Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reflections on Mark Twain on Armistice Day

I am a great admirer of Mark Twain. His real name was Samuel Clemens. I, in some sense, based my internet nom de plume, Frank Hope, on his familiar pseudonym. They both consist of two simple names of one syllable each. Both names are also words in their own right, and together they form a sort of poetic phrase.

Twain lived from 1835 to 1910. And although he passed away nearly a century ago, his voice sounds fresh and modern to our ears. In fact, I think it is Twain that taught Americans how to write in a modern way. His terse simplicity and the conversational tone of his writing are elements that we take for granted today, but must have seemed like a revelation to his contemporary audience.

Today is Armistice Day. A day in which we should remember all the soldiers who fought on all the battlefields of the world. Whether in a winning cause or a losing cause, or more likely in a lost cause. Since all wars are by their nature lost causes. The ends can never justify the means, and nowhere is this more true than in the ultimate form of brutality practiced by humankind - which is war.

I will let Kurt Vonnegut explain the true meaning of Armistice Day.
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

Please pause and reflect upon these words.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of those writers who, like Mark Twain, opened my eyes. I read quite a few of his novels as a young man. I don't remember them in any detail now. Sadly I lost the pleasure of reading novels. But I think it was in "Slaughterhouse-Five" when Vonnegut described the bombing of Dresden that I first truly realized the horror of war. And not just that. But the fact that this true horror was being hidden from us. So that we could continue feeling good about ourselves and proud in our achievements of winning the war and slaughtering millions.

I have been blessed and never had to face the horror of war. I never had to don the uniform of a national army nor endure the humiliation of "basic training". I have tried to avoid in my life any involvement in the mass-murder economy that nourishes the belly of the beast. And yet I have reaped the benefits of those mass slaughters by my very citizenship as an American.

It took many years, but I finally came to realize that my opposition to the wars that America is addicted to fighting is a form of patriotism. And not only that, but it is a much truer form of patriotism than that practiced by those whose refrain is "Love it or leave it". America is much more than this global empire which dominates the world militarily and economically.

America at its best, as Martin Luther King said, is a dream. It is a concept that "all men are created equal". It is a shining light among nations as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. There is the America that lives in our hearts, like a heavenly vision in the clouds; and there is the America that rains death and destruction on innocent Iraqis and Afghans half way around the world.

If liberty is just a cloak to hide the murderous monster that lurks beneath, then it loses all its virtue.

Mark Twain wrote a story titled "The War Prayer" in response to the Philippine war launched by the United States to crush the Philippine independence movement in 1899. Twain's response reminds me of Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience", which was his reply to the US invasion of Mexico a half century earlier in 1849. Both of these great Americans remind us of the deep longing for freedom and justice that is the essence of the American Dream.

Twain did more than just write a story to protest the American invasion of the Philippines, he was also one of the founders of the American Anti-Imperialist League. It is high time to revive the Anti-Imperialist League and turn it into a powerful political movement that encompasses people from the right and the left who truly understand the American Dream. And who understand how that dream is corrupted by the imperial lusting for new lands to conquer and rape.

Mark Twain wrote in 1900
I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
I have no doubt that if Mark Twain were alive today, he would be just as vehemently opposed to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and for exactly the same reasons.

Here in its entirety is

The War Prayer
by Mark Twain

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; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams – visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory –

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

"I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full 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 he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. 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. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor – and also you in your hearts – fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them – in spirit – we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, 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. Amen.

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

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

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Justin said...

Thank you for posting this.

'I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor – and also you in your hearts – fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so!'

I hope so too. If not, there's no hope for us. Ignorance can be fought successfully, but malice will always exist.

Frank Hope said...

@Justin - What strikes me is that every generation must fight the same battles against Evil. Yes there is malice. But it is in the minority. The majority of people do believe in justice. Most soldiers have to be trained to kill. It is not a natural condition for people to kill each other.

My hope is that with the increased flow of information that the internet represents, that there may come about a fundamental change in world society. Evil hides in the dark. By simply shining the light of Truth on the Elite that control the world, we immediately diminish their power to manipulate society.

Historically, you can see that totalitarian regimes have demanded total control over information. One of the crowning achievements of the American Revolution was the creation of the Bill of Rights. The freedom of speech and of the press that were embodied there have been the pillars that have sustained the revolutionary spirit of 1776.

So go forth and multiply. Spread the truth. Be a truth warrior. Dig up the past and expose the repeated lies that keep us enslaved. As Bob Marley said, "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!"

After I finished this article I continued reading about the US imperial war in the Philippines. What I eventually learned was quite shocking. There was a form of water torture that was used there by the US military that is very similar to the waterboarding that has made headlines with regards to the "war on terror".

This article titled "The Water Cure: Debating torture and counterinsurgency—a century ago" describes how the US military used torture in the Philippines 100 years ago.

“Now, this is the way we give them the water cure,” he explained. “Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”

My conclusion is that this cannot be a coincidence. The US military would have us believe that torture is not condoned. But clearly it is and has been for as long as we have been fighting imperial wars.