A Connecticut Yankee in King George"s Court

For my recent birthday'yes, I happily accept belated presents'my brother sent me a collection of essays and fiction excerpts entitled Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race (New York: Hill and Wang). Apart from the joy of reading someone as sarcastic and self-righteous as myself, I found Twain's essays quite interesting in their portrayal of the imperialist United States . Twain's commentary may surprise those who think that America has 'taken a wrong turn' somewhere in the last 50 or so years. As this collection makes perfectly clear, people were making the same complaints in 1904 that they are in 2004.

In this vein, the most famous is 'The War Prayer,' a satirical piece in which an 'aged stranger' interprets a preacher's requests of God, in order that the congregation understands what they are really asking for:

'. . . 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'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 the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.' (p. 67)

The US experience in the Philippines , described by both Twain and the book's editor in her short introduction to each piece, is eerily similar to the present situation in Iraq . After 'liberating' the Philippines from Spanish domination, the US troops decided to stay awhile. 'A Defense of General Funston' is Twain's satirical essay in which he argues that General Funston'who resorted to trickery to capture Aguinaldo, the leader of the insurgent natives resisting US occupation'should not be held accountable for his actions, since he was raised in a culture that rewarded immoral acts.

Funston had intercepted a courier from Aguinaldo, and forged a letter informing the rebel leader that several white men had been captured and would be brought to him. Funston then assembled a force of natives hostile to Aguinaldo, and proceeded to the exiled president's hideout (with Funston and a few of his officers posing as prisoners). However, Funston and his men got lost in the jungle, and were on the verge of starvation when they finally sent to Aguinaldo for assistance. After eating his food and recovering their strength, Funston and his men then completed the ruse by approaching the camp in friendship, and once in position began shooting down Aguinaldo's bodyguards. As Twain comments:

Some of the customs of war are not pleasant to the civilian; but ages upon ages of training have reconciled us to them as being justifiable . . . . Every detail of Funston's scheme'but one'has been employed in war in the past and stands acquitted of blame by history. By the custom of war, it is permissible . . . for a brigadier general . . . to persuade or bribe a courier to betray his trust; to remove the badges of his honorable rank and disguise himself; to lie, to practice treachery, to forge; to associate with himself persons properly fitted by training and instinct for the work; to accept of courteous welcome, and assassinate the welcomers while their hands are still warm from the friendly handshake.

By the custom of war, all these things are innocent, none of them is blameworthy . . . none of them is new, all of them have been done before, although not by a brigadier general [Funston's rank'RPM]. But there is one detail which is new, absolutely new. It has never been resorted to before in any age of the world, in any country, among any people, savage or civilized. It was the one meant by Aguinaldo when he said that 'by no other means' would he have been taken alive. When a man is exhausted by hunger to the point where he is 'too weak to move,' he has a right to make supplication to his enemy to save his failing life; but if he takes so much as one taste of that food'which is holy, by the precept of all ages and all nations'he is barred from lifting his hand against that enemy for that time.

It was left to a Brigadier General of Volunteers in the American army to put shame upon a custom which even the degraded Spanish friars had respected. We promoted him for it. (pp. 88-89, emphasis original)

As a postscript to the above story, the reader might be wondering how Funston persuaded Aguinaldo's courier to betray him. The natives declared that it had been by the 'water cure.' At first I thought this must have been similar to the Chinese water torture, but upon reading the editor's notes I learned that:

The Americans . . . became specialists in the 'water cure,' usually administered to elicit information. A blend (in the words of an observer) of Castilian cruelty and American ingenuity, it consisted of forcing four or five gallons of water down the throat of the captive, whose 'body becomes an object frightful to contemplate,' and then squeezing it out by kneeling on his stomach. The process was repeated until the amigo talked or died. (p. 253)

Well, I guess the war hawks are right: The torture of prisoners in Iraq is nothing to get worked up about. That's how Americans have been liberating people for over a century.

In conclusion, I heartily recommend this collection of Twain's essays, especially for those antiwar readers out there. You'll be shocked by American atrocities, and amused by Twain's eloquent condemnations.

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Bob Murphy's picture
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