Irony In Mark Twain's The War-Prayer

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The point made by Mark Twain’s “The War-Prayer” (1905) is simple, even simplistic: that the unspoken part of the desire for victory over the enemy is the desire that misery and death befall others. The irony, as noted by the stranger who comments on this silent prayer, is that it is directed supposedly “in the spirit of love” to “Him who is the Source of Love” (398). In fact, Twain’s piece makes this irony unmissable, as it ends with the failure of the congregation even to understand the stranger’s point, let alone to take it to heart: “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said” (398). This inability to “get it,” this immunity to irony, recalls many of Twain’s characters over the years, …show more content…
Public opinion found the notion of empire enticing and rejoiced over Dewey’s victory at Manila, a place previously unheard-of by most Americans (“this great big ignorant nation, which doesn’t know even the ABC facts of the Philippine episode,” Twain complained in a 1901 letter to Joseph H. Twichell [qtd. in Paine, Letters 705]). Such jingoism was, at the same time, often opposed for equally base, often racist and xenophobic reasons. Twain’s own opposition is eerily prophetic of opposition to war in both Vietnam and Iraq: the war was “a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the dif culty of extrication immensely greater” . . . . I thought it would be a great thing to give a whole lot of freedom to the Filipinos, but I guess now that it’s better to let them give it to themselves,” he said in 1900 (Zwick). Yet in the letter to Twichell, he acknowledges that his opposition is, at bottom, sel sh: he feels distress as an American that he is “befouled” in the international eye (that of “the sarcastic world,” as he put it) by such a policy (705). Dualism again: are his motives even partly genuine concern for the Philippines, or, as he suspects of himself, solely a matter of concern for his public image, by now that of …show more content…
Twain noted, as Jim Zwick points out, that many American service personnel characterized Filipinos as “niggers” (Zwick also attests that contemporary editorial cartoons often depicted them as “stereotyped blacks”)—an uncomfortable reminder of the patronizing attitudes of even well-meaning Americans in an earlier war, one with which Twain had been uncomfortable enough the first time around. This time the American intent to liberate and democratize this Other had turned out to be an even more blatant self-deception at the very best; the fundamental purpose of the Philippine con ict was a scarcely disguised colonization, and therefore subjugation. (After all, the United States had, in effect, bought the Philippines—and therefore its inhabitants—under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.) Twain at this point in his life wanted to be unambiguously on the right side of this war: no echoes of the brief spell as an irregular in the Confederacy-sympathizing Missouri State Guard, or of the truck with slave-owning relatives, no uncomfortably nuanced racial attitudes in his writings. But to take such a stance meant dealing in unavoidable ironies, since both sides—just as in 2005—were laying claim to the word patriotism, and de ning it in opposite

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