only possible with justice and with information that gives us the power to act justly. – John Pilger

Twain’s message is an important one today, and one that will undoubtedly be important in the future. We have to fight to see the full story, and we have to look beyond what we are told to believe. The picture is so often left incomplete.

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