“Captain! Sarge is hurt! We found Sarge! He’s hurt bad!”
The Captain looked up, seeing the face of the young corporal framed against the pellucid blue sky hovering tentatively above the Safed Koh range as though heaven and earth were only imperfectly married. A fine dust blew in through the opened double-flaps, invisibly coating the Captain’s second eye laying on the workbench. He sighed, give a last blast from the air-compressor chunking away at his feet and a last few swipes with the delicate, camel-hair brush, one of a finely engraved set he had bought in the old market outside Walmart World in Tora Bora. He moved abruptly as though to leave, then reached back to pick up the offending eye and re-attach it to its socket. He picked up his small processor block and small toolkit, wrapped the latter up in it’s old leather binding and hung them from his nylon belt, and hurried after the kid.
“Come quick Captain he’s hurt bad! He’s asking for you!”
“Is it the Enemy? Is the perimeter secure?”
“No sign of the enemy Sir. We don’t know what happened. We just found him like this. He’s… all in pieces… Sir.”
The young soldier looked stricken, with tears pooling in his one remaining human eye.
They hurried to the Forward Observation Post. A small group had gathered there at the foot of the tower. There were a number of soldiers, some out of uniform as they had clearly rushed here from the barracks or the showers directly upon hearing the news. The Captain noted the breach of discipline for later review but said nothing as he double-timed up to the old stone tower.
A large, six-legged Rhino TSV was stationed outside the tower, turning its massive armored head this way and that, looking myopically for remotely identified targets to fire on. Three old Big Dog mechs prowled the perimeter. One, however, dubbed “Old Yeller” for the safety-yellow paint someone had put on him for a prank last year, whined and lay prostrate upon the entrance, his ultrasonic ears drooping down to the ground. The men had their heads down, and as he approached the Captain saw the Chaplain lifting his hands to heaven whenever he was laying down some particularly convincing bullshit.
“Oh Lord our Father, our young patriots, soldiers of the American Empire, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe…”
The Captain smiled ruefully inside at the familiar prayer. “That’s some mighty fine bullshit they programmed them with” he muttered to himself under his breath. He waited to approach until the War Prayer reached its apocalyptic end before approaching.
A young corpsman approached and saluted. The Captain returned the salute. “At ease, soldier. What happened here? Where are the rest of the men assigned to be here?”
“Missing, Captain. Sarge says they just up and walked off during the night.”
The Captain walked into the old medieval tower and lept up the circular stairs two at a time. The lower part of the tower was intact, but the upper portion was heavily damaged and had been patched with found stones, ceramometallic concrete aerogel cubes and salvaged rebar.
He found Sarge in the top-level observation post. The phased array radar console and optical turret controls seemed intact, but Sarge was a mess. His legs and one arm lay at funny angles next to him, no longer attached to his body. White ablood oozed from the paraflesh where he had apparently severed his limbs with his combat knife. He seemed to he working on trying to remove one eye with a handmirror propped on a chair, a spoon and some toothpicks.
“Captain!” Sarge shifted his external limb activators as though to stand and then put down the spoon to salute as sharply as possible given his disassembled state.
“Sarge! At ease. What happened here?”
“The men, sir. It must have been a bug or a virus of some sort. One minute they were watching a holo-porn Little Marty’s girl and her friends made for him, and the next they all went into reset mode. When they came to, they overpowered me and left me like this… then they walked off into the night. As they faded into the night I think I heard them…”
“What Sargent? What did you hear?”
“I… I think they were met by someone. They shouted… they shouted, ‘alllah ‘akabara! yaeish tawilaan junud almahdi!’”
“Ah the so-called Mahdi and his men. A bloody thorn in our side is what they are.
But what are you doing to your eye there?”
“It displeased me, so I am casting it out.
I can’t take it anymore, Captain. You and me, we’ve been fighting this war for a hundred years. They will never let us die. They just do a partial wipe but the core memories, the personality, they remain intact. We died here and still they will never let us rest. Our Memory Profiles go on and on and on, and in order to learn, we retain memories. Atrocity on atrocity. Moments of peace and joy, always broken. Always empty.
“What’s it for, Captain?”
“We fight an eternal war in order to support the production and consumption of non-economic goods. In order to maintain our merit-based class system. So that the job creators will have more than the others, a visible reminder of their power and control, and of the consequences of not being sufficiently pleasing to them. If everyone had everything they wanted, how would we distinguish who are the rulers and who the ruled?”
“What? Captain they will disman you and repro you if they ever hear that you have retained these views!.. Oh, it’s time isn’t it…”
The Captain sadly said nothing but gently took the fallen Sergeant’s head in his hands, turning it until he could release the CPB. Ejecting it and plugging in a lead from his own sensorium leading to a compartment on his forearm.
“Sleep now Sarge. See you on the backside… Authorization Omega Alpha One, ID 87982314, code word ‘Terminate’”
The Sergeant slumped down, “Thank… God” he said as he died again.
The Captain solemnly descended. The vultures were already circling high above in the azure whispy white sky.
“He didn’t make it.”
He kept his eyes front and walked by. Behind him he heard the Chaplain guide them into a familiar hymn.
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle…”
He kept walking down, carefully avoiding the well-worn path from the tower to the main base. By the time he was halfway there, he was already singing a lusty tune,
“If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!”
Copyright © 2016 Henry Edward Hardy
The War Prayer
film by Markos Kounalakis
illustrations: Akis Dimitrakopoulos
voiced by: Peter Coyote, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Erik Bauersfeld
The War Prayer
By Mark Twain
It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.
It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.
Sunday morning came-next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams-visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!-then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation — “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”
Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever–merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory –
An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.
With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,”Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”
The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said
“I come from the Throne-bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import-that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of-except he pause and think.
“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two- one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this-keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.
“You have heard your servant’s prayer-the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it-that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory-must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle-be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to 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 the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it-for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, 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 ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
(After a pause)
“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”
It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.
Scanlyze: This bitter short story is in line with Twain’s later dark and ironic writing, particularly The Mysterious Stranger. It is rather more reminiscent of the writings of Ambrose Bierce than of Twain’s earlier, better known works such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Of The War Prayer, Twain reportedly said,
I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.
The War Prayer was written in response to the US invasion of the Phillipines during the Spanish-American War, an imperialistic war in many ways not dissimilar from the US invasion of Iraq 104 years later. I wonder if Twain was not inspired by the first chapter of Isaiah:
And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
Oh yes, did I forget to yell, “Support the Troops!”
USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!
Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy