THE EXPERT WITNESS: Reflections on war at a recent soiree on the River Styx


By Dr. John F. Sase

In war, truth is the first casualty.
—Aeschylus, Greek tragedian (525-456 BCE)

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?
—Mahatma Gandhi, Indian Attorney and Activist (1869-1948)

Due to the interest that our earlier edition of this piece on war generated a few years ago, I (Dr. Sase) decided to publish a redux of it for those who may have missed it. We constructed this column as inspired by and in emulation of John Kendrick Bangs (1862 – 1922), an American Author and Satirist who is well known for creating a genre of fantasy writing in which plots occur in the afterlife. In his short-story collection “A House-Boat on the Styx: Being Some Account of the Divers Doings of the Associated Shades” (Harper & Brothers, 1895), Bangs brings together mythological characters and deceased figures from history, all of whom gather on a houseboat moored along the banks of the River Styx; The guests from one side of the Styx are taken by the small ferryboat piloted by Charon, the Ferryman of Hades from Greek Mythology. He carries the souls of the recently deceased across the river, which divides the worlds of the living and the dead.

In contemplating how best to approach the subject of war, we decided to draw upon the words of great minds. We thought, “What if we invited our selection of legendary personages to a cocktail party or parlor soiree?” Then, with a little bit of artistic license and help from our muse, we could allow them to discuss the matter of war with one another in their own words. We decided to model the party on Bangs’s third story, “[George] Washington Gives a Dinner.” Please note: original quotes from each celebrated guest are within single quote marks in the body of the text.

In Our Story

Charon had busied himself all that morning and afternoon ferrying guests from the far side of the River Styx. Almost seventy years before, he had arranged with General George Washington, First President of the United States, and members of the Houseboat Committee to use the vessel on the Styx to host a soiree. Now he had organized another soiree with Washington and the Committee. The houseboat, which resembled a Florentine barn set on top of a barge, was moored on the near side of the Styx in order to facilitate a special group of invitees who were coming from and returning to the Land of the Living. These guests would join a group who already had passed into the Afterlife.

After the last of the guests arrived, Charon decided to visit the little boatman’s room to freshen himself. As he washed, Charon reflected on a verse from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 that a member of the Committee had posted on the mirror above the sink:

“For everything, there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

Charon thought to himself, “Let’s post another one from Matthew 24:6 for the Evangelicals.”

“And you hear of wars and rumors of war. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.”

Charon mumbled to himself, “I have been here and will continue to be here for all eternity. The last occasion that we had days like this was when the Nazi Party warped the Evangelical Church into the ‘Reich Church’ with Hitler appointing the new bishop. The End of Days will come in its own time, not from any action or any belief that it must come now.”

The guests already had assembled and commenced to greet one another as Charon entered the grand parlor of the houseboat. The gathering quieted when Charon entered the room and walked up to the podium. Without hesitation, he began to speak:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome all of you to the third of these soirees. The first was on the eve of the Second World War in 1939. In 2008, we convened a meeting in the midst of a Global War on Terrorism, an episode that many of you referred to as ‘more of the same.’ At that time, the administration of the United States proposed a Federal budget that allocated fifty-four percent of its total directly to the Defense Department. What concerns us today is that most of the 2018 budget constitutes a similar trend as we move into the future. According to forecasts from many sources, this spending pattern and the horrors associated with it can be expected to continue well into the next decade unless a change in direction takes place.”

“Peace Is Not the Absence of War; It Is a Virtue, a State of Mind, a Disposition for Benevolence, Confidence, and Justice.”

—Benedict (Baruch) De Spinoza, Portuguese-born Dutch Philosopher (1632-77)

Charon continued, “We have convened this meeting of great minds to discuss how current wars or potential conflicts may affect humanity.

Also, we are here to discuss how many persons—including myself, who holds the monopoly on trafficking across the Styx—most likely will gain from the continuation of these events. We convene this gathering tonight so that we might lend some clarity, understanding, and direction to those who will return to the Land of the Living. We hope that they will carry our thoughts with them to share with other human beings residing throughout the various nations of Earth.”

A side conversation quietly ensued at the table of the artisans. English Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley spoke first, saying that “war is the statesman’s game, the priest’s delight, the lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade.” The rest of the invitees at the table looked at each other sternly. German Field Photographer Horst Faas, known for his pictures of the Vietnam War, spoke next, asking, “Lord Shelley, when were you ever on the battlefield?” As Shelley rolled his eyes, Faas continued, “Being in Vietnam and being around a major story of the time was always a shot of adrenaline.” He added emphatically, “War is hell. You can’t photograph a flying bullet, but you can capture fear.”

Turning toward Faas, Tony Vaccaro, American Frontline-Combat Infantryman/Photographer during WWII, said, “I understand, Horst. ‘As for myself, I wanted to collect evidence against the war, the futility, the destruction ... I said to myself, do not worry about how good the photo is. When the eye sees it, do it. I developed the film at night, in our helmets. The soldiers looked often and talked with me. Some died the next day.’”

American Jazz Musician Dexter Gordon said, “I lost many friends in that war. In my humble way, I hope that I helped the cause by recording ‘Victory Disks’ for the U.S. Military Special Services with the Hampton, Henderson, and Armstrong bands. We believed that all of us are created equal. After ‘The Bomb’ dropped, we began to say that, ‘in a nuclear war, all men are cremated equal.’” Suddenly, the table fell quiet.
Then Vaccaro turned to English Actress Vivien Leigh, famous for her portrayal of Scarlet O’Hara in the film version of Gone with the Wind, and asked, “Beautiful lady, will you please say something to raise our beleagered spirits?” Flouncing her ruffled skirt over her crinoline, Leigh exclaimed, “‘Fiddle dee dee! War, war, war! This war talk is spoiling the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream.’” A few at the table chuckled. Fuming, Leigh asserted, “There’s my iconic line that you were waiting for. However, it saddens me that the world remembers me from that bit of dialogue rather than my portrayal of the more tragic war character in ‘Waterloo Bridge.’”

Sensing the embarrassment among her dinner companions, Vivien brightened and said, “I hope that they serve dinner soon. After all, with God as my witness, I vowed never to go hungry again.” This Scarlett O’Hara reference was followed by smiles and guffaws around the table as everyone seemed to relax a bit.

Meanwhile, the conversation had gotten headier at the table of politicians. Fortieth American President Ronald Reagan was addressing the matter of war in general terms: “I would like to put forth the thought that ‘history teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.’ Following that comment, Third American President Thomas Jefferson stood with perturbation and said, “This is all well and good. However, I believe that you are missing the main point. Personally, ‘I recoil with horror at the ferociousness of man. Will nations never devise a more rational umpire of differences than force? Are there no means of coercing injustice more gratifying to our nature than a waste of the blood of thousands and the labor of millions of our fellow creatures?’”

Thirty-Fourth American President Dwight D. Eisenhower motioned respectfully for Jefferson to sit down. Then Ike turned to Reagan and addressed the original comment about costs: “‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.’” Those at the table pondered these statements for a moment.

“If I may,” said American Education-Reformer Abraham Flexner, “Let me respond to this last comment. Through my work with the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, I studied the finances of war in the early twentieth century. Now, as then, ‘nations recently have been led to borrow billions for war; no nation has ever borrowed largely for education. Probably, no nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilization. We must make our choice; we cannot have both.’”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our Thirty-Second President, nodded in agreement, then said, “Let me add that ‘democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.’”

Former Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts responded, “I agree with Flexner and FDR. ‘Give me the money that has been spent in war, and I will clothe every man, woman, and child in an attire of which kings and queens will be proud. I will build a schoolhouse in every valley over the whole Earth. I will crown every hillside with a place of worship consecrated to peace.’”

“I give my regards to Senator Sumner,” said George Washington, through his clattering wooden teeth. “He has underscored the point that the expense of war must produce some measurable benefit. Today, as in my own time, ‘I do not mean to exclude altogether the idea of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it [had done much in the American Revolution]. But I will venture to assert that a great and lasting war can never be supported on this principle alone. It must be aided by a prospect of interest or some reward.’”

“In knowing and respecting George, my esteemed Whist partner on the far side of the River Styx,” said English Economist John Stuart Mill, “I hope that I understand him correctly in respect to a prospect of interest or some reward. I believe that ‘war is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.’”

In response, FDR said, “Let us never forget that ‘the ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.’ However, people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.’”

Ike introduced a suggestion: “Gentlemen, in order to sum up this matter in general terms let us ask Sun Tzu for his view on warfare.” As the table quiets, Sun Tzu, the Chinese General, Strategist, and Writer, paused, then stated, “If I may, let me express my view on the art of war in four sentences. ‘There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefitted. There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare. Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’”

General Ike responded. “Thank you, Sun Tzu, for your concise remarks. These are the elements upon which we formed the United Nations. ‘If the United Nations once admits that international disputes can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the foundation of the organization and our best hope of establishing a world order.’” FDR responded, “I agree with you, sir. ‘If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace.’”

Ban Ki-moon, South Korean Diplomat and Eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, found his natural opening into the conversation: “Let us not skirt the main issue. ‘We must eliminate all nuclear weapons in order to eliminate the grave risk they pose to our world. This will require persistent efforts by all countries and peoples. A nuclear war would affect everyone, and all have a stake in preventing this nightmare.’” A slight hush hovers.

At the adjoining table, which includes Scientists, Philosophers, and Theologians, the attendees were mulling over everything that had been said by the others in the room. English Physicist and Cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who recently crossed to the far side of the River Styx, turned to those seated at his table and opened the discussion: “Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers we have not yet thought of.’”
In response to this comment, American Philosopher/Scientist/Activist Noam Chomsky reminded everyone, “‘There are two problems for our species’ survival—nuclear war and environmental catastrophe—and we’re hurtling towards them. Knowingly.’ Furthermore, ‘It’s a near-miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided.’”

Uruguayan Journalist, Writer, and Novelist Eduardo Galeano entered the conversation, stating that “a nuclear war could result from the same causes as other wars throughout human history. ‘Almost all wars, perhaps all, are trade wars connected with some material interest. They are always disguised as sacred wars, made in the name of God, or civilization, or progress. But all of them, or almost all of the wars, have been trade wars.’”

French Priest and Writer Francois Fenelon added quietly, “‘All wars are civil wars because all men are brothers.’” American Minister and Activist Martin Luther King, Jr. listened intently, then cried out, “War, war, war! ‘I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality ... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.’ Let us recall what John F. Kennedy said, ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.’”

The Argentinian-born Pope Francis, the Two Hundred Sixty-Sixth Pontiff, waited through an expected pause before entering the conversation: “Let me quote one of my predecessors, his Holiness, John Paul II. ‘War should belong to the tragic past, to history. It should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future.’ To that let me add that ‘even today we raise our hand against our brother ... We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal. We continue to sow destruction, pain, death.’” With a note of finality, Francis concluded, “‘Violence and war lead only to death.’”

Old German Proverb: “A Great War Leaves the Country with Three Armies—an Army of Cripples, an Army of Mourners, and an Army of Thieves” 
Charon returned to the podium and spoke: “Thank you, your Holiness, for summing up our discussion so succinctly with a final cadence. Please let me add a postscript from one of your predecessors, Pope Paul VI, ‘If you wish to be brothers, then drop your weapons.’ We hope that our guests from the Land of the Living will carry these and all the other words back to their homes. To close our evening, I have asked Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the great American Author, Journalist, and Speaker, to recite a closing oration, his “War Prayer.” Let us all remember what we have discussed here on this houseboat on the River Styx. Mr. Clemens, if you would.”

“Thank you, Charon,” replied Clemens as he approached the podium. I dedicate my War Prayer, which, unfortunately, proves every bit as relevant today as when I lived, to all of humanity:

“O Lord, our God, help us 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, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it.”
For more information, please see Commandments:
Septuagint (Orthodox Christian)—Number 6
Philo—Number 7
Samaritan Pentateuch—Number 5
Jewish Talmud—Number 6
Augustine—Number 5
Catholic Catechism—Number 5
Luther’s Large Catechism—Number 5 
John Calvin’s Institutes—Number 6
Anglican Book of Common Prayer—Number 6
Dr. John F. Sase teaches Economics at Wayne State University and has practiced Forensic and Investigative Economics for twenty years. He earned a combined M.A. in Economics and an MBA at the University of Detroit, followed by a Ph.D. in Economics from Wayne State University. He is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School (


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