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Two prayers to end the war: one uttered, one not

by Marilee Swirczek

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.

– from “The War Prayer,” Mark Twain

When historians look back at our time and try to determine what went wrong, they may point to our president, who is short on vision and long on hubris. But they will probably conclude that we, the people, simply did not understand what we were doing.

Take, for example, President Bush’s recent words to the American Legion:

“They don’t have the military strength to beat us. They can’t beat us on the battlefield. They just cannot defeat the United States military. The terrorists do not understand America. They’re not going to shake our will. We will stay in the hunt, we will never give in, and we will prevail.”

What might future historians posit about the person who spoke those words? That he talked too much and listened too little? That he was intolerant of other world views? That he defined situations according to his narrow perspective and, in doing so, replaced America’s reputation as a kind nation with one of dangerous arrogance?

Or might those future scholars say that the people President Bush led were too comfortable to object – too “eager to be slaves,” in the words of the Roman emperor Tiberius – and followed like lemmings as he led them over a cliff? Maybe, they might say, we got what we asked for.

Some think it unpatriotic to question our president’s heavy-handedness. Some use the president’s contrived logic to remind us that we must “spread democracy,” as if democracy can be scooped out of a plastic tub onto a toasted bagel.

But those people are now in the minority. In the latest Zogby International poll, President Bush’s job approval rating was 38 percent. Sixty-two percent of Americans polled gave him poor marks, enough to get him fired. Even among his Republican base, nearly a third disapproves.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. In an unprecedented, face-to-face, meticulously representative poll of American troops presently in Iraq, Zogby reports that 72 percent think the U.S. should get out of Iraq this year; more than one in four say we should leave “immediately.” Three quarters of those troops have served multiple tours. They know what they’re talking about.

To the 38 percent of Americans who still hurrah when the president mouths “staying the course,” join us who are now the majority of Americans, military and civilian alike. Think before you shout “Amen!” as the president prays for victory. Have you considered what it is you’re praying for?

Mark Twain says it better than I. In “The War Prayer,” Twain tells about a congregation that prayed during a time of war. “In every breast,” he writes, “burned the holy fire of patriotism.” The pastor preached “devotion to flag and country” and beseeched God to crush their foe as they achieved nothing less than victory.

Then Twain describes an aged stranger who entered the church with a message from Almighty God: “He has heard the prayer of your shepherd and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import. For it is like many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware – except he pause and think.”

The stranger said that when men pray one prayer, God in His wisdom hears two: “one uttered, the other not.”

Then he put into words the unspoken prayer: “O Lord, 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, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it.

“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 of Him Who is the Source of Love.”

The stranger finished, and the congregation fell silent. “If ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

In Ecclesiastes we read that there is “a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” It’s time to speak. God is listening. Our enemies are praying, too. But whose prayers will He answer?

We still can change what seems to be a passage to destruction. We still can edit the history books that our grandchildren’s children will read. There is yet time to change our prayer to one of righteousness – if we pause and think – for God hears two prayers in each and every prayer we utter.

— Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.