War Foretold: Mark Twain and the Sins of Our Race

When I resorted to Mark Twain’s writings I attempted to escape, at least temporarily from my often distressing readings on war, politics and terror. But his “The Mysterious Stranger,” although published in 1916, still left me with an eerie feel. The imaginative story calls into question beliefs that we hold as a “matter of course” — a favorite phrase of his. It summons the awful tendencies of “our race”: our irrational drive for violence, be it burning “witches” at the stake or engaging in wars that only serve the “little monarchs and the nobilities”

As the Iraq war rages on, Twain’s words ring truer by the day. “The loud little handful will shout for war. Then the handful will shout louder. A few fair men on the other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have hearing and be applauded; but it will not last long; those others will out shout them and presently the anti-war audiences will thin and lose popularity. Before long you will see the most curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men. And now the whole nation will take up the war cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open.”

“Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after the process of grotesque self-deception.”

Twain, whose genius undoubtedly surpasses time and space, wrote the above passages nine decades before the world’s leading statesmen, President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair forged their case for war, based on falsities and refused to examine any refutations; they rallied millions, investing in their ignorance and blind patriotism to carry out a war whose outcome is akin to genocide. The text was also written long before the thousands who stood for human rights, rallied and organized against the war, defended the constitution and civil liberties were “shouted out” and “stoned from the platform”; thousands of those “fair men” and women have endured such a fate, the latest being Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved American mother who lost her son, Casey, in Bush’s war for oil, strategic repositioning of the empire and the neoconservatives’ ceaseless hunt for Israel’s illusive “security”. She too was shouted out, and in a heart-wrenching letter, she reached the conclusion, most difficult for any mother to reach, that her son, Casey died for nothing.

But Bush is adamant to carry on with his costly endeavor that has espoused so many new chasms within his country, and in the world at large: religious contentions and political turmoil, damage that neither Mr. Bush, nor his most luminous advisors have the will nor the brains to remedy.

“But what does it amount to?” says Twain, using one of his story’s characters, an angel to convey the idea: “nothing at all. You gain nothing. You always come out where you went in. For a million years the race has gone on monotonously propagating itself and monotonously re-performing this dull nonsense” to what end? No wisdom can guess! Who gets a profit out of it? Nobody but a parcel of usurping little monarchs and nobilities who despise you; would feel defiled if you touches them; would shut the door in your face if you proposed to call; “whom you slave for, fight for, die for, and are not shamed of it, but proud.”

Sheehan couldn’t get an answer for why Casey was killed; many more might want to live with the illusion that their loss didn’t go in vain; but dead American bodies continue to arrive back to US soil only at night; the wounded are maltreated and hidden from the public eye, only occasional courageous reports manage to break the silence and the perfected propaganda. In Iraq, the sheer number of dead and dying defies belief; the entire country is now gripped in an endless strife that shall define the cultural and social disposition of future generations; it’s often easy to comprehend and come to terms with a total number of deaths when they are presented in a neatly packaged chart or a website, no matter how harrowing; but once you learn of the individual stories, you wonder whether the days of burning witches at the stake were better times: a young girl raped before her own family and later killed with her own baby; entire families massacred in broad daylight; militants chopping off limbs and ears and noses under the watchful eye of the Iraqi police, for their victims belonged to the wrong sect and stood on the wrong side of the war.

“The Mysterious Stranger” ended up being a figment of a little boy’s imagination — or was it? — its meaning is overreaching and very much real. The war is real and frightening and hurtful; it’s not an intellectual argument; it cannot be reduced to a few images and captions and editorials; nothing can ever capture a moment where a mother receives the corpse of a son or the scene of a father kneeling before the shattered body of a daughter. It’s all real, and it’s all our own doing, whether by supporting, financing and fighting the war, or by staying silent as it rages on.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Clarity Press). Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). Read other articles by Ramzy, or visit Ramzy's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. E. Bills said on June 19th, 2007 at 8:30am #

    Good stuff, Ramzy. I had forgotten this story.

    E.

  2. Gary Corseri said on June 19th, 2007 at 2:20pm #

    Twain is one of my favorite writers. Ramzy Baroud does well to recall Twain’s oft-neglected little masterpiece, THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER. Twain christened the first “Gilded Age,” and the parallels we find between then and now are astonishing. Replace Boss Tweed and J.P.Morgan with Rudy Giuliani and Hedge Funds and we’ve got to conclude the French have had it right all along: Plus ce Change, Plus ce la Meme Chose. A century ago, Twain wondered if the human race would ever come to its senses, identify the diabolical monsters and ideologies that control us. Many of us are still wondering, and hoping–and cheering writers like Twain and Baroud for reminding us that our very souls are at stake!

  3. Grady said on November 12th, 2007 at 12:03am #

    To say that in the end it was simply a figment of a little boys imagination is a misinterpretation, possibly due to your reading of recklessly edited and composite of three stories written by Twain prior to his death. All presented a progression in his thought, but what his executor published after his death did not say what Twain agonized over for nearly twenty years to express. There are no moments, no tragedies that are not the expression of human innate cruelty. We have internalized that primal cruelty to make the possibility of a communal existence possible. That internalization was brought about by organized religion, specifically any monotheistic religion–those that have from their beginning been soaked in blood and tears. The novel published in 1916, by Paine was titled, The Mysterious Stranger; A Romance and unfortunately, it is still the most accepted version (most likely due to its claim of authenticity). In Paine’s version, not only were there a gross amount of edits, all of his additions and deletions can be seen at the University of California’s Mark Twain archive, but he added an ending from a different version of Twain’s pursuit of completing his vision. THe three unfinished and incredibly different texts where meshed into one and lost so much of what Twain suffered to express. THe final chapter of Paine’s version had no context to reveal its meaning. That can be found in what most scholars consider to be the version closed to Twain’s vision, and the version from which the final chapter of Paine’s composite was taken, while discarding the context of its message, “No.44, The Mysterious Stranger,” contains the greatest value of all of the controversial and dramatically variations of Twain’s final work. Best of all is the publication of, “The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts” by the University of California Press, which contains all three of Twain’s versions and appropriately, does away with Paine’s version. The truth is, it was not a figment of a little boys imagination–it was the illusory nature of reality and the deceptions of our perceptions of reality and distinctions between that and our dreams or imaginations. It is our resistance to accept the weight that bears down upon us, accept it, knowing that “these things just happen.” There is no world or reality without our individual perceptual construction of our own unique and supposed stable and “true” reality, so essentially all that Is, is a construction of our imagination, as are we merely the contruction of another’s imagination. Perception, perspective, cognitive schemas, five human senses to base our reality on–these among others are not sufficent for a True reality to be understood by our insignificant existence. We are as limited as the honey bee in exile–wandering, trapped–tethered to spear plunging through existence, aiming only for our return to nothingness–the blissful process of our essential energy and the disipation of our identity into the universal Force that is eternal and timeless.