Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE WAR PRAYER.... In 1904, disgusted by the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War, Mark Twain wrote a short anti-war prose poem called "The War Prayer." His family begged him not to publish it, his friends advised him to bury it, and his publisher rejected it, thinking it too inflammatory for the times. Twain agreed, but instructed that it be published after his death, saying famously:

None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.

"The War Prayer" was eventually published after World War I, when its message was more in tune with the times. Washington Monthly's publisher, Markos Kounalakis, who was affected by Twain's words when he covered the war in Yugoslavia in the early 90s, made "The War Prayer" into a short video for release last Memorial Day, and today we're reprising it. It features stunning illustrations by Akis Dimitrakopoulos and is narrated by Peter Coyote, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Erik Bauersfeld. You can view it here.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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Very powerful, indeed. When I was in high school in 1969, I came upon an edition of the War Prayer with illustrations by John Groth, published the year before, and was bowled over by it. I'd been a keen reader of Twain since childhood, but here was an angry Twain I had never encountered. In this story he is, as Orwell later wrote of Dickens, "generously angry." Angry and despairing myself over the war in Vietnam, I chose to recite the War Prayer as a poem at high school speech tournaments from that time on. I didn't win any trophies with it, and probably irritated a few judges, but this text will always have a special meaning for me. I'm glad to see it given back to us in this skillful video rendering.

Posted by: Cuttle on May 26, 2008 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for such a timely post, Kevin. The War Prayer is a wonderful piece of writing -- "this is what you say, but this is what you really mean." To my mind, Robert Byrd's comments in the debate over the war on the floor of the Senate were evocative of Twain's words, and I'll always be grateful to him for that.

Posted by: junebug on May 26, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Good prayer. This ripping up of the enemies with shells business sounds like just the ticket. Hey Condi, get over hear, we need to get some shells.

Posted by: George W, Bush on May 26, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Timely and, alas, timeless.
Thank you again.

Posted by: thersites on May 26, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Someone in the idiot corner has torture envy.

Posted by: gregor on May 26, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

(*After a pause.*) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!

....and all the George W. Bush Republicans shouted:
"Yay! We desire it evermore now that we have heard of the totality of pain it will cause the Hated Other!"

Posted by: MNPundit on May 26, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

I dunno. I'm a fan of this Twain piece, but I guess I'm not a big fan of this cartoon. The showing of outright murders of civilians, and executions, undermines the point IMHO. OF COURSE these things are bad. Does anybody doubt the evil of the Nazis? The point is--or so it seems to me--that even a war conducted for ordinary reasons (by the standards of wars) by ordinary countries, are tragic. The flip side to victory is defeat and death, even under the best of conditions. Therefore war should not be undertaken lightly or for bad reasons (as, say, the Iraq war was).

Showing Nazi-style executions and so forth blows the whole point.

Posted by: Winston Smith on May 26, 2008 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

I tend to agree with Winston. Even the best of wars is a tragedy on both sides. I hadn't heard of this piece before, and the writing is powerful. It would be best not to go overboard with it as it misses the point.

Posted by: tomeck48 on May 26, 2008 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: Brittanypatroit on May 26, 2008 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Gregor, thanks for the link. It finally showed me something Cliff May and I agree on, i.e., I wish he were in Gitmo too.

Posted by: tomeck48 on May 26, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: mhr on May 26, 2008 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

The War Prayer is just one of Twain's pieces that were judged unpublishable in his lifetime. There are others.

They were collected (by DeVoto) into Letters From The Earth, which has been in and out of print since I discovered it thirty years ago in my college bookstore. I see that it's available from Amazon here.

Highly recommended. I especially like the "Report to the I.I.A.S.", and the extended riff on James Fenimore Cooper's prose style (containing the memorable statement that one of Cooper's sentences has "a monkey-with-a-parasol air that is unsuitable to the consumption of raw meat.")

But the heart of the book is the title piece, a long series of letters from a banished archangel to his colleagues still in Heaven, in which the angel describes human society, and in particular the conventional American Christian Protestantism of Twain's time. Then as now, the hypocrisy and black-is-white pieties of the dominant culture transformed simple statements of fact into deep sarcasm -- sort of a Sadly, No! for the end of the nineteenth century.

Posted by: joel hanes on May 26, 2008 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

The point is--or so it seems to me--that even a war conducted for ordinary reasons (by the standards of wars) by ordinary countries, are tragic. The flip side to victory is defeat and death, even under the best of conditions.

Yes, Winston Smith. Even just wars -- and maybe even more so than the more crass variety -- inspire a bloodthirstiness & lust for revenge that we're loath to recognize in ourselves , as Dresden, Hiroshima, & Nagasaki demonstrate -- to say nothing of the use of napalm in Vietnam. Twain's point deserves to be underscored now more than ever, as we've allowed ourselves to believe that surgical strikes & smart bombs take all the messiness out of war. In the long & sad list of unconscionable acts we let the administration get away with during this war, the prohibition of photographing military caskets easily belongs in the top 10.

Posted by: junebug on May 26, 2008 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

Late Twain is a lot different than his more famous and earlier works. He seems really disillusioned by life and he seems to stretch a little too much, even trying to be a writer he's really not (some kind of an iconoclastic & heady philosopher)-- grasping at giving us a message that doens't seem to coalesce into anything so definite as a message, but instead just an indistinct, bitter, gloomy feeling.

Anyway, I think the drop of blood on the logo graphic above the video is inappropriate. I didn't watch the whole video right now though because I don't feel like it.

Posted by: Swan on May 26, 2008 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Missing the point has to be a victims right.

It is to us that the prayer is intended. It is to us to understand what we do in the name of God.

Nowhere is it written we need to be patsies. Everywhere it is written about the folly of war. Especially war fomented by idiots on the backs of others.

Posted by: bobbywally on May 26, 2008 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

I think Twain was probably one of the first and most famous writers who ended up disappointed that he wasn't taken more seriously.

It's a little ironic since he's stood so sturdily in people's memories, anyway. Plenty of people have heard of or even read Twain who have never heard of or just don't know anything about Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietschze- the list goes on and on.

And if you're talking to people from, for example, another country about literature, except for a very distinct little set of people, you're bound to get a lot more mileage of connection with them trying to talk about Twain than trying to talk about Goethe or Nietschze or whoever the hell it was he ended up trying to be more like in his later years.

Posted by: Swan on May 26, 2008 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

I don't mean to sound like I'm criticizing The War Prayer, by the way; rather I'm just reacting to the first comment, by Cuttle, which includes some very familiar surprise at this more serious side to Twain (which I've seen only the last few things he wrote).

Posted by: Swan on May 26, 2008 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

The so-called theory of just war is one of those things that the conservatives cling to in their quest to kill others of the unsuitable kind, as, in their mind, it justifies all the death and destruction that a war can bring on innocent people. It's quite convenient to be a 'conservative' on this score - that is, if you turn a blind eye to the fact that those who coined such a term perhaps did not know the scale of mayhem that the modern weapons can cause.

Posted by: gregor on May 26, 2008 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

I didn't watch the whole video right now though because I don't feel like it.

But I will comment away anyway.

Posted by: the wisdom of Swan on May 26, 2008 at 4:49 PM | PERMALINK

But I will comment away anyway.

Eh, comment on another commenter's comment, which I've read, and comment on Mark Twain, which I've read a lot of, too.

Pretty weird that I'm singled out for all the psycho comments, and no one else gets this kind of treatment, when everyone else routinely does the kinds of things I get criticized by the nutbars for-- for instance, commenting on other people's comments, going on tangents.

It's especially interesting when if I wrote as much off-topic, wise-cracky,and substanceless tripe as many other commenters do, I'd probably get depressed and kill myself.

It's almost as if someone has a problem with my writing helpful, insightful, contentful comments and with my looking smart-- in fact, it's definitely like that's what's going on.

Posted by: Swan on May 26, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, someone confronted by a war, i.e., the Civil War, when he was of military age, and who fought briefly on the wrong side and then ran away and avoided future service while 360,000 of his fellow citizens died to end slavery and preserve the union, had a rather strong vested interest in claiming that all wars were silly and immoral. Fortunately, Abe Lincoln, Robert Gould Shaw, and two million Union soldiers didn't share that view.

Posted by: y81 on May 26, 2008 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Contra Swan, I will recommend one of Twain's last works, The Mysterious Stranger.

This novella-length piece is a great shotgun blast at religion in general and the problem of evil in particular.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 26, 2008 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps Mark Twain's lewd, bawdy "1601" could be reworked as a satire on the Bush administration.

We were talking at our house yesterday about how Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" should be made into a new movie version with the Bush administration being brought to the isolated island as guests of N. Owen. There would be Bush ... Condi ... Rumsfeld ... Alberto ... Etc., etc.

Yesterday, I finally saw "Death Of a President." They should have filmed the interviews with different characters more naturally, with varied, natural lighting to up the realism--they're all too much the same and too "lit." And I did mostly feel that I was listening to actors reading a script.

Even if the end didn't make it absolutely clear, I immediately saw that the accused, convicted, death-row "assassin" was just some middle-eastern guy who was being railroaded by right-wingers.

The famous shooting scene is very upsetting--it is very realistic and chaotic. I was surprised that I was so affected by it.

Posted by: Anon on May 26, 2008 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK


Mark Twain was one of America's greatest contributions to modern culture. Are you saying he should have left that contribution dead on a battlefield (as a member of the rebel army) in order to prove his "patriotism" to someone who never served either? (Apologies if you, like me, have served in the military.)

Consider this. It is likely that a LOT of native genius died then, and only what you consider the "cowardly" act of self preservation saved his for us.

Posted by: Repack Rider on May 26, 2008 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

as a Republican, I thank you for this shallow emotionalism - this kind of inane liberal wailing will at least give us the White House in November - I'm conceding congress.

Out of curiosity, I asked a few guys I know in the Marines to watch this thing - I believe they're still laughing.

Posted by: orlon on May 26, 2008 at 5:49 PM | PERMALINK

y81: ...a rather strong vested interest in claiming that all wars were silly and immoral

Nowhere in the text is that said. All that is asked is to we be fully aware of what the consequences are when a nation chooses war. Think of the drumbeat and excitement leading up to the Excellent Iraq Cakewalk/Adventure.

Perhaps the Civil War was worth fighting. Perhaps WWII was worth fighting. But contrary to what President Bush or viewers of Fox News may think, war is never romantic, and is never glorious.

I'm sure even orlon's Marine friends will agree with that.

Posted by: thersites on May 26, 2008 at 6:00 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, yeah, this was old last year. Like 100 years old.

Skip the video. Go read the original. Imagine the scene in your mind, without the heavyhanded animation. It is impossible to improve on the bare words penned by America's quintessential author. This video is not an improvement. Mark Twain was not a scriptwriter.

Posted by: charlie don't surf on May 26, 2008 at 6:02 PM | PERMALINK

Twain's writing is excellent, of course and very much to the point, considering our current adventure in Iraq. However, I have to agree with Winston Smith, that Markos undercuts a powerful message with his depictions of summary executions. That ought to go over well with military families all over the USA. Dumb.

Posted by: AK Liberal on May 26, 2008 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

Out of curiosity, I asked a few guys I know in the Marines to watch this thing - I believe they're still laughing.

There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.

Posted by: thin white guy on May 26, 2008 at 6:50 PM | PERMALINK

The narration in the video is decent, so just turn of the monitor and listen to it. Or follow the link that accompanies the video to a text version of The War Prayer.

Posted by: tanstaafl on May 26, 2008 at 7:08 PM | PERMALINK

From wikipedia...

The piece was left unpublished by Mark Twain at his death, largely due to pressure from his family, who feared that the story would be considered sacrilegious.[1] Twain's publisher and other friends also discouraged him from publishing it.[citation needed] According to one account, his illustrator Dan Beard asked him if he would publish it regardless, and Twain replied that "Only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead."[2] Mindful of public reaction, he considered that he had a family to support[1], and did not want to be seen as a lunatic or fanatic.[

So unlike Twain's family who feared being seen as sacrilegious, and unlike Twain himself who feared being seen as a lunatic or a fanatic, Kevin Drum has no such fears! That is the only conclusion I can come to from Drum drawing attention to the War Prayer during Memorial Day. Of all days to bring this up you choose Memorial Day? Have you no shame?

Thank's to Kevin and his amen chorus for the helpful reminder of core Democratic Party values. Just like the scorpion of the fable, regardless of what you people may say to reassure others, you just can't help yourselves from being true to your nature.

Posted by: Brad on May 26, 2008 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a vet -- Army Field Artillery.

I think Twain's War Prayer is perfectly apropos for Memorial Day.

Posted by: joel hanes on May 26, 2008 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK

writers, intellectuals, philsophers have historically been the worst at understanding the real world of politics and, to give war a nicer name, international relations. To quote a writer of fiction in support of a politcal agenda is to reveal what a fucking moron you are. The 20th century's greatest writer, Joyce, had virtually nothing insightful to say about the two bloodbaths he lived through - that he used them to say something interesting about human nature is true - but in real political terms? nothing. When his Jewish Paris pals were being dragged off by the Nazis he had nothing of value to say. And Twain was a retard compared to Joyce.

But of course you code pink liberals like to believe the post post-modern world is beyond the silliness of war - the Chinese will be very glad to hear that.

Posted by: orso on May 26, 2008 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

writers, intellectuals, philsophers have historically been the worst at understanding the real world of politics and, to give war a nicer name, international relations.

So which is Bush?

Posted by: junebug on May 26, 2008 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

And Twain was a retard compared to Joyce.

Really? And what was the prophet Isaiah? An inbred mouthbreather like yourself?

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

-- Isaiah 2: 2-4 (KJV

It doesn't take a liberal or an old testament prophet to see the tragedy in wanton bloodlust, it only takes someone with a modicum of self-awareness and sense of kinship with humanity.

You go to war only as a last resort and even then you hate it for the unnecessary death and destruction it wreaks.

Posted by: trex on May 26, 2008 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

trex said it better than I was going to say it, so I'll just repeat:
You go to war only as a last resort and even then you hate it for the unnecessary death and destruction it wreaks.
and simply add:
only a chickenhawk who's never seen war, or a sociopath, can fail to hate it.

Posted by: thersites on May 26, 2008 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK


Explain how your criticism (justified) of Joyce's behavior reflects badly on Mark Twain.

Posted by: thersites on May 26, 2008 at 9:33 PM | PERMALINK

The Mysterious Stranger is a very strange tale. But the one thing I can surely say about it is its message doesn't seem as simple as Socratic Gadfly makes it sound. More than just striking at religion, it seems to (somewhat unconvincingly, I now believe) criticize morality in general.

A main theme of the tale seems to be causation in morality-- that is, how can you really trust your actions to be morally commendable when the consequences of the actions we take are so unpredictable? Twain seemed to be arguing (I am unfortunately not so well-read or well-educated to know how originally) that since you don't really know what your actions will end up causing before you choose them, any attempt to direct your actions according to morality is futile; you could take one action to attempt to avert a disaster, and that action could unpredicatbly end up making people more susceptible to a much more terrible disaster that then ensues.

I think the real sticker is the "unpredictable" part. In the law, for example, we're held less responsible for occurences and conditions that are less reasonably predictable than others. According to our experience of the world, some things are really predictable, but other things are less likely to happen. For example, if you don't ever look over your shoulder when you back out of your driveway, it's reasonable that you might eventually hit some kid when you back out. But it's less reasonably predictable that if you use commercially available weed-killer on your lawn, your neighbor is going to have a reaction to it and die. So in a common-sense kind of way, we hold people responsible to look over their own shoulders when they drive backwards, but we don't hold people responsible for other people's allergic reactions they had no reason to be aware of. The manufacturer of the weed-killer is in a better position to know about the ingredients of weed killers and their potential dangers to people, so if anyone, we hold the marketers and the manufacturers responsible, and not just any guy who happens to buy and use the weed-killer.

The shallowness of Twain's critique of morality is an example of why I criticized his late works in my earlier comments. Because he makes a lame complaint like that, he seems to just be personally angry and disappointed, rather than having a just point and criticism to make about life. Are there things that are out of our power in our lives? Sure. But plenty of things aren't, so long as nothing wildly unlikely and unpredictable intervenes. Since those unlikely and unpredictable are things don't happen too often (or are things we've never even heard of having happened before), we might as well just try to direct our actions according to what we know is likely to happen, and is the only kind of stuff we can reasonably expect to prepare ourselves for.

I don't know what particular event pissed Twain off so much, but it really seems like he could have benefitted from a good pep-talk before he died.

Posted by: Swan on May 26, 2008 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

This prayer reminds of Barbra Tuchman's The Guns of August detailing the first month of World War One.

On the eve of war the whole of Germany was celebrating, only very few souls could be found forlornly whispering that going to war with France, England and Russia was a very stupid idea. Folks exactly like these are mentioned in Twain's poem.

Times have gotten better. Now these people have grown from few to many, but orso shows us there's still far to go.

Posted by: Boronx on May 26, 2008 at 10:50 PM | PERMALINK

In All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel set in WWI among German soldiers, the most terrifying part isn't the scenes of trench warfare. It's when the boys go home on leave and the town elders, including the schoolteacher who hyped them into enlisting, keep telling them how easy it should be for them to win, if they would just fight harder.

The capacity of the chickenhawks -- of that time or our time -- for self-deception is staggering. As Boronx says, things have changed but not enough.

The old B&W movie is also excellent.

Posted by: thersites on May 26, 2008 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

Powerful piece, but then as now the war lusting and frightened have an instant and automatic response. "Better them than us." Which isn't really a response at all, if considered thoughtfully, but since thoughtful consideration is looked down upon by such people...

Posted by: Flux on May 26, 2008 at 11:58 PM | PERMALINK

Swan, I was just giving the nickel overview. And, I actually think his critique was well-thought. In a way, the late Twain was a precursor to existentialism.

And, the critique of morality you mention was in the service of his larger critique of religion, and, that "problem of evil" -- why does a god let bad things happen to good people, etc.

For an excellent modern take on the problem of evil, from a renowned New Testament scholar who is an agnostic, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s “God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.”

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 27, 2008 at 1:27 AM | PERMALINK


You always want to be careful quoting the Bible.

Joel 3, in all likelihood deliberately, reverses the Isaiah (and Micah) phrase, and says:

Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning-hooks into spears: let the weak say I am strong.

Surprised that hasn't been adopted by the NRA or something.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 27, 2008 at 1:31 AM | PERMALINK

[beat]your pruning-hooks into spears
After a weekend of yardwork, I can definitely relate.

Posted by: thersites on May 27, 2008 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK
The so-called theory of just war is one of those things that the conservatives cling to in their quest to kill others of the unsuitable kind

Well, no, the theory of just war is one of the things conservatives outright reject in that quest, because it calls for things (just cause, proportionality of harms inflicted to harms prevented, proper authority, probability of success, etc.) that conservatives find to be crippling restraints on their belligerence. Conservatives more often appeal to the Hobbesian view that the natural and unalterable state of affairs between soveriegn nations is a war of all against all where there are no limitations or constraints that can be recognized.

Posted by: cmdicely on May 27, 2008 at 7:21 PM | PERMALINK

Oh ho. "The War Prayer" was the centerpoint of my very first blog entry in the days after the invasion of Iraq. The blog was initiated in response to some nonsense I heard on my local NPR affiliate. The first post-invasion batch of letters from listeners included a call for a halt to any anti-American missives. Another complained that NPR wasn't sufficiently nationalistic. Those only elicited grumbles. The complaints that gave me a case of the screaming fantods were the letters of people upset about hearing American soldiers cursing while prosecuting the invasion, and another complaining that her lunchtime meal was disturbed by a story about an Iraqi teen discovering a human hand in his family's market after a missile strike. My response was a recital of the words of The Stranger.

Jesus tap-dancing Christ, war is all hell, said a man who knew war.

But now we're deep into the occupation phase with no end in sight. Time for you'uns to delve into the next level of Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings - To The Person Sitting in Darkness. Read it and weep.

(Holy moley, cmdicely and thersites - long time no see! Haven't stumbled across your bylines since the Whiskey Bar days!)

Posted by: nima on May 28, 2008 at 12:36 AM | PERMALINK



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