Thoughts on Mark Twain’s ‘The War Prayer’

By: David Lindorff, Sr.
This is a cross post from This Can’t Be Happening :
At the beginning of the twentieth century the United States was engaged in a long and brutal war of aggression against the Philippines, which led to between 200,000 and 1.5 million civilian deaths. It was a colonial war against independence fought by the US with patriotic zeal and of course, the claim that God was on our side.  To be against the war in that jingoistic era was considered tantamount to treason.  Hence it was a brazen act of effrontery for author Mark Twain to have made a statement denouncing the acts of brutality that accompanied this war.  In his short story, The War Prayer, he portrayed a priest who, with  fervor, called upon God to bring victory to a supposedly just cause,  irrespective of the horror inflicted on the “enemy,” a poor and downtrodden people trying only to assert their freedom after centuries of colonial oppression.

Following an invocation from the Old-Testament and an enormous blast from the organ “that shook the house,” the priest closed with,

“Bless our arms,
grant us the victory,
O Lord our God,
Father and Protector
of  our land and flag.”

It was then that attention shifted to an old man walking slowly down the aisle. With his eyes fixed on the gaunt face and long white hair of the approaching stranger, who was wearing a white robe that reached to his feet, the startled minister yielded his place at the altar.  The strange interloper stood there for a time, seemingly unaware of the people sitting spellbound before him in the pews.

With eyes that showed an “uncanny light, he then said in a deep voice:

I come from the Throne —
bearing a message from Almighty God.

These words were of course shocking. He continued:

He has heard the prayer
of the servant your shepherd
and will grant it
if such shall be your desire
after I, his messenger,
have explained to you its 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 that he pause and think.
 (Emphasis added)

For in truth there are two prayers embedded within any prayer for success in war, the spoken and the unspoken.  The spoken word is a prayer for victory, but the unspoken prayer is asking for many unforeseen but terrible consequences.  In granting the first, the second must follow in the form of “unmentioned results.” It is to these that Twain’s God had instructed the stranger to draw attention.  It was to the second hidden prayer that the people needed “to listen.”


Help us
to lay waste
their humble homes
with a hurricane of fire.


Water their way with their tears,
stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!
We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source
of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all
that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and
contrite hearts.


My experience is limited to life in the 20th and 21st centuries, in which the atom bomb has been the first awakening.  In World War II, when 30 million died, I wasn’t listening.  In Vietnam, when two million were killed, I listened but too late. As for the recent and present wars, which have killed more than a million people, I am trying now to listen.

President Kennedy famously said, “There will always be wars.”

Since this is  probably true for the foreseeable  future, we must strive to diminish the first prayer, and listen to what we are really asking for in the second when we pray for victory.
DAVID LINDORFF, Sr. is a retired electrical engineer, a Jungian analyst, and is author of Pauli and Jung: A Meeting of Two Great Minds (Quest Books, 2004).

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  • Laila  On December 19, 2011 at 12:20 am

    Hence when we pray it must not be for a particular thing as we do not know in what our betterment lies.
    The story is in response to a particular war, namely the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, which Twain opposed.
    Twain apparently dictated it around 1904-05; it was rejected by his publisher, and was found after his death among his unpublished manuscripts. It was first published in 1923 in Albert Bigelow Paine’s anthology, Europe and Elsewhere.
    Twain ends it with “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”.
    Today USA is ruled by those who ask for victory in war!
    May lunatic prevail there!

  • Varris  On December 19, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Dear Laila

    Kia baat hey !

    No wonder I was missing you on the Blog.

    But please do not pray for a lunatic to prevail there. They had one in
    the person of George Bush.


  • Tahir Mehmood  On December 19, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Hope you are fine. Really good one, especially the second portion of the prayer.

  • Brig Larif  On December 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Yes, victory in war and its desire is very comforting, but if you really come to think of it, the human side of the feeling is more beautiful and desirable. If the human tragedy is given due consideration, it can help end all wars and ensure peace in the world.
    ” Don’t do to others what you don’t like to be done with you.”

  • Idrees  On December 19, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Most unfortunately, lunacy prevails but lunatics lose out.. Pryer should be simple, Let love, truth & justice prevail which ever side meets with God’s approval.

  • Idrees  On December 20, 2011 at 1:45 am

    So just so true

  • Ian Ombima  On December 21, 2011 at 5:51 am

    The second part of the “War Prayer” is what we are still witnessing from all the “acts of god”, or acts that god has sanctioned on behalf of the mighty super powers as opposed to god being on the side of the weaker, innocent, oppressed victims of the attacks.

    I think what we should be asking ourselves is; Who really are these so called extremist fundamentalists? This label is only given to any islamic groups from Palestine to Baghdad and beyond who oppose oppression but never to any western aggressive nation.

  • Ali Kazim  On December 21, 2011 at 6:43 am

    Thank you Yasmeen for this beautiful Email. Bless you.

    Ali Kazim

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