A Critical Analysis of “The War Prayer” by Mark Twain

“The War Prayer” is arguably one of Mark Twain’s most renowned poems. Written in the summer of 1905, it was is scathing response to wars of attrition chief among them being the Spanish-American and Philippine-American conflicts during this epoch in history. It is an indictment of wars fueled by religious zeal and nationalistic fervor (Zwick). The poem further focuses on the binary nature of life and man’s role in upsetting the prevailing balance of power for his own selfish gain. In writing this poem, Mark Twain therefore draws upon his real-life experiences to fashion an inspiring account which also articulates realities at the time. It is, essentially, a criticism of the selective approach employed by nation states when waging war without considering the implications of such actions. Thus, this essay seeks to employ a sociological methodology to critically analyze “The War Prayer” within the context in which it was written.

In penning this poignant prose poem, Mark Twain clearly endeavors to capture society’s attention by highlighting the lopsided approach employed in matters of war. During conflict, society focuses almost exclusively on glory without considering the human cost and the horrors of war ultimately experienced by casualties.  Mark Twain uses a realist approach to explore devastation by even going as far as describing the destruction of opponents seemingly “humble homes” (Twain). It is evident that the author is critical of the impulsive nature of leaders who proceed to blindly evoke patriotic fervor through impetuous executive decisions. The common narrative peddled by individuals in positions of power focuses on the necessity of war to defend their freedom and assure the populace peace within their borders. Mark Twain challenges the reader to reconsider this common assumption and reevaluate their stance on war by shedding light on realities rarely discussed.   The author remarkably explores the trauma experienced by soldiers from either side of the divide even after one having secured victory.

Mark Twain expertly weaves his presentation by introducing the aspect of a lone voice typically ignored in similar scenarios.  The collective consciousness often adopted by society is a double edged sword that can function as a force for good but also lead it to sheer destruction. In this particular case, the society highlighted in this poem is fanatical and readily accepts their leader’s misjudgments. Individuals who hold dissimilar opinions or those who oppose these fallacies are readily castigated and their opinion ignored.  Their judgment may be wise, but society is often engulfed by patriotic zeal and they are simply regarded as raging lunatics.  Opposing voices are silenced by the majority who use their power to undermine their credibility and the veracity of their claim. The result is a society which celebrates victories after protracted warfare without considering any associated consequences. In essence, Mark Twain’s account is a condemnation of the tendency to romanticize war as was common during his time (Zwick 34).  He used this particular work of literature to express his pain and suffering while seeking to foster a society that empathized with the misfortunes of others.            

In “The War Prayer”, Mark Twain was particularly keen on highlighting the dangers of extenuating false assertions and packaging victory in a self-righteous manner. He reiterates the implicit story of war and accompanying brutality.  Mark Twain was similarly ignored by his critics for his unorthodox stance on pressing issues plaguing the United States. He overtly criticized leaders for employing imperialistic tendencies and openly shunned by media outlets when he sought to publish his story.

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