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For the week of April 2 - 8, 2003

Opinion Columns

Johnny is still
getting his gun

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

"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 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 through wastes of their desolate land in rags & hunger & thirst, sport of the sun flames of summer & the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave & 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 of one who is the spirit of love & who is the ever-faithful refuge & friend of all that are sore beset, & seek His aid with humble & contrite hearts. Grant our prayer, O Lord & thine shall be the praise & honor & glory now & ever, Amen."

Mark Twain, from "The War Prayer," written in 1905 during the Philippine/American War.

Mark Twain was vice-president of the anti-Imperialist League and America’s most prominent literary opponent of war at the start of the 20th century. One of literature’s great satirists, Twain was writing during and against the American invasion and occupation of the Philippines. President Theodore Roosevelt declared that war over on July 4, 1902, but the date was only patriotic symbolism—the gesture just a political move to circumvent a Senate hearing into embarrassing atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in the Philippines. In reality, neither the war nor the inevitable atrocities were over. The two best remembered massacres of civilians (in the Philippines, though not in America) took place in March 1906 when the Sixth Infantry, commanded by General Wood, massacred 900 Muslim men, women and children at Bud Dajo, where they had taken refuge in a dormant volcano crater; and in June 1913 where U.S. soldiers under the command of General "Black Jack" Pershing slaughtered 500 Muslim men, women and children at Bud Bogsak. These slaughters took place after Twain wrote "The War Prayer," which, like most anti-war literature, was suppressed and long unnoticed. Anti-war literature makes people uncomfortable with the deep substance of the consequences, as well as the small-minded hollowness of the supposed glories of war. Discomfort, of course is its intention.

Harper’s Bazaar, which regularly published Twain, rejected "The War Prayer" as "not quite suited to a woman’s magazine." Of Harper’s refusal to publish the prayer, Twain wrote to a friend, "I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth." He also mentioned that his Harper’s editor was "responsible to his Company," and "should not permit laughs which could injure its business." In fact, "The War Prayer" remained unpublished until 1923, long after Twain was dead, and it is a truism of commerce that uncomfortable truths are often bad for business and as a consequence are suppressed.

Mark Twain was the first great 20th century American of letters and the arts to use his craft in the service of anti-war belief. He was not the first in history or the last of a century in which more than 200 million people died in wars, the great majority of them civilians.

Film was the art form of the masses in the 20th century. The two best antiwar films I know are "Coming Home" (1978) which won Academy Awards for best actor (Jon Voight), best actress (Jane Fonda), and best original screenplay (Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones); and "Born on the Fourth of July," (1989) based on the autobiography of Vietnam war hero Ron Kovic who went to Vietnam as a true-believer and warrior and came home to America a paraplegic and one of America’s leading antiwar activists. Each film, one a true story, is a powerful portrayal of a man who went to war in the belief that he was doing the right thing and came home crippled in body and spirit and questioning the premises of war itself. In my opinion, every American teenager should view these films.

But the ne plus ultra treatise of antiwar thought is Dalton Trumbo’s novel "Johnny Got His Gun." Published in 1939, it won a National Book Award. The protagonist, Joe, is a WWI American soldier who is in a British hospital. He has no arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth, tongue, or face. No one knows who he is, and he cannot tell them. Nevertheless, he is ceremonially decorated as an anonymous war hero. All that’s left are his mind and his memories and his humanity. Joe can move his head and he begins banging his head in Morse code, attempting to communicate. At first they think he is having seizures and he is sedated, but finally his nurse figures out what he is doing. She notifies his doctors and they communicate, Joe banging his head, the doctors drumming on his head with their fingers. Joe realizes he is a hero and a monster, and he wants to go on display with his disfigurement to graphically illustrate to the world the true horrors of war.

The reply, literally pounded into his head in Morse code, is, "What you ask is against regulations."

It is against regulations to display the monsters that result from the horrors of war. Only the dead are permitted to tell the truth. Laughs are not permitted that could injure business as usual. But, as the 21st century gets going, Johnny is still getting his gun.


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