“It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism”. These words recall the mood of most Americans as we bombed
But the author wasn’t alive to witness
Last week, President Bush suggested that the
Mark Twain was an outspoken critic of that war. The War Prayer though is focused on the public sentiment about going to war, not on the American leadership. Writing after the war, he was looking back at the fever fed by simplistic ideals of patriotism, a naïvely perceived just cause and the expectation of quick and easy victory. The setting in church deliberately ordains the mission as serving God which excuses the public from looking deep enough for the entire truth. The ridicule pointedly reminds us how easily public opinion is swayed by those in power and a cooperative press.
One hundred years later
War divides a population like no other issue, but why do the people of a nation built on individual freedom despise the freedom to dissent as we prepare to send our soldiers into war?
Much of our American heritage begins with the unalienable rights proffered in our Declaration of Independence: “Life,
Pursuit also implies work. Our individual freedoms are indeed a blessing, but nothing is free. Sacrifice is part of the equation. The stranger of Mark Twain’s War Prayer reminds us that what we seek always asks for more than we are aware of, that we must “pause and think” about the full meaning of what we want. “Ponder this -- keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time.”
Certainly we understand that freedom shouldn’t be gained at the expense of others. Yet his message really refers to another false freedom that may be the most important insight he offers. It is delivered not only by his words, but by his publisher’s rejection of the writing and his family’s concern about public reaction that delayed publication of The War Prayer until after his death. Even as we imagine our battle to end this war may be with Congress, the real work remains as it did 100 years ago, with the extrapolated right of Americans not to look hard into the inconvenient truths of our lifestyle and national actions. The dark shadow of our individual freedom lies in the desire not to have our conscience disturbed by anything that interferes with the pursuit of happiness.