The Truth, Mainly - 10/15/2001

Getting serious about obsolete war prayers
by Leon Satterfield

I suppose it's too late to ask the country to read Mark Twain's "The War Prayer." He wrote it more than a century ago at the start of the Spanish-American War, so it's clearly out of date now.

Still, you might find it interesting. It's only five pages long. And I'll give you an even shorter version:

The scene is an American church service in which the minister is asking God to "grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag."

At which point a white-haired man in robes comes down the aisle to the pulpit and motions the minister to step aside.

"I have come from the Throne," the stranger tells the congregation, "bearing a message from Almighty God."

His task, he says, is to give word to the unspoken part of the minister's prayer. The unspoken part, the stranger says, goes like this:

"O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds . . . help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded . . .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. . .their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter. . .for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives. . .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, the stranger tells the minister and the congregation, "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak. The messenger of the Most High waits."

Twain's final sentence: "It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said."

But this is a century later. The task now is to win this present war as quickly as possible.

I have no idea how to do that. Or how to know when it's been done.

The part of the war I've liked best so far is dropping food on the survivors. Oh, I know: it's a propaganda ploy to show that we're not anti-Islam. It's a way to remind them that we're the good guys, that the Taliban doesn't give two hoots in hell that Afghans are starving to death, but we do.

But no matter the ulterior motives, dropping food is a nice thing to do, especially in the country that, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, has the lowest food consumption per capita in the whole world. It's a good thing to drop food on people like that, and I congratulate President Bush for doing it. (I'm serious.)

Of course, dirty rotten one-worlder that I am, I'd feel better about the war if it were a UN enterprise. As Tony Blair said of the Sep. 11 obscenity, it was "an attack on us all" by those who would threaten "any nation throughout the world that does not share their fanatical views."

Sounds like a job for the UN. (I'm still serious.)

And I disagree with the President's vow to bring in Asama bin Laden "dead or alive." I say bring him in alive—and charge him with crimes against humanity before the World Court.

Wouldn't we all like to see him cross-examined?

He was on television last week delivering highly questionable assertions—like these:

•That the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon were divinely inspired, that America was "hit by God in one of its softest spots."

•That "when God blessed one of the groups of Islam, they destroyed America."

•That "these events have divided the whole world into two sides—believers and infidels."

And how about his nut-case notion that dying in an act of terrorism is a fast-track ticket to heaven?

Think how much fun it would be to cross-examine those assertions before the World Court. We'd see, up close, a fanatic fundamentalist—who, according to a West Wing character, is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity—a holy man who can't stand religious diversity and who might keel over from apoplexy if we recited our First Amendment to him: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Such cross-examination might be salutary for all of us. It might convince us that when nations, like individuals, become cocksure that God is on their side, they tend to overreach and end up in the deep do-do.

And it might even change the nature of future war prayers all around the world. (I'm really serious now.)


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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