Images of Liberty and Power

[Created January 15, 2011]
[Updated June 12, 2011]


9. Patriotic Songs which invoke God ("God is on our side")
[January 15, 2011]
The publication in the Atlantic Monthly of Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862)
A cartoon in Life, Feb. 1901 of Mark Twain as "The American Lion of St. Marks" scattering the American imperialists. In the same month MT wrote an "updated" version of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to take into account the American war in the Philippines. (1901)

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored:
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!"

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;*
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others' goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.

* NOTE: In Manila the Government has placed a certain industry under the protection of our flag. (M.T.)

Observations on patriotic songs which assert that "god is on our side": It is a truism that all countries claim that they are God's chosen people, that they alone have been especially blessed with his favour; that their leaders have special access to God and therefore know his will; and that all those who fight in their country's cause do so knowing that justice and goodness are on their side. An obvious contradiction occurs when both sides to a conflict assert the same thing. Either one or both of them have to be wrong.

A particularly glaring example of this occured during the American Civil War when the Union forces went so far as to put the slogan that "In God We Trust" on their coinage and individuals like Howe wrote appalling lyrics like the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" which was quickly adopted by the Union soldiers and is still sung with gusto by Americans today. The sad thing is that the tune was taken from an admirable abolitionist song, "John Brown's Body", and used for other less noble purposes. The Confederate forces did likewise by using the phrase "Deo invice" (With God as our champion) on their great seal - also done in 1862.

In 1901 Mark Twain had become increasingly critical of the American invasion of the Philippines (a Catholic nation under the Spanish). What had been touted as a "war of liberation" of the Philippine people had turned quickly into a standard European-style conquest of a would-be colony with Protestant American boys killing Catholic Philippino resistance fighters leaving hundreds of thousands dead. So he felt it was time to update Howe's patriotic song with some new lyrics better suited to the new century. Note his condemnation of the Americans as "faithless son(s) of Freedom" and that he retains some of the original, namely the refrain "Our god is marching on" (admittedly in lower not upper case this time around). Twain's reworking of the hymn should be compared to his equally devastating "The War Prayer" (1905) in which he shows that the opposite side of the coin to praying to God for swift and glorious victory for one side is the eqaully swift though inglorious death and suffering of the defeated enemy. Praying for victory for oneself implies praying for the death and suffering for others - but this is never mentioned in polite company.

In our own tme we have Bob Dylan's classic anti-war song "With God on Our Side" (from the album The Times They Are A-Changing (1963)). Here are three verses relevant to the topic here, namely the American Civil War and the war in the Philippines [complete lyrics here]:

Oh my name it is nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I's made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.