Chapter 10: War as Experienced and Imagined by Mark Twain
One extremely prominent American writer alert to the changing ways of war in the late nineteenth century was the inimitable Mark Twain, and his antiwar stance was unambiguous. With his signature wit and irreverent irony, Twain returned again and again in his fiction and correspondence to the theme of technology and warfare. He wrote not only about actual wars, past and present, but also about wars that were wholly imaginary. Among the bloodlettings with which he concerned himself were: the Roman, Greek, and Hebraic Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and a couple of sixth-century wars that had never taken place.
To understand the evolution of Twain's thoughts about the madness and modernization of warfare, it is important to begin with his actual military experience. Unlike Hawthorne, Twain did fight in the Civil War, albeit very briefly and on the losing side. In the summer of 1861 he was twenty-five years old, fresh from a stint piloting steamboats up and down the Mississippi River, and a new convert to the Confederate cause. Upon returning to his boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain joined up with a group of fourteen other young men and for a few weeks played at being a soldier before his military zeal soured and he headed out West to join his brother, Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Twain recalled his short-lived experience as a Confederate soldier in an autobiographical sketch titled "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." Part fact and part fiction, this penitent and thoroughly self- ridiculing account of his misadventures appeared in the December 1885 installment of the Century magazine's famous "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" series. Though Twain strives for the comic tone of a mock epic, the piece is key to understanding Twain's enduring abhorrence of war.
As "the first wash of the wave of war broke upon the shores of Missouri," Twain records, he and a ragtag group of Confederate sympathizers organized themselves into a military company. The self-dubbed Marion Rangers, Twain claims, were more clumsy than courageous, and by and large they treated their entree into militarism as a "holiday frolic." Full of horseplay and laughter, they traveled around the countryside doing their best to avoid the enemy and ran at the least sign of danger. "Our scares were frequent," Twain writes. "Every few days rumors would come that the enemy were approaching. In these cases we always fell back on some other camp of ours; we never [stayed] where we were."
Their strategy of preemptive retreat served the novice soldiers well until one tragic, dimly lit night. In an incident that marks the climax of Twain's tale, the blundering Marion Rangers mistake a man on horseback for a Union soldier and shoot him out of his saddle. Twain recalls that, after feeling an initial surge of exhilaration, he was struck with remorse. "The thought shot through me that I was a murderer; that I had killed a man—a man who had never done me any harm. That was the coldest sensation that ever went through my marrow."
Twain traces the conversion in his outlook on war to the death of the unknown horseman.
The man was not in uniform, and was not armed. He was a stranger in the country; that was all we ever found out about him. The thought of him got to preying upon me every night; I could not get rid of it. I could not drive it away, the taking of that unoffending life seemed such a wanton thing. And it seemed an epitome of war; that all war must be just that—the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it.
The Civil War went on, but after the death of the stranger, Twain—who had served in an unofficial troop—opted out. He explains, "It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business; that war was intended for men, and I for a child’s nurse. I resolved to retire from this avocation of sham soldiership while I could save some remnant of my self-respect."
Implicit in Twain's self-deprecating assessment of his failings is a critique of modern battle, which demands that soldiers kill anonymously, often without even seeing the target of their deadly fire. Rather than producing a traditional tale of guts and glory, Twain reduces all of warfare to the murder of an innocent man by the ignorant Marion Rangers. It is absurd, Twain demonstrates, to try to give the death of the unknown horseman a transcendent meaning. Of the slain stranger, Twain writes, "He was killed in war; killed in fair and legitimate war; killed in battle." Twain lays out the words on the page and tries them on for size, but they are too large, too lofty. The result is ridiculous; it is like a child prancing around in his father's oversize shoes. Twain makes the language of valor and heroism laughable. He knows, and his readers know, that there is no glorious justification—no adequate justification at all—for the unlucky stranger’s death. . . .