Analyze Mark Twain's "The War Prayer" critically.

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The short story "The War Prayer" by Mark Twain opens with a description of a country preparing to go to war. The scene sounds similar to that you might encounter in any city, town, or village in which people believe in their flag, their country, and the righteousness of their cause. Bands play, flags fly, young men march down streets in new uniforms, and relatives and friends proudly see them off.

On Sunday morning, the new soldiers and their supporters gather in church to invoke God's blessing. A rousing song is followed by a long inspirational prayer for victory. The prayer requests that God give their country "honor and glory" and "crush the foe." Again, this is a common scene in countries preparing for war.

An old man dressed in the robe of a prophet enters the church and takes the pastor's place. He claims that he bears a message from Almighty God. He says that God will answer as long as the people who have prayed fully understand what their prayer means. He explains that the unspoken part of their prayer is that they desire to tear the enemy soldiers to shreds with shells, cause their wounded to shriek and writhe in pain, burn their homes, grieve their widows, turn their little children into starving orphans, and otherwise create great desolation and suffering. At the end of the old man's prayer, nobody takes him seriously, and everyone thinks he is crazy.

Mark Twain wrote this story in 1905, near the end of his life, as a reaction to the savagery of the Philippine-American War that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. At the time, his publisher rejected it. The story finally appeared for the first time in 1923 in an anthology called Europe and Elsewhere.

Twain was a great satirist. Here, he ridicules the religious and patriotic fervor that nations evoke as they go off to war. As they pray for victory against their foes, very few people realize the extent of the incomprehensible suffering they are asking God to inflict upon their enemies. The Old Testament of the Bible has numerous stories of prophets that confronted kings and countrymen and held them accountable for their sins.

In this story, the old man who trespasses in the church service is like one of these prophets. In God's name, he holds the people accountable for what they have wished upon their enemies. In this story, Twain is expressing the insanity of the patriotic and religious fervor that brings on such a violent spirit.

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This short piece by Mark Twain is a condemnation of the kind of patriotic fervor that was often drummed up in times of war in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and which leads people to pray for the victory of their own people without pause to consider what this would mean for the people of the enemy. In critically analyzing it, it is very important to consider Twain's choice of language and structure, all of which contribute to his meaning, particularly the final, ironic statement that the mysterious man was thought "a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said." Twain here makes clear that fervor for war can make people incapable of rational thought, and rational thought seem unpatriotic or insane.

In critically analyzing the piece, consider:

1. What is Twain's purpose in writing it? Twain was writing in 1905; he had been a staunch critic of American expansion into the Philippines and the Spanish-American war, and his motivations seem to be to persuade the reader that this kind of warmongering is not only counterproductive, but insane.

2. How does Twain achieve this purpose? Think about the language used in the opening section, particularly the lengthy sentences with multiple clauses. Twain is here enumerating the many many ways in which the war is being celebrated and heralded; it seems almost a bombardment; the narrator barely pauses for breath. This seems to echo the way in which fervor for war can catch up civilians, by simply bombarding them with empty patriotism until they cannot think beyond it. War and the trappings of war can seem an extremely enticing prospect.

3. What is Twain saying with the introduction of the stranger into the church, and why does he use this device? The stranger is unidentified, but he says that he has come from "the Throne" -- that is, he is a representative of God who wants to make clear to the people what their patriotic fervor really means. He uses Biblical language, which is clear and decisive, quite in contrast to the long, breathless sentences of the first part of the story. He sets out, clearly and straightforwardly, the terrible things these people are actually wishing upon their "enemy," but which they do not want to contemplate. And do they listen to him? No -- in the end, they choose to bury their heads in the sand. They don't want to listen to what is rational, preferring to let themselves be swept up by marching bands and bunting and the idea of "noble" death, not realizing that it is they, and not the visitor, who are the "lunatic" fringe.

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