Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Very Mean and Nasty Apologetic Post

My discussion of the debate between Stephen Smoot and Heartlander Johnathan Neville prompted a discussion of another topic in the comments that I want to expound upon here. The myth of the traditional apologetic style has been around for a long time. I’ve never seen examples of this style. What I have seen is the usual inter group dynamics on both sides of the debate that can be found in politics, sports, military units, and even debates about television. Labeling one side of the debate as mean when both are similar in behavior also shows an astounding double standard.

First the double standard: Years ago William Hamblin was very upset with the new direction of the Maxwell Institute and made some criticisms of Ben Park. The watch dogs of FARMS attack dogs erupted with disdain and jeering for more of the “traditional style” and mean apologetics that was damaging to a junior scholar and tried to make him lose his job.

Yet I found a similar example with the situation reversed. A short time later David Bokovoy sided with the MI people supposedly under attack. In his defense he specifically called out Stephen Smoot among others in harsh terms. Instead of saying it was unwise, mean, or nasty for a senior scholar to call out a junior scholar, and the potential damage it could do to his career, the same people that criticized Hamblin praised Bokovoy for speaking truth to power and unmasking the evil apologists. Both individuals were criticizing someone’s behavior, but when it was done by the supposedly superior new direction folks it was brave and praise worthy but when done by Peterson, Hamblin or Smoot, it was mean and nasty.

The myth of the mean Dan Peterson and old school apologists has grown into an article of faith in some circles. I’m not defending every interaction he or they’ve ever had, or every article they have ever written or published, but I believe this myth of an arching style is unfairly attached to them. Proponents of the attack style might point to Ralph Hancock’s words when he defended “sharpness of tone,” “irony,” and “measured indignation” (Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, p. 98.) I’m not denying those styles exist, but I am saying that for whatever behavior you criticize about FARMS you can find the same or similar behavior on the other side.

The Interpreter writes negative reviews of books as does the new direction Maxwell Institute. Both sides have rolled their eyes at the other and disagree about methods. I have personal correspondence that includes petty behavior from the supposedly superior new direction folks. I’ve been asked gotcha questions at conferences by new direction folks and it went without comment. When Hamblin and Gee asked a difficult question, it became another example of the mean FARMS people. In one nasty incident, a new direction individual literally got in the face of an old school apologist at a conference and told him to go to hell.

The behavior seen on both sides is a result of group and inters group dynamics that include several factors. It is common to view “the other” as a monolith group that is different, mean, stupid, and then view every interaction through that filter. This has especial value in political discussions and I’m sure the readers of this post are ready to jump in the comments with their examples of mopologists. The discussion among groups of like minded individuals often uses a short hand and simplistic view of opponent’s beliefs and mocks them. Sometimes people who are normally kind and decent get stuck in the mire of online debates, having a bad day, and in many cases the individuals are behaving less than their better selves. When these less than stellar behaviors are coupled with inter-group dynamics the behaviors are more easily seen in the other side and furthers divides the two. This happens even though their behavior in incredibly similar. Historian Richard Hofstader pointed out this ironic fact in his classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, pointed out how opposition groups often become what they oppose. “The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy.” But the FARMS people are mean and nasty and we poop rainbows.

This post isn’t an attempt to categorize every interaction and the entire groups and sub groups of scholars, critics, and interested individuals. As churchistrue can testify, trying to categorize people can get messy very quickly. Personally I have no problems with either side. I’ve submitted to both the new direction Maxwell Institute and Interpreter, and I’ve published several pieces with the latter. I’m very proud to publish with an organization that still cares about the AR and not just the MS part of FARMS. And that’s why I think it was created, not so it can continue to be “mean” and “nasty.” I can’t speak for every publication of course, and there was one piece by Duane Boyce that had a multitude of serious issues, but even that doesn’t reflect or prove the myth of mean and nasty apologists. (Ironically enough, I really likedhis book so even his case isn’t simple.)

In conclusion, I think the behavior of various groups within, outside, and about Mormonism are closer in behavior than many think. I think that because of incredibly specific examples of behavior I’ve seen from both sides, but also because of what I’ve seen around the internet in debates about every subject, and because of what I’ve gathered about group dynamics. This post isn’t an invitation to discuss that one time (or many) an apologist was mean to you, or to express your disdain for Dan Peterson, but to offer a thoughtful reconsideration of common ideas.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Notes on a Curious Verse- Alma 47:33

Verse 33 presented one of the most intriguing items after Amalickiah gained complete control of the army:

Therefore, when the queen had received [word of the king’s death] she sent unto Amalickiah, desiring him that he would spare the people of the city; and she also desired him that he should come in unto her; and she also desired him that he should bring witnesses with him to testify concerning the death of the king.

This presents all sorts of ideas and implications. If the queen requested that he spare the people of the city it suggests that the Lamanite army could have sacked it. Anciently, plunder acted as one of the few reliable ways for an army to get paid, and often acted as a bonus for the success of a campaign. It was the chief motivation for many soldiers, and in many cases their only pay day. In brutal pre modern societies plundering was also the ticket to a better life. Some of the rebels around the capital were likely made up of different ethnicities than the elites in Nephi. The previous king of the Lamanties ruled seven cities (Alma 23:9-12), but his converted people only gathered in two of them (likely the two ruled by the kings converted by Ammon and Aaron), while being attacked from others.[1] Then the former group left entirely to join the Nephites. The Amulonite faction was neutered immediately after the departure of the Anti-Nephi Lehis (Alma 25:6-13 and Alma 28:1-3). And the Amalekites and Zormaites elites were defeated in Alma 43 and 44. Thus whoever was king at the time (the text never says), must have been in a weak position or brokered power arrangement with other factions. There is a good chance in fact, that the queen to whom Amalickiah is negotiating was a part of a marriage alliance upon which the king’s power rested. 

Like the faceoff between Amalickiah and Lehonti’s army, perhaps the queen still had military force and the inclination to oppose Amalickiah. But then the queen requested, or possibly ordered, that Amalickiah bring witnesses of the king’s murder. And the next verse says that the witnesses “satisfied” the queen. Hearing testimony suggests some sort of legal procedure. It’s possible that this served as part of the ritual surrounding a coronation the text skipped over, or more theatre to cover the naked ambition of two joint rulers, and likely a combination of both. Historically, the unexpected death of a sovereign often resulted in a mad scramble for power. The queen could easily use her position, and networks of elites to control the capital and remain in power. Amalickiah, in contrast, could use the army as a platform to control the countryside and seize the capital by force. With rival bases of political power, a desire to “spare the people of the city” likely represented a coded political message to end the still simmering power struggle. The queen remained in power; and with Amalickiah she had a partner just as powerful, if not more so, than her late husband. Amalickiah gained by keeping control of the army and possessing a stronger claim to the throne.

This is all good reasoning (if I can say so,) but I found additional evidence in a particularly vivid story.  As historical background for the purported author of the Methods of Sima Chinese historians recorded this:

[After taking command and hearing news of the enemy’s withdraw] thereupon he pursued and attacked the [enemy], subsequently retaking all the territory within the borders of the old fief, returning with the soldiers.   Before he reached the state capital he disbanded the units, released them from military constraints, swore a covenant, and thereafter entered the city. Duke Ching (547-490BC) and the high officials greeted him in the suburbs, rewarding the troops and completing the rites, only afterward returning to rest.[2]

The footnote explains that removal of military constraints consists of the loyalty required of soldiers to their commander. This has obvious implications and recalls Caesar crossing the Rubicon as the most famous example of a military commander using the army for political purposes. I also noted how there was both a ceremony, implied ritual, and rites which recalls the ceremony hinted at in Alma 47. Moreover, this ceremony conforms to the text of the Sima itself.  Several places show how a commander should not be brought back to the city to interfere with the court:

In antiquity the form and spirit governing civilian affairs would not be found in the military realm; those appropriate to the military realm would not be found in the civilian sphere [or the court]…Methods of Sima, 2.2

In antiquity the form and spirit governing civilian affairs would not be found in the military realm; those appropriate to the military realm would not be found in the civilian sphere. If the form and spirit [appropriate to the] military realm enter the civilian sphere, the Virtue of the people will decline. When the form and spirit [appropriate to the] civilian sphere enter the military realm, then the Virtue of the people will weaken. Methods of Sima, 2.9

Correspondingly, there are multiple examples of how the military commander should not face interference in the field from officials in the court with often out of date and faulty information. Here is one of the more evocative examples from the Six Secret Teachings of Tai Kong:

After the General has received his mandate, he bows and responds to the ruler: ‘I have heard that a country cannot follow the commands of another state’s government, while an army [in the field] cannot follow central government control. Someone of two minds cannot properly serve his ruler; someone in doubt cannot respond to the enemy. I have already received my mandate and taken sole control of the awesome power of the fu and yueh axes. I do not dare return alive. I would like to request that you condescend to grant complete and sole command to me. If you do not permit it, I dare not accept the post of general.’ The king then grants it, and the general formally takes his leave and departs. Six Secret Teachings of Tai Kong, 3.21

So there was a body of thought in ancient times that commented on the danger of military leaders using their soldiers to seize the court, and how military commanders in the field should not face interference from political leaders during their campaigns. To offer an example using modern terminology, that would be like Abraham Lincoln trying to micromanage the Battle of Gettysburg. Finally, there is a recorded instance of a successful general coming back to the capital and the court, and performing a ceremony with rites that would disband the army and spare the city any conflict between the civilian and martial leaders. 

As readers unpack the details surrounding this text and use additional examples from history they can tease out additional details that show there is much more to the story. Thanks for reading! I work as a freelance author so if you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below. 


[1] A special thanks Ryan Tanner for his brilliant insights, upon which a good part of this section rests.
[2] Ralph Sawyer trans, Shi Chi, in Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993) 114. All subsequent quotes from military theorists are from Sawyer’s translation.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Book Review Saints: Volume One

George Orwell to rockers Rage Against the Machine have commented on the power of history and the wars over its interpretation. As a professor of history I constantly try to give my students the power to see the difference between a solid narrative and one that is manipulated. Saints: The Standard of Truth (1815-1846) is the first volume of a much needed update to previous attempts at church history and does a magnificent job of juggling many hard tasks.

The book starts with the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia which affected the weather of the indigent Smith family and necessitated their move to upstate New York. In 500 plus pages anchored by first person narratives and stirring vignettes that often focus on concern for loved ones, the book moves through the most tempestuous and still contentious years of church history. The first hurdle overcome is that the book discusses complex issues such as 19th century American folk religion, seer stones, census data, danites, plural marriage and legal proceedings, and keeps the prose at an accessible level. The ease of reading I would compare to Harry Potter which is a good thing. I’ve read many volumes that have too many ten dollars words in a one dollar sentence that bogs down the text.

The flow is helped immensely by interesting vignettes. From Thomas Marsh obtaining sample pages of the Book of Mormon from the printer, the introduction of the Book of Mormon to Brigham Young’s family and the reaction of the Hales to their son in law’s money digging, the historians and writers picked evocative examples that contextualize the historical events and often controversial issues being discussed. But the text isn’t mind reading or offering faith promoting rumors because these narratives and vignettes are well grounded in extensive primary and solid secondary sources.

The account of the first vision provides an excellent example of this. This is a story that (members formerly known as) Mormons could quote from Joseph Smith history even decades after they completed their missions. But in this volume the account draws on sources ranging from an interview with Smith done by the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, an Orson Hyde tract written in German, an Orson Pratt tract, and the journal of Levi Richards on top of copies of primary sources in the Joseph Smith papers (chapter 2 foot notes 2,4,8,9,11.) I read each footnote and their sourcing is incredible and impeccable and there are reproductions of them in the Joseph Smith Papers and online. The extensive research results in a narrative that provides little known details, such as Joseph praying at the location where he left an axe in a tree stump. It also weaves in answers to repeated criticisms such as different first vision accounts, divining rods and peep stones. Again, it does all of this in a concise, readable, and engrossing manner. (Please note, before September 4th I’m limited in discussing material in the book that is already made available. As a result I’m only using examples from the first few chapters.)

This volume shows the power of history in using an intimate knowledge of primary sources, and judicious use of secondary sources like Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. The limits of the discipline and often fragmentary sources can be frustrating. This volume does an excellent job at looking back, lightening a window into the past, and providing a solid example for future volumes of church history and how members can talk about it today. It addresses often repeated criticisms. But they talk about it in matter of fact language and in the middle of excellent contextualization which will make the sensationalist presentism of critics seem even weaker. It also looks to the future, by addressing supposedly controversial issues in a matter of fact way in the middle of their historical context; it will strengthen member’s faith and provide room for them to address tougher issues the church faces today.

The truth claims of the church remain a matter for thoughtful reflection and prayer. Critics will still find room to offer cynical rebuttals, though the excellent research and availability of sources will leave many of them impotent. Many members of the church correctly feel they don’t need a testimony of history, just a testimony of the church. Just like members of the church feel the need for geographic and cultural commentary on the New Testament, the history of the early church matters and interested readers will find this illuminating and a masterful, must read history that represents the best the discipline has to offer in pursuit of knowledge.

Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance writer. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button at the bottom of the page. Thanks again. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

China's Peace Disease

Rare Nationalist Propaganda, 1938

[This is more of a policy piece I developed as part of a site devoted to experienced driven commentary. It also includes material for a future book I’m writing introducing Modern Chinese Problems and Strategy.]

Hardware is fairly easy to assess. The speed of missiles, the range of sensors, and the amount of Aegis destroyers are all fairly certain quantities. But how they are used is not. Wars are not simply a math contest and generals are not mathematicians. Strategy, training and surprise matter just as much, if not more than the systems themselves. This is where the RAND report and so many analysts falter. They provide a chilling picture of material imbalance and possible scenarios such as China’s invasion of Taiwan in 2020. But they don’t account for the training and professionalism of the US military. For example, American pilots have been flying missions as part of the war on terror for almost 20 years. While the planes may need spare parts, the average fighter pilot has thousands of hours of combat experience.

China fought its last active war in 1979. There are few if any officers and military members that have experience operating in war time conditions. The last joint naval and land operation occurred in 1955. That means the senior leadership in China’s military has little combat experience. And none of their NCOs and junior officers has seen any combat. The Chinese do have an increasing number of sophisticated missiles, ships, and weapons, but there is little indication of how they will perform complex operations in wartime conditions. Training exercises are important, and China has many of them, but there is little that can replace the skills gained from war time experience. Chinese fighter pilots for example, often go through very basic training exercises and have trouble showing initiative. War time conditions include a great deal of stress, confusion, unexpected events and a limited time in which to make decisions. An untested military using untested technology means their missile threat may be one of the many militaries around the world that look and sound good on paper as they promise the “mother of all battles” only to melt away when the conflict starts. Assuming Chinese forces skillfully use their new missiles, these are a high use and rapidly depleted weapon. In this case it means China would have a strong first punch but little staying power once the missiles run out.

This peace disease is exacerbated by personnel problems. China has had a one child policy that affects their modernization of their military and interacts with general trends. The one child policy results in what Chinese analysts often call the “little emperor” syndrome. These are the only children of parents who are often spoiled to the point that the military lifestyle is rather jarring to them. Almost 70% of recruits are only children and this increases to 80% in some front line combat units. On top of that, the general effect of modernization, such as an increasingly urban and sedentary lifestyle means that recruits, on average, are taller, weigh more, and just can’t fit into tight military equipment built for a different average from 20 or 30 years ago. The pollution for which China is known for limits potential recruits even further. Many of potential recruits have severe lung issues that limit their ability to run and leads to an increase in respiratory diseases. The increasingly technical demands from these fancy weapons systems require recruits with more technical ability and aptitude. Average test scores have risen which suggests China is finding better recruits. But due to the above problems with modern and urban living, they often recruit rural candidates as well that have little exposure to complex technical systems and little ability to master them.

The solution to this has been to relax recruitment standards and hope that China can train them up to military standards. But many recruits don’t stay in very long. Many military assignments are in remote inhospitable locations far from home. Mid-career soldiers often have limited professional development opportunities and their skills aren’t as readily transferable to civilian sectors. Soldiers often receive low pay and benefits which makes retention difficult, and incentivizes a recurring problem with corruption.

On top of having trouble retaining recruits and seasoned mid career personnel, the culture of the military often prohibits independent and local decision making. They often refer decision making to higher units. Their training exercises are often a way for unit commanders to look good for higher ups. There is severe pressure for Red Units to win, resulting in exercises that fail to identify weaknesses. As alluded to above, there is legitimate worry that their fighter pilots are “dumb.”

The end result of all this severely undermines the click bait fearmongering that is popular among many academics. A closer look suggests that Chinese recruits are often physically and psychologically unprepared for combat and the advanced Chinese weapon systems. They have limited training opportunities and retention among the most skilled. They have a training system that often limits junior officers and promotes a culture of delayed decision making that could prove catastrophic in combat. Chinese officials are aware of the problem and doing more to rectify the situation. But only success in combat can truly dispel the dangers and drawbacks that come from these trends.

This kind of in depth analysis isn’t nearly as attractive click bait compared to fearful hot takes about supersonic weapons, drone swarms, and obsolete carriers. But it is very important to move beyond headlines and the short attention span of social media. Chinese analysts like Zhao Hui have pushed back on this narrative. After calling the arguments “untenable, unscientific, rustic, inhibit self-confidence, and may lead to misguided policy …” he provided two examples. In the Gulf War in 1991 Iraq had just fought an eight yearlong conflict with Iran, and the United States had not fought a major engagement since their withdraw from Vietnam 16 years earlier. Yet the lack of combat experience didn’t stop the United States from winning in overwhelming fashion.

The other example comes from World War I. The British had been involved in a long string of colonial wars, including the Boer War. Yet in the first (and almost decisive) phase of the war the British conducted a “continuous retreat” against victorious German forces. The United States in particular should be concerned because their experience comes from counter insurgency brush wars in contrast to a likely heavy weight match with China. Just like the British, their experience might be in the wrong area leaving them over stretched and unprepared for conventional combat.

Zhao provides several good points that I don’t think completely prove his case. It is possible for an untested military to beat a more experienced one. Those armies each had particular advantages in strategy, culture, and training that proved more decisive than the length of time since their last conflict. For example, the German army in World War I had an incredibly high standard of training, their General Staff College was the best in the world other nations tried to copy, and they had a venerable history and culture of excellence. As the Chinese philosopher Sunzi might have said, the German military was like the release of a torrent of water flowing down a mountain, the swoop of a deadly falcon catching its prey, or the release bolt from a crossbow. The German’s lack of recent military experience was a far less measure of their competence than their training, strategy, and élan.

Likewise, the Iraqis fought Iran for almost a decade. But those battles were largely stalemates along a static and somewhat geographically constrained front. The US in contrast had overwhelming air power, faced the Iraqis across a different front, led a large coalition and was fighting a war of liberation in contrast to Iraqi soldiers that were fighting for a dictator. Again, like the Germans, the combat experience was one factor among many that didn’t affect performance in that case.

It’s true the United States is fighting an insurgency and long war on terror. The military faces legitimate dangers of imperial over stretch as their hardware has deteriorated and many soldiers have faced multiple deployments. But the military is upgrading its equipment. The pilots in particular have received advanced and invaluable training that gives them the edge over Chinese pilots despite fighting brush wars for decades. More importantly, while there are examples of inexperienced forces beating ones that have more experience; China has many other problems that raise significant concerns. The Chinese military remains untested, they have trouble recruiting and retaining high caliber soldiers, they have new equipment that hasn’t been integrated into the military in combat conditions, and they don’t have the élan and institutional experience of the United States and German militaries that can compensate for peace disease. America might be overstretched, but unlike China’s peace disease, the institutional experience and quality of the American soldier can compensate while it is doubtful for China.

The major problem with those examples was that victory resulted from a variety of factors more than experience that included military culture, training, and equipment. There are two relevant examples from Chinese history which shows these additional factors.

The first comes from the Song Dynasty. Ruling in the same time frame as the European Middle Ages, the Song fought several wars with the Kitan Liao empire. The Chinese treaty with the Kitan produced long periods of peace interspersed with wars. The Song dynasty performed horrible at the start of these wars. The generals were accustomed to rather pleasant peace time requirements, and the soldiers were untrained. But the baptism of combat quickly produced a trained group of officers and soldiers that rose to the occasion and produced results for the empire. (Or as Mao said, their experience was “paid in blood.”) But they again went through a long period of peace and the same pattern repeated itself when the next war broke out 30 years later. This was a good example of peace disease, as the military performed well in combat with good leaders, culture, and advanced medieval weaponry, including extensive gunpowder weapons hundreds of years before Europeans adopted it. They simply lacked rigorous peace time training.

The next example comes from a military with lots of experience. The Nationalist army under Chiang Kai-Shek unified the country in 1926 and ruled during what is called the Nanjing Decade. This period has the dubious distinction of being before their fight with the Japanese, before World War II eclipsed that struggle, and before the Communists won the Civil War in 1949. As a result, they are often viewed from the lens of defeat in 1949 instead of their victories in the 1920s. New scholarship shows that the Nationalist army had strong espirit de corps and bold aggressive tactics that carried them to victory against the warlords. But they faced defeat, not because of imperial over stretch or because of their lack of peace disease but due to several important factors.

Against the Communists, the Nationalists fought forces that were just as motivated as they were. The extremely rough terrain of Jiangxi province, where Mao based his rebellion, was particularly unsuited to aggressive maneuver. In fact, the aggressive independent maneuver that secured victory against the warlords resulted in devastating ambushes and defeat against the Communists. Against the Japanese, they were simply overwhelmed by a superior military machine with more advanced equipment. The Chinese nationalists fought well, but the Japanese had more and better artillery, which was properly distributed to its front line units. They had support from tactical air forces and naval batteries which pummeled the Chinese units. Chiang Kai-Shek’s units, though experienced, didn’t have the same staying power and offensive punch that the Japanese did and they suffered accordingly.

Peace disease is a very important factor but it is one among many. The current Chinese army has a multitude of problems which suggest they will not be able to perform like the Germans in World War I, Japanese in World War II, and America in the Gulf War. Based on historical precedents they will likely pay for the needed combat experience by the blood their soldiers in the early phase of any conflict despite click bait fear mongering.

Thanks for reading. I work as a freelance writer and if you found value in this work please consider donating using the pay pal button below.