Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” from the very rare collector’s DVD “Peace” by Willie Nelson, Family and Friends.
“The War Prayer,” a short story or prose poem by Mark Twain, is a scathing indictment of war, and particularly of blind patriotic and religious fervor as motivations for war. The structure of the work is simple: An unnamed country goes to war, and patriotic citizens attend a church service for soldiers who have been called up. The people call upon their God to grant them victory and protect their troops. Suddenly, an “aged stranger” appears and announces that he is God’s messenger. He explains to them that he is there to speak aloud the second part of their prayer for victory, the part which they have implicitly wished for but have not spoken aloud themselves: the prayer for the suffering and destruction of their enemies. What follows is a grisly depiction of hardships inflicted on war-torn nations by their conquerors. The story ends with the man being ignored.
The piece was left unpublished by Mark Twain at his death in April 1910, largely due to pressure from his family, who feared that the story would be considered sacrilegious. Twain’s publisher and other friends also discouraged him from publishing it. According to one account, his illustrator Dan Beard asked him if he would publish it anyway, and Twain replied, “No, 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.” Mindful of public reaction, he considered that he had a family to support and did not want to be seen as a lunatic or fanatic. “The War Prayer” was finally published in the 1923 anthology Europe and Elsewhere.
Text adapted from various sources, including Wikipedia