U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The War Prayer and the Other Ratio

Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” has been deployed as a scathing indictment of the piety people seem to embrace in a time of war; in Twain’s case during the Spanish-American War. This indictment asks what we pray for when a nation goes to war. The video clip above is a short film version of the prayer with Edward Hermann playing the “lunatic” messenger from God. Reportedly, Twain chose not to publish the piece during his lifetime out of trepidation expressed by friends, family, and his publisher.

Recently, Barack Obama announced the official end to America’s war in Iraq. On December 14, this past Wednesday, he and his wife traveled to Fort Bragg to commend the soldiers and their families on a mission that was now complete. In a way, Obama acknowledged another “ratio” that has come to define our time. Rather than denounce the 1% that has fractured the economic future of the other 99%, Obama recognized the 1% that has unified the other 99% through their duty to the nation. Either way, the 99% is in the balance.

“You remind us we’re one nation,” President Obama declared to the assembled military personnel. In a speech marking the end of the American war in Iraq, the president paid tribute to those who served, especially those who gave their last full measure of devotion to a cause but, as Twain asked, to what?

That was the question that struck me as I read through Obama’s speech. The collision between Obama’s saccharine piety and Twain’s cynicism is striking, it seems to me, not because it allows us to dismiss flag-waving for the troops, but because it reveals a turn toward the promise of martial sacrifice in yet another time when the nation is so evidently fractured by its own economics. In our age of destructive wealth, battles over economic justice, and debates over the state’s obligation to the people, Americans have taken some refuge in the abstractions of war.

Obama gushed to the troops that they make American whole, “And that’s why the United States military is the most respected institution in our land because you never forget that. You can’t afford to forget it. If you forget it, somebody dies. If you forget it, a mission fails. So you don’t forget it. You have each other’s backs. That’s why you, the 9/11 Generation, have earned your place in history.

You remind us we’re one nation.”

I hope that among the many duties that the troops must take up, one is not to make Americans into “one” nation. They might fight for the nation that exists as an abstraction, and in their weaker moments, Americans undoubtedly pine for that ideal, but Obama seemed to make a dangerous allusion to the idea that a lack of faith imperils the nation?

Obama went on: “Because of you, because you sacrificed so much for a people that you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny.

That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right.

There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people. That says something about who we are.”

So, who are we? After nine years of war in Iraq that took over 4500 American fatalities on the way to deposing Saddam Hussein and shattering that nation, what has the war made us?

We are, according to Obama, the people who allowed the Iraqis to “forge their own destiny,” and we are the first empire in history to make war but decline to take its spoils in resources and territory. We are the first nation to fight wars for principles…

“Never forget,” Obama concluded, “that you are part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries – from the colonists who overthrew an empire, to your grandparents and parents who faced down fascism and communism, to you – men and women who fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11.”

What made these troops heroes? Was it the mission, their bravery in battle, or the nation that asked them to serve and sacrifice? And what might the obligation of the 99% be to this debate?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Can I just say that my Catholic mind read the title as about faith and “ratio”–meaning the Latin word for reason. So when I saw Obama’s “other 99 percent” I was thrown off. My reading of the title was a classic case of knowing a bit about the author and reading to an expectation.

    Is Obama’s piety “saccharine” if he truly meant it? I say this not to defend him. But I read saccharine as intentionally giving a false taste. If Obama gave a false taste of piety, did he do it intentionally? Wasn’t his martial turn necessary given his audience? Isn’t a president duty-bound to acknowledge the sacrifices troops make, no matter the disparity of percentages in sacrifice among our citizenry? What should he have said?

    I’m with you, Ray, in that the troops have no obligation to make us “one nation.” They _may_ make us one nation, but that’s not anything for which they should be thanked—as if it’s some kind of mission. Or was Obama speaking to the past 10 years in a kind of matter of fact way? I don’t know.

    This speech certainly has the familiar “freedom-loving” ring of Cold War president speeches. It’s the so-long-as-we’re-fighting-for-freedom-God’s-on-our-side meme that has driven, and still drives, me crazy with our foreign politics. But it’s an equal opportunity meme, invoked by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and now Obama. The only exceptions I see are perhaps Ford (not enough time to start his own war, I guess) and the still-reviled-for-not-being-patriotic-enough Carter. – TL

  2. Bruce, you’re right, I wouldn’t expect something different from anyone welcoming home troops. As I suggested, I am not trying to dismiss flag waving when speaking to troops. What I am asking is in the glow of Obama’s pious commemoration do the other 99% of Americans see some other obligation? Twain wasn’t speaking to the troops or even to President McKinley, but to congregations of Americans who actively worshiped something that he found dispiriting, to say the least.

    Tim: the “other” ratio was probably too cheeky and I like your initial response. That is something for another post. I imagine Obama truly meant to welcome home the troops–I didn’t say that he was fake in honoring their obligation and sacrifices. But I find his piety about war–especially the one war he outright opposed–to be revealing. I sound like a broken record but I am just struck again and again by the apparent disjunction of the OWS movement identifying 1% of Americans to despise while Obama looks to another kind of 1% to help unify us. The other 99% can’t seem to figure out that there are profound problems with BOTH 1%’s. We are sort of ready to debate the disastrous effects wrought by one kind of 1% but not ready, it seems, to engage what that other 1% means to the nation.

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