The God of Battles

Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity, War. He is the only one that gathers his bretheren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind.

-- Mark Twain

As a member of the World War II generation, my father was characteristically close-mouthed about his wartime experiences. I had learned from my mother that he had earned a Bronze Star and three battle stars fighting in Europe. But by the time it occurred to me to find out more, it was too late to ask. But then my cousin unearthed a steamer trunk belonging to my father that had been languishing in the attic at the family farm for more than 60 years. Inside I found letters he had written home when he was stationed overseas, most of which seemed calculated to avoid saying anything that my grandparents might find disturbing. The trunk also contained correspondence and documents that caused me to view my father’s military career in an entirely new light. I found letters written when he was still a grad student seeking employment at intelligence agencies and other government bureaus that would have offered exemption from military service. There were catalogues and applications to various medical schools, which might also have done the trick. The cache included a notice from his draft board, dated March 3, 1943, ordering him to return home “at the earliest possible date for a physical examination preparatory to being inducted into the service.” Tucked inside the same envelope was the rough draft of a letter in which my father sought to appeal his induction order on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector. Whether he actually filed such an appeal, I do not know. Suffice it to say, no such effort spared him from earning his battle stars and heroism medal.

It might have been useful to know about my father’s ambivalence toward the military when I was facing similar issues during the Vietnam War. Like many in my generation, I was against the war, which meant that I had to give serious thought to declaring myself a conscientious objector. At the time, my father bought into the government’s Cold War rationale for propping up a corrupt autocratic regime half a world away, and he gave no hint that he had ever entertained moral objections to war. My problem is that my opposition to war was limited to the one we were then fighting in Vietnam, and I could never persuade myself that my objections were universal. In the end, I decided to take my chances with the draft and was saved by a high draft number.

I believe history has long since vindicated the view that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake. But the fact remains that poor and working-class youths paid the price in blood, while college boys like me with student deferments were mostly able to get on with our lives. It was much the same during the Civil War, when the well-to-do could buy their way out of the draft. Conscientious objectors on either side in that conflict had little recourse other than to pay a bounty. A young Mark Twain had the distinction of avoiding service on both sides in the war, first as a riverboat pilot for the Union and then as a member of a loosely organized Confederate militia in his home state of Missouri at the outset of hostilities. After two fitful weeks of service, Twain lit out for Nevada Territory with his brother Orion, who had secured a patronage job with the federal government.

Twain later published an ostensibly light-hearted account of his brush with military service in Century magazine, based on a humorous speech he had delivered some years earlier. Entitled “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed,” the article detailed efforts by a ragtag bunch of overgrown boys to avoid any contact with the enemy, notably a then-obscure Union Army colonel named Ulysses S. Grant. Tucked away in Twain’s otherwise fond reminiscence is a disturbing incident that points up an inconvenient truth about wars, which is that people get killed fighting in them. According to Twain, he and his comrades shot and killed a man approaching on horseback in the dark, assuming him to be a Union soldier. It turned out the man was unarmed and not wearing a uniform. There is considerable doubt that the incident actually took place; nevertheless, it brings out Twain’s horror at the prospect of killing another human being:

…the taking of that unoffending life seemed such a wanton thing. And it seemed an epitome of war, that all war must just be the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity, strangers who in other circumstances you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it. My campaign was spoiled.

Twain was never explicitly a pacifist, but his abhorrence of war only increased as the decades passed and the U.S. government became involved in a series of military adventures overseas, including the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Spanish American War and its immediate follow-on, a bloody insurrection in the Philippines. He had initially supported the war against Spain, seeing it as a way to free colonial people from their oppressors. However, the treaty ending that conflict merely replaced Spain with America as the dominant colonial power in those regions. Twain became one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. role in the Philippines, where the military pioneered some of the same “enhanced interrogation techniques” that brought so much discredit to the nation in its war against terrorism a century later. Twain lamented, “We have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater” – language that might just as easily be applied to any number of foreign entanglements in my lifetime.

Against the backdrop of the insurrection in the Philippines, Twain penned a mordant satire of his country’s mounting jingoistic fever. Entitled “The War Prayer,” the brief parable opens in a church as a nation prepares to send its young men off to fight. The pastor is whipping the congregation into paroxysms of patriotic fervor by invoking the “God of Battles” -- a phrase coined by Shakespeare in Henry V and later appropriated by various hymn writers for just such an occasion. Rudyard Kipling, the de facto poet laureate of British imperialism, used the term in a patriotic hymn defending British interests in South Africa prior to the Boer War. Kipling, of course, notoriously coined the phrase “white man’s burden” to describe the purported civilizing influence of Western powers over native peoples around the world. His poem of the same name was composed in support of the American occupation of the Philippines, where a million Filipinos died resisting America’s civilizing influence. Twain held an opposing view, which he expressed to devastating effect in “The War Prayer.” His chosen instrument in the story was an aged stranger with flowing white hair and robes who wrestled the pulpit from pastor and delivered an altogether different sort of peroration. He identified himself as a messenger of the Lord who had come to give voice to the unspoken prayer of that gathering. Their earnest entreaties for victory over their enemies meant they wanted people dead:

…help us 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 their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

The messenger of God does not condemn the gathering for their blood lust; in fact, he tells them that the Lord is prepared to grant their request -- but only if they carefully consider its full implications. This they are not prepared to do. The story ends abruptly as follows: “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.” Twain himself was well aware of the fact that his views on issues of war and peace were no more welcome in the era of gunboat diplomacy than those of the aged stranger in his story. His publisher refused to accept the story, and his family prevailed upon him to bury it in the interest of safeguarding his reputation.

I am now roughly the age Twain was when he wrote “The War Prayer” and have unquestionably been witness to many more U.S. military adventures overseas. I wish I could say I have formed some semblance of moral certainty about war. But the only thing I can say for certain is that there is no moral certainty about war – neither the moral certainty of the patriotic hymns in Twain’s era nor the moral certainty of the antiwar anthems in my own. It is worth noting that even the messenger of God in “The War Prayer” expresses no moral certainty on the subject; he asks only that people consider the full ramifications of what they are asking for when they pray for victory. But this is the last thing most people are prepared to do when the drums start beating for war. There has been no formal declaration of war in any U.S. conflict in my lifetime, meaning no formal debate in Congress about the wisdom of committing lives and treasure to the cause before more blood is shed. As a result, I would say on balance we are left with more to regret than not.

It is worth asking what the Almighty thinks about all this, since God is almost always invoked in these proceedings, whether the prayer is for war or for peace. I would say, based on any fair reading of Scripture, that the Judeo-Christian God is no pacifist. Yes, there is the moral certainty of the fifth commandment, Thou shall not kill. Yet this same God is forever taking sides in the battles of the Old Testament, if not instigating them. Then along comes Jesus of Nazareth, who commands people to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. So which is it, the God of Battles or the God of Love? The answer is important, because we are created in his image, after all. Or perhaps the real problem, at least insofar as he is portrayed in our sacred literature, is that he is created in ours.

Mark Twain, “Returning Home,” New York World (October 6, 1900)

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