Monday, November 22, 2010

Amnesia, Atrocity, and The War Prayer

       I remember the first time I read Mark Twain's famous opus, "The War Prayer."  Well, it was famous to some people; actually, I had never heard of it. (If you haven't read it recently, or ever, you can find it here.)  It was shown to me by one of my college friends, a fun-loving, informed, committed member of the 60s campus left, and I am indebted to him for many things.  But friend or not, I can remember to this day my own reaction when I read it for the first time:  What business did Mark Twain have writing that?  I had known he was a cynic (someone had told me), but I thought he was an all-American.  It was practically traitorous.  It was true that Vietnam, the necessary war against communism, was dragging badly, but the righteousness of the cause was not in doubt . . .  What was my friend suggesting, saying, insinuating, by getting me to read this?

       I was one of those people Mark Twain mentioned at the end of the piece, and I think that even at the time I sensed it: "It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic; because there was no sense in what he said."

       Mark Twain makes a lot more sense to me now.

       I remember the first time I heard about Gore Vidal.  I knew he was a liberal (someone told me), and I further knew that one of my heroes, the conservative columnist Bill Buckley, famously didn't like him; and that was enough for me.  Well, I got to hear Gore Vidal for myself a while back (on the Internet, of course), where he talks about "the United States of Amnesia."  He is referring to a nation of people who forget everything that happened before last Monday morning. Well, he may or may not be a liberal, but he sure nailed that one.  You can find lots of his interviews on YouTube, and judge for yourself.   Let me just say that I find him very interesting.  Uncomfortable, too, like Mark Twain.

       History shows us that Americans especially like to be amnesiac about the atrocities committed by Americans in whatever war is under discussion.  It is an old weakness.  Back in the early 1800s, folks didn't like to hear about General Jackson cutting off the noses of 557 Creek Indians; they just wanted to know that Old Hickory had won the war.  They didn't want to hear about Phil Sheridan and the Washita massacre, they just wanted to settle the West. And to this day they don't want to hear how the US Army under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt wiped out thousands upon thousands of Filipino soldiers and many tens of thousands of civilians.  But there was a noble cause: it was in order to bring the "gospel" to our "little brown brothers."  Do you think that the Lord of All Worlds is proud of this?  (By the way, it is one of the wars where the US military perfected waterboarding.  So if somebody wants to defend this particular custom as an old American military tradition, I must bow to the undisputed facts and admit that they are right.)

       In my own youth, it was the war in Vietnam, conceived in CIA stupidity (collusion with both communists and old colonialists) and born in a military lie (the faked incident in the Gulf of Tonkin); the burdens to be borne by young, poor men -- many of them idealistic, but most of them simply drafted against their will; cheered on by their silly, or gullible, or helpless parents; abandoned, at the last, by the higher echelons of America's political class (the same elite "internationalist" intelligentsia that masterminded the Korean war from unnecessary start to ugly midgame to inconclusive finish); but not before The Powers That Be had shattered the Vietnamese peasantry, and toppled the dominoes into mass murders in Cambodia and Laos as well.

       Atrocities are in the nature of war.  Maybe not in all wars -- maybe there are "just wars" -- but we can indisputably document that a series of atrocities have been the norm in most American wars.

       But I will agree that there is a difference this time:  the Vietnam war was started by an administration of liberal Democrats, and perpetuated by the support of conservative Republicans.  The current wars in the Near East were started by an administration of conservative Republicans and perpetuated by the support of liberal Democrats.

       The more things change . . .

       I think about Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," written over a hundred years ago.  Thank you for beginning the wake-up process for me, Jay.

       . . . the more they remain the same.

       It is much easier to forget than to think about changing.  But if we can't quite forget, it is comforting to know that war is always, really, for God.  Isn't it?

*       *       *

       One of the commenters on an earlier post suggested the following links for our consideration.  I highly recommend them.  They can be found here and here and here.

       I believe that the Gore Vidal interview was carried on the Real News Network.  I also highly recommend them.

       Comments, pro and con, most welcome.  Let's talk; it's way better than fighting.


  1. If you’re in the battle for the Lord and right,
    Keep on the firing line;
    If you win, my brother, surely you must fight,
    Keep on the firing line;
    There are many dangers that we all must face,
    If we die still fighting it is no disgrace;
    Cowards in the service will not find a place,
    So keep on the firing line.

    Oh, you must fight, be brave against all evil,
    Never run, nor even lag behind;
    If you would win for God and the right,
    Just keep on the firing line.

    God will only use the soldier He can trust,
    Keep on the firing line;
    If you’ll wear a crown then bear the cross you must,
    Keep on the firing line.
    Life is but to labor for the Master dear,
    Help to banish evil and to spread good cheer;
    Great you’ll be rewarded for your service here,
    So keep on the firing line.

    When we get to heaven, brother, we’ll be glad,
    Keep on the firing line;
    How we’ll praise the Savior for the call we had,
    Keep on the firing line;
    When we see the souls that we have helped to win,
    Leading them to Jesus, from the paths of sin,
    With a shout of welcome, we will all march in,
    So keep on the firing line.

    Attrib Howard Haney ca. 1927

    Refers scrip Ephesians 6:13

    The Devil only quotes scripture; humans twist scripture for their own purposes

  2. To quote from popular fiction, I think one of the best sum ups was in Forsythe's Dogs of War when Endicott ask Shannon at the end why he screwed up the coup funded by Sir James.

    For years, I watched between half and a million kids starve to death in Africa. It was done so that people like your precious Sir James could make bigger profits.

  3. Evangelicals like to think that the 19th century church in England and America was a kind of high-water mark of spiritual health, a sort of "Church of Philadelphia," as in the Book of Revelation.

    But I am seeing, more and more, that it was not -- on the contrary, the church in that century was characterized by compromise, distraction, nitpicking, and lack of spirituality to a remarkable degree.

    Mark Twain's War Prayer does not overstate the tragic situation that he saw in the church of his day.

  4. Interesting thoughts robert.

    One of the things that really struck me in reading tortured for christ, was brother wurmbrand said that He's only seen three places where christians were truly "free" and had the joy of the Lord, like the bible describes.
    1. The book of acts
    2. The underground church
    3. Prison
    The stuff he wrote about his brothers and sisters in prisons undergoing torture and hardship to a remarkable degree brings tears to my eyes, even thinking about how close to Jesus these brothers were. How far a cry from the Anglicans.
    BTW, the anglicans, the king of england was the head of their "church", and if I recall correctly Brother John Bunyan wouldn't have a lot of nice things to say about them either.

    Contrast that with wurmbrand who said "I forgot my bible verses, I forgot my whole theology, but then Jesus came into my room dressed in light and righteousness. He knelt beside me and told me how much he loved me, how that I was His forever and that he held every single one of my tears in a jar."

    We shouldn't envy and go out looking for persecution, but who's more spiritually healthy?
    1. Fat bald guy in a white robe, dispensing platitudes from behind a comfortable pulpit?
    2. Man who talks with Jesus face to face?

    lam rionic

  5. I don't want to sound like I'm coming down too hard on the anglicans. I know there are alot of good anglicans out there, but anytime you set something up as beyond criticism, you make an idol out of it.
    As human beings, we are REALLY good at it...

    tam crionic

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, lam and tam.

    Wurmbrand is right, of course.

    We may agree, and grant that the Anglicans have many serious weaknesses.

    But the Anglicans I was mentioning were neither the king of England, nor were they fat bald guys in white robes dispensing platitudes.