LONDON — 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 1916, left me with an eerie feeling. 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 antiwar 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, U.S. President George W. Bush and British 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 and defended the constitution and before 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, the 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 died for nothing.
But Bush is adamant to carry on with his costly endeavor that has created so many new chasms within his country, and in the world at large: religious contentions and political turmoil, damage that neither Bush, nor his most luminous advisers have the will nor the brains to remedy.
“But what does it amount to?” asks Twain, who uses one of his story’s characters, an angel, to reply “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 touched them, would shut the door in your face if you proposed to call; and whom you slave for, fight for, die for, and are not ashamed 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 on U.S. soil only at night. The wounded are maltreated and hidden from the public eye, only occasional courageous reporters 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 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 Web site, 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 Iraqi police, as 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.