Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Gadianton Robbers in the Syrian Civil War

War on the Rocks is a great website that posts nuanced policy papers and military analysis. They recently published an article about Syria describing the decay of Bashar Al Assad’s regime.  This post briefly highlights how that article’s main points underscore what I’ve been arguing about the Gadianton Insurgency.  The current disintegration of the regime in the real world highlights and supports my subtle and nuanced reading of the Book of Mormon.  

Thesis Statement: Robbers Both a Cause and Collapse

As I wrote in my first book, “The various historical uses of the term robber when applied to the Book of Mormon suggest that the Gadianton Robbers contributed to and resulted from the weakening control of the central government over its territories and armed forces.”[1] 

War on the Rocks:  Today, where briefing maps now show solid red across Syria’s western governorates, they ought to distinguish dozens and perhaps even hundreds of small fiefdoms only nominally loyal to Assad. Indeed, in much of the country, loyalist security forces function like a grand racketeering scheme: simultaneously a cause and consequence of state collapse at the local level.

The State’s Reliance on Bandits:

I wrote on my blog here about a really cool letter I written by the Communists insurgents in China to a secret society. In assessing its significant I offered these words:  

Thus the line between bandits, militia of a hated rival, private bodyguards, deputized law enforcement officers, or insurgents, became incredibly blurred….On the local level that meant there were competing groups vying for power. Labels are very powerful, and labels like bandit were used to stigmatize. Yet early Communist forces had large components of bandits, including the entire forces of the two largest bandit groups nearest the Jinggangshan mountain base.  So when Chiang Kai-Shek labelled his campaign as bandit suppression and encirclement, it reflected an overt political attack on Communists, but it also reflected the way a political military fight can blur the boundaries with and reflect lawless banditry.

Both ancient historian Susan Mattern and Sinologist Stephen Averill talked about the way that bandits could be adopted into government forces or created as allies.[2] Mao Zedong incorporated bandits into his army but then warned against “banditry” within Communist forces.[3]  Indeed, even the United States saw this during the Anbar Awakening. We managed to convince many of the most ardent Sunni supporters of the insurgency to join our side. This is because they knew how to fight the insurgents. We worked with the Iraqi government to legitimize them as militia.   

War on the Rocks: The real story of the Tiger Forces is…instructive to those trying to understand the regime. During the early days of the uprising against Assad, Hassan coordinated the suppression of protests in Hama, an effort that relied on a collection of ordinary thugs, air force officers, and area tribal leaders… in due time, this early network of enforcers would evolve into the so-called Tiger Forces. While the unit has since developed a more stable core of permanent quasi-soldiers, Tiger loyalists today still hail from a vast web of militias, criminals, and smugglers stretching across Syria’s central and arguably most strategic province of Hama.

Weak Government Incorporates them:

I discussed many great things in my FAIR presentation it included the point that a weak government tried to co-opt and control local bandit leaders in order to bolster their power. This is related to the above concept about the very blurry line between bandit force and legitimate government militia or army:[4] 

Historically, the chaos that resulted from political weakness resulted in actors that can be divided into three camps. The first group is the predatory bandits that fit the typical image associated with robbers. Yet the second two, local elites that assume power, and former officials that take advantage of the power vacuum, can assist in our understanding of Nephite society.
The Roman sources called many groups ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority. [Even the great warlords such as Childeric, Clovis, and Alaric..held official offices in the Roman Empire.] Historian David Graff adds a similar point from Chinese history:

To protect themselves and their communities against the [predators], local elites organized their kinsmen and neighbors into militia forces. Many also followed the time honored response to trouble times and relocated to forts built on hilltops or in other easily defensible locations. One leader of protective forces was Lu Zushang…. He was the son of a [dynasty] general, and his family was wealthy and locally influential. Though still a teenager Lu recruited ‘stalwart warriors’ and pursued the bandits, with the result that they no longer dared to enter his district. [The remaining weakened government government] eventually established him as governor of [the province].

War on the Rocks:  Apparently too weak to coerce and too broke to bribe those who fight under its banner, Assad has made efforts to tie his subordinates closer to his Damascus by political means instead. This April’s parliamentary “elections” further indicated the structural transformation of the regime from a centralized state to a loose hodgepodge of warlord. A number of long-serving Ba’athist rubberstamp bureaucrats and local dignitaries, pillars of the regime’s traditional rentier system, lost their seats in favor of upstart smugglers, militia leaders, and tribal chiefs.

Self-interested Soldiers:

In my new book (still forthcoming), I wrote about the decline of soldiers and how they likely became a parasitic cast, which would only fuel unrest and an insurgency against the government:[5]

The prophets in the book of Helaman continually lambasted the need to “get gain” (Helaman 6:8, 17) as the chief sin of Gadianton robbers, and the major prophetic discourses of Nephi and Samuel the Lamanite attack the materialism of Nephite society (Helaman 7:5, 21, 26; 13: 19-23, 32-36).  In describing the impotence of Moronihah’s army, Mormon said this about Nephite society, which might apply even more to the increasingly self-interested soldiers:

And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked, and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek, making a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions, and deserting away into the land of Nephi, among the Lamanites (Helaman 4:12).

…Considering the cost of equipping for war, and how plundering was the best pay day in the ancient world the soldiers would be rich, or at least the elites that used force to enrich themselves would be “exceeding[ly] rich.” They would also find that  “desert[ing] unto the Lamanites” with their war like policies (Mormon 8:8) promised a more lucrative environment. And it could easily refer to the soldiers of fortune and large bands of soldiers who thought the same. Moreover, the victims of this aggrandizement from out of control soldiers, or armies of elites would see it as “oppression, “smiting their...brethren upon the cheek,” stealing food from the hungry (remember the connection between famine and war in Helaman 11:1-5), could easily refer to the abuse of power by the military against civilians. 

In fact, the second half of Helaman 4:12 explicitly referred to murder, stealing, plunder, and great contentions.  Nephite military forces were led by prophets during times of righteous leadership (3 Nephi 3:19) so “denying the spirit of prophecy” could refer to rejecting righteous military leaders.   On top of this, in the next chapter when the prophets Nephi and Lehi were preaching, they were seized by an army and thrown in prison (Helaman 5:21).  Yet the Nephite record doesn’t mention a current war, which suggests the army was doing something else. This could be private aggrandizement, a war against “others” only hinted at by the text, or general plunder by a free booting company. Whatever their activity, it strengthens the suggestion that Helaman 4: 12 referred to a rapacious and predatory military that is not controlled by a righteous central government.

War on the Rocks:  Rather than attempt to capture resource monopolies, certain armed groups have taken to making a profit by exploiting the suffering population directly… Despite guarantees by the government, local loyalist militias tasked with manning the checkpoints in the area have recently begun levying a tax of 100 Syrian Pounds per kilogram on all incoming food products. Even a conservative estimate would put the monthly revenue of such a levy into the millions of U.S. dollars. This is enough to feed and supply the thousands of fighters manning the cordon, as well as their families. The watchdog group “Siege Watch” has put the number of civilians encircled by regime forces at an additional 850,000 across Syria. In these stricken areas, the cost of living has multiplied, with the difference syphoned off by those manning the bottlenecks. Put differently, with Damascus nowhere near able to finance and feed the families of loyalist militiamen, the encircling and taxation of civilians has an economic necessity for the regime to keep many of its most important frontline troops supplied and happy.


I’m becoming more and more convinced that regardless of the time period, geography, and culture, there are a set of specific principles that govern the course of an insurgency and the composition of their army.  It is incredibly rewarding to see the arguments I’ve made about the Book of Mormon referenced in secular academic literature. The Book of Mormon clearly shows the Gadianton Robbers as an insurgency that features nuanced relationships and power brokering between the government, local leaders, the people, and military groups.  The government weakness was a cause of and results from the robbers, they alternatively relied upon and tried to co-opt them.  The soldiers enriched themselves upon the population and justified their looting as taxes. 

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[1] Morgan Deane, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Ebookit, 2014), 37.
[2] Susan Mattern, “Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Victor Davis Hanson eds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 169 (163-184). Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: The Jinggangshan Base Area 1927-1929. (New York, Rowan and Littlefield, 2007), 57.
[3] Mao Zedong, “Problems of War and Strategy, Part 4”, Selected Military Writings of Mao Zedong, (Bejing: Foreign Language Press, 1971,) 112.
[4] Morgan Deane, “ Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon”, FAIR Mormon Conference, Provo, Utah. August 2016.
[5] Morgan Deane, Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon, (Forthcoming.), 149-151. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Know Why and Knowing my FAIR Presentation

Greetings everybody. Heaven knows I stressed over this for a long time, but I presented at FAIR earlier this month and its been posted online at their website. Its a paper that examines the causes of Gadianton conflict in greater detail. Most intriguingly, it looks at specific and under studied scriptures to argue the robbers were social bandits closer to Robin Hood with legitimate grievances about land reform and Nephite excess. And suggests people like Nephi were closer to the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Its a provocative argument that I was excited to make. And it fits some of the ides about a more nuanced study of the text suggested by others at the conference such as Grant Hardy

I'm also proud to say I found myself in another footnote, and then featured in the body of the text with several more footnotes. Book of Mormon Central is a great spot that archives the research on the Book of Mormon and then provides easy to access summaries of research concerning important topics.  The first discusses the war chapters in general, and why there are so many of them.  The second includes a quote from me in the body, and then several footnotes. This includes a good summary of how the Book of Mormon exhibits many authentic strategies from of ancient warfare. I took a good deal of time, but its good to see that I'm taking part in a wider conversation and influencing the way people think about the text. I hope to bring you much more exciting research in the future that will bring you additional insight into the text. Thanks for reading. 

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Blog Wars

Edit:  You might notice I had briefly posted this and then took it down. Geoff Biddulph performed a stand up and peacemaking gesture to try and smooth things over. I appreciate his outreach and would like to count him as a friend. Unfortunately, his email did not show a hint of self awareness. The only problem in his mind was my "stalking" of him.  (Which in itself is insulting. Geoff isn't that important, but I do peruse the bloggernacle, and by extension his blog, the same way I read the daily newspaper.) Because he showed no hint of self awareness, and a bit of self righteousness even in his peaceful gesture, it is likely that he will do the same things that bothered so many people in the first place. In fact, he insulted me as a war monger before my post had even made it through moderation. Even though I really hate drama, and even posted on facebook how little attention I get because I avoid it, I felt I had to repost this. If you don't like drama you can go ahead and skip to the last paragraph.

I generally don't participate a great deal in online conversations.  But I do like to make my thoughtful opinions known. I like to participate even less in needless flame wars. Its why I walked away from this comments of this thread for example, where I am called everything in the book for literally a month. (Look for Irven Hill and Gary Hunt's comments. One of them said he is only rude to people he believes are "complete pricks" like me, and he was so bad that even his wife agreed he was a pig.)

Two posts at the group blog, Millennial Star, have been deleted and got me banned from the site (?!?!lol?!?!).

First Post: 

On this post, Ivan Wolfe asked if the new Mormon candidate, Evan McMullin would get my vote.

This was my reply:

I’m glad you asked because I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days. I’ve never thought Hillary and democratic policies would be a good choice. And I can’t believe that Trump has a single vote, let alone has actually become the nominee. I could spend another thousand words describing how he makes my skin crawl and how I’m ashamed of the Republican party over his candidacy. I won’t because I’ve already said it since day one. I was a breath away from quitting the party, but I realized its my party too. So I’m sticking around because somebody has to rebuild a principled conservative movement.

That left me in the position of many. But I just can’t vote for Gary Johnson either. I’ve been dealing with annoying, trollish libertarians for pretty close to ten years (since Ron Paul's campaigns where he tried his hardest to seem like that drunk crazy uncle I never want to talk to but I’m stuck sitting next to every thanksgiving). And I’ve found their ignorance is only matched by the arrogance and pugnaciousness with which they state their opinions. [edit to add: remember the trolls linked in the first paragraph and Geoff's response. Notice how many times I am called a liar, sophist, disingenuous (another word for liar, ), rude, a war monger, and idiotic.] Needless to say, I’m already not very inclined to vote for Johnson to begin with, and every interview I’ve seen he doesn’t give answers that are very coherent let alone resonate with me.

That’s my long way of saying I’m really wondering what I’m going to do. For a long time I thought I would just leave it blank and vote on the rest of the ticket, or write in Mitt Romney. And here comes McMullin. I like his resume and the policy positions he advances. Of course since I’ve interviewed with the CIA and I now work with a major think tank on foreign policy, I’m somewhat partial to a national security hawk. Its been very sad to realize that this strange feeling I have listening to McMullin actually comes from having a choice I can at least somewhat believe in.

I’m not completely sold yet. He might bomb in some future interviews and turn out to be kind of a joke, but he can’t give as bad of answers as Trump. I mean from mocking McCain’s captivity and Megan Kelley’s menstrual cycle all the way to suggesting second amendment supporters would “take care of” Hillary, I can’t see McMullin saying anything that would make a vote for him any worse than a vote for Trump. But the whole reason I’m not voting for Trump is because I need to say with a clear conscience that I’m still a solid, principled conservative, and I don’t vote for any clown just because he’s got an R next to his name. So we’ll see. If McMullin keeps it together and sounds credible he’s got my vote. [end reply]

As you can see I was clearly out of control.  I only responded because Ivan Wolfe asked the question. He is generally one of the more fair moderators [though even he added a rude comment after my post]. But I was deleted and Geoff responded by attacking neocons, and by implication me.  I reject the term since Ronald Reagan provided the blue print for the modern Republican party by opposing the Evil Empire with military force. But since I support the selected use of military force isolationists like to use that term.

Second Post:

The next comment responded to attacks on other people's prayers. I was going to sit this out, but Geoff made a comment that was so spectacularly mean and hypocritical I felt I had to respond.  Several people defended the prayers at the Democratic convention and Geoff said this:

"Dave K and K, thank you for being so self-righteous. I wrote this post knowing that we would get a few commenters of your ilk. The Murmurnacle is filled with the most self-righteous people around, and I knew I could count on a few commenters to confirm that."

I responded:

The irony was just too much for me to stay silent. I think its pretty easy to praise the worship of those who are like you, and negatively judge those that are different, and who infuse their prayers with requests based on different politics. Personally, I didn't enjoy the second prayer, but I've been to enough worship services that I can forgive the style. The content of the prayer was a bit off putting as well, but most likely its driven by my dislike for liberal politics more than anything else. I don't know for sure because I didn't think about it that much, but its a possibility any conservative or holier than thou libertarian should consider. I think David K and K made great points. I didn't find them unrighteous or members of the "murmunacle" for saying so because one of the basics of comparing religions is to avoid the tendency to compare your best with their worst. (Literally, this is in the first lesson at BYU-I when the class includes a study of another faith.) Instead of selective comparisons that make ourselves look better we should strive to posses "holy envy" where we find what we can admire and praise from other religions and prayers. I really enjoyed Corey Booker's speech for example. I still think can't stand the democratic platform, but I could find good in that speech at least.

You posted awhile ago how you can't understand why apologists are hated, and perhaps that they should be given a break. I agree that we shouldn't hate and those that do should give the objects of their hatred a break. (As Corey Booker said in quoting Lincoln, with malice towards none but charity towards all.) But we should also take a hard look in the mirror and consider how being smugly self righteous might contribute to that hatred. I'm duplicating this post elsewhere in case your moderating policies are as fair as your assessment of prayers. [end quote]

My assessment: 

As you can see, that is bad enough, full of atrocities and horrible rhetoric.  I'm being sarcastic, I disagreed with a person, pointed out some self righteous behavior, and included some principles that would make them more charitable. Its never easy to tell a person they are wrong, nor does it feel good to be told you're wrong. But I've been in enough cat fights that I know how to chill out and produce a thoughtful rebuttal. (And its why I don't participate in most online discussions. As the movie War Games would say, sometimes the only winning move is not to play.)

I didn't question anybody reading comprehension, which is a favorite tactic of Geoff's.  I didn't call use any loaded language to insult him.  I simply offered thoughtful pertinent points. Unlike Geoff I won't bully people off of my blog and then complain about bullies. (I do moderate unreasonable personal attacks, which, in seven years of blogging, have only come from radical libertarians.) I don't pontificate on why people might hate me, and then question somebodies reading comprehension a short time later. A place that is charitable would give space to those that disagree, they would try to see other points of view and try to avoid the use of loaded language.  That is why I say the Millennial Star is devoid of much thought or charity, and its mostly a vanity project for its perma bloggers like Geoff Biddulph. To see a good example of a post that shows charity and understanding, check out the landing instructions from Boyd Peterson. They can quote lots of scripture and defend a kind of right wing orthodoxy.  But if you stop by there on any given day you will notice how mean some people can become in defending the church.

The Upside: 

 Luckily, most of my research is taking me away from petty bloglords. It took over seven years, but my research is starting to change the way we think about the text.  Please stay tuned for a collection of links to my research featured at Book of Mormon Central and my FAIR Mormon presentation. I have a great research agenda that includes the most comprehensive study of preemptive warfare in the Book of Mormon, and my research on the battle experience marches towards publication at the Interpreter. After hearing my presentation at the FAIR conference, Daniel Peterson wanted to take a look at my manuscript! Hopefully I'll have an announcement to make soon!! Thanks for reading!!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

To pull down their pride...

A long time ago I found a great reference from Book of Mormon warfare in Mesoamerican history. But then I couldn’t find it again. I thought I had it in my notes but didn’t seem to have the right reference and I didn't have the book in my library.  Recently I had to check some old sources for my upcoming publication, and there it was!!

Tikal is one of the most important classic Mesoamerican cities, but there is still significant disagreement and debate about how a ruler might maintain legitimacy if foreigners rulers were placed on the throne. Archaeologists have found a sitting man statue with its head cut off.  The statue likely represented the king and its head ritually cut off.  The most interesting part is on the back. There is a different script still undeciphered and “someone drilled a large jagged hole through it, ending in a deep, round socket in the back of the figure. If the desecrated Hombre de Tikal sculpture were laid prone (the typical pose for a Maya elite captive), the drilled hole would be suitable for insertion of the wooden shaft of a battle standard…We would suggest that even after Nuun Yax Ain and his allies took the Tikal throne from Toh chak Ich’ak, he carried out a series of magical acts designed to legitimate his insertion in the dynastic succession.”[1]   

I think this provides additional context to Moroni’s action against the King Men.  Alma 51 uses the verb “pull down” in verses 17 and 18. After being slain in battle and cast into prison the King Men were “compelled to hoist the Title of Liberty upon their towers and lands” (v.20). The Title of Liberty was an important symbolic reference in Nephite history that held both ritualistic and spiritual importance.[2] And the “pulling down” can refer to specific objects such as the statues that represent their authority. Its not exactly stated in the text, but I can’t help but see how a pulled down statue with a hole in the back could refer to the pride that Moroni “pulled down” and the Title of Liberty they were forced to fly. Its not directly stated, but I think given the possible location of Book of Mormon events and the political subjugation of the King Men combined with the unique phrase to "pull down" it makes this an intriguing idea.  

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[1] David Freidel, Barbara MacLeod, and Charles Suhler, “Early Classic Maya Conquest in Words and Deeds,” Mesoamerican Warfare, Kathryn Brown and Travis Stanton eds., (Oxford, Alta Mira Press: 2003), 195 (192-196).  
[2] See my book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, pages 57-64 for more.  Many people seem to be impressed with Kerry Hull’s new article.  I was a bit frustrated because his article didn’t show me a great deal I didn’t already know. In fact, I could have written much of it, and as you see from the above, he missed at least one item that might have informed our understanding of the Book of Mormon. Kerry Hull,”War Banners: A Mesoamerican Context for the Title of Liberty”  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015): 84–118.