Friday, June 8, 2018

Thucydides in the Book of Mormon

I haven’t read Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian War since I was an undergraduate. Because I’m a military historian I thought it would be valuable to go through it again. What follows is a peak into what I describe to my students as “active reading.” As I go through it I’m not just trying to follow the narrative, but I’m engaging the material, questioning it, seeing how it might apply, and generally making notes in the margins and brain storming as I read. I’ve mainly applied it to the Book of Mormon (with a click bate title of course), though as you might have seen in my articles at W&T, I also include notes on comparison to Chinese history, and current events. What eventually happens is this information remains in the back of my mind until I have some kind of ah ha moment, start a new project, and I’ve had to spend a good deal of time searching and even have to re-read these books to find the mental note I took. (I should really take better notes.) Without further ado, here is a peak behind the curtain as passages that inspired additional thoughts.

i.22 “What particular people said in their speeches, either just before or during the war, was hard to recall exactly, whether they were speeches I heard myself or those that were reported to me at second hand. I have made each speaker says what I thought the situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.”

This is a good discussion of the kind of questions people ask about historical sources. There seems to be three options that he has which are : actual words (this is more likely for public speechs like Pericles funeral oration), paraphrase (which might apply to things like the Melian dialogue that happened in private), and historical fiction, which is Thuycdides basically having people say what he thinks they would say.

I’ve thought about this a good deal in the Book of Mormon. John Gee pointed out how Limhi’s speeches all occurred in events where a scribe would be present. Amalickiah in 47 is particularly revealing though. Alma 55:5 suggests that at least one of the servants of the Lamanite king served in the army, he (or they) could provide a source for the killing of the king and at least second hand political knowledge of the Lamanties. But the direct speeches and tactics of Amalickiah are more complicated. It could be propaganda, or like the Book of Judges in the Bible, a collection of folk tales about the figure eventually written down. But the way he ruthlessly maneuvered into the kingship suggests something a little more organized than a collection of tales. It could be a genre of Mesoamerican literature that highlight great or infamous deeds of leaders. Regardless of the exact nature of the record, I find an intriguing insight from Thucydides about the difficulty of reconstructing speeches exactly, which should inform our understanding of the text.

i.10 He does, however, show that all the rowers in Philoctetes’ ships were also fighters, for he writes that all the oarsmen were archers. As for passengers on the ships, it is not likely that there were many, aside from the kings and other top people, especially since they had to cross the sea with military equipment on board, and in ships without the protection of upper decks, built in the old pirate fashion. So if we take the mean between the largest and smallest ships, we find that not many went to Troy…

I thought it was very interesting that Thucydides analyzed the numbers of Homer. As I’ve discussed before, questioning numbers is one of the first things that professional historians did. Unreliable eye witnesses, deliberately or accidental corruption of the text, numbers as a colloquial or symbolic use (I’ve told you a thousand times, 666), and historians use of battle for a didactic or moral point can change the numbers. As usual, when historians do these techniques to assess other texts, it’s seen as good scholarship. When the same thing is done to assess the text of the Book of Mormon, it is attacked as mental gymnastics and dismissed with a snide and condescending, “we know the book is false anyway.” (As a reminder, I delete comments like that on my posts.)

i.23 “ I believe the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so [they felt] compelled… into war.”

The war chapters inspire a good deal of writing, but it is mainly a good deal of speculation and inappropriate and superficial analogies. What I’ve tried to do in all of my research is look beyond battle to see it a culmination of tactics, strategy, history, culture, material culture, and geography. In doing that I’ve tried to look for the causes of the war chapters. There are a few models I’ve suggested such as the anthropological or great person model. The former sees the war as a competition for resources, trade routes, prime farm land, and the control of tax bases. The latter looks at the role that great people like Moroni and Amalickiah had in leading to war.

But the third model comes from Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian war which is a classic tale of interstate rivalries. After leading the Greeks to victory against the Persians, Athens and Sparta split and competed for the leadership of Greece. Athens started in the much more dominant positions with a fleet and eventually a lucrative empire . But the Spartans were powerful as well and they continued to vie for influence in Greece with a fearsome land army and set of allies opposing Athens. This competition for leadership in the political sphere led to armed competition as Athens tried to maintain its preeminent status and deny Sparta any more strength. So I’m kind of impressed that I could remember what Thucydides thought was the main driver of the war.

The shift of the Zoramites into the Lamanite sphere of influence (Alma 31:4; 43:4), the shift of the Anti Nephi Lehis into the Nephite sphere of influence (Alma 27:22-23), the expansion of the Nephites into the wilderness after expelling the Lamanites, the quick strike at Ammonihah (a city that only tacitly acknowledge Nephite rule, Alma 49: 6) in order to bolster Lamanite claims to Kingship (keep in mind that was the first city they attacked several times) point to the geo political factors of expanding and contracting spheres that cause conflict. This happens in particular during times of rapid growth or decay of one power against another and definitely recalls the “fear” that drove compelled them to conflict.

iii.82 Civil war ran through the cities…and they reversed the usual way of using words to evaluate activities. Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor, while plotting for one’s own security was though a reasonable excuse for delaying action. A man who started a quarrel was always to be trusted, while one who opposed him was under suspicion…

Sounds like an average day online. I’ve seen this a good deal and its one of the most frustrating aspect of being a writer. Angry clowns seem to get all of the attention, while reasoned assessments get ignored. In fact, I’ve lost writing positions because I wasn’t angry enough or angry at the right people. You could also look at the counter puncher in Trump, the incivility of twitter, those for whom cuck is their favorite and frequent insult, and bomb throwers who sling warmonger, racist, and sexist with reckless abandon.

I used to teach a class on Pakistan, and my students often reacted with shock and a sense of smug superiority at the number of Pakistanis that riot over false rumors of desecrating a Quran, or those that believe the CIA and not terrorists are behind plots. But before you pat yourself on the back for not being one of those people, and confidently attack Trump and his supporters, realize that there are people who lose their jobs before they get off the plane, and consider how many of you have reposted an inflammatory memes and news without knowing the whole story. In the upside down word described by Thucydides you can be part of the problem while simultaneously thinking you are better than everybody.

vii.44 Battles are easier to understand in daylight, but even then soldiers who are present scarcely know more than their own particular experiences. So in a night battle-and this the only one in the war to involve large armies- how could anyone know anything for certain. Though the moon was bright, they saw each other as you’d expect in the moonlight: bodies were visible, but there was no way to know whether they were friends or enemies.

I wrote something about the experience of battle in the BoM. Thucydides account above would have been a pithy quote to share. Here is the relevant material from my article:

“logic insists that battle amongst thousands of people would be a noisy affair — and the early battle sounds would be quickly added to by thousands of clashing weapons and the screams of the wounded and dying. Moreover, the rush of adrenaline triggers physical reactions that make battle notoriously difficult to understand for those participating in it.
‘Studies have found at least half of participants [in battle] will experience the event in slow motion, a fifth in faster-than-normal time; two-thirds will hear at ‘diminished volume’ … a fifth at amplified levels; about half will see … with tunnel vision and black out everything not directly ahead and the other half with amazingly heightened clarity. Most individuals will suffer memory loss, while others will ‘remember’ events that never occurred.’ Alexander Rose, Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima (New York: Random House Books, 2015), 72–73.

Back to Thucydides:

vii.50 Then most of the Athenians took the eclipse to heart and called on the generals to stop, while Nicias- who put too much faith in divination and such practices- said he would not even consider moving now until they had waited the twenty-seven days prescribed by soothsayers.

This is an interesting passage. It seems to go against what I typically believe about ancients, that most of the practices were believed, but often discarded or changed when they conflicted with military realities. Despite the ancient’s belief in the super natural, rituals that harm the warrior’s efficacy in battle usually don’t last long or became heavily modified, symbolic, or placed on monuments without being practiced extensively. Losing blood and fasting would produce a weakened state that would make combat difficult. It’s possible the noncombatants fasted, or this was posted on monuments to please the masses of people (who wanted righteous rulers), but not actually done in private. We could see this passage as an example of how Thucydides did not put much stock in divination rituals as this superstition prevented the Athenians from escaping Sicily.


This was a very enjoyable read and I’m moving to the portable Greek reader for more insights. Some passages reinforced previous points, some provide a new angle, others points provided trenchant reminders about human nature, the speeches are electrifying, even if they might be historical fiction more than history, and overall I’m reminded of why his book is required reading for college students. And I still shake my head at the foolishness of the Sicilian Expedition. What have you read recently that you really enjoy?

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Hill Yeah: Notes on Jaredite Geography

I’ve long been intrigued by Jaredite geography. Unfortunately, even those that accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon and have geographic models they fight over, find the book of Ether bewilderingly sparse. Yet the text is very clear in some instances on what is affecting the story, even if you don’t know where it is. It mentions plains, sea shores, valleys, hills, lands of first inheritance, strategic deposits of ore (steel, which invites another 1,000 words of analysis on its own), a great city, and a capital land. In the years of researching and writing I’ve become a firm believer that geography matters a great deal in a nation’s development and most importantly, in the conduct on the battlefield despite variations in date, culture, and regions. The following is a list of major geographic forms listed in the text and insights from history in how those places might affect battle.

Seashore– supply and protection

The biggest advantage of the seashore comes from those who have a strong navy. I’ve never read about the “embark, circle around via the sea, and then amphibiously invade the opposing army encamped on the seashore” maneuver in history. (But if you’ve heard of an example please let me know.) Because of that fact the sea shore provides a secure flank. This may mean that they are trapped, but since the power on the sea shore usually has a navy protecting the sea, it often becomes a secure exit door and not a trap. The encamped army can then maximize their defenses facing inland.

The British at Yorktown, and again at Dunkirk relied upon the sea for resupply and rescue. It was the temporary French advantage in sea power that allowed the Colonials to capture the British at Yorktown and win the war. The ancient Athenians actually made their entire city a fortified sea colony. Athens on the on the mainland, but they built the long walls that provided a fortified harbor and connection to their city.[1] In contrast to the British examples, this was a more permanent solution and even imperial policy, instead of something done by an army in the field after a defeat. Since Athens had the preeminent fleet for much of the early classical period they could always count on resupply by their navy. In fact, it was only the Spartan defeat of the navy and blockade of their port that finally brought them to their knees.

Alma 51 describes the repulse of Amalickiah’s army, and their camp on the sea shore. While not directly stated in the text this strongly suggests the same principles. They moved back to the ocean to provide additional security and resupply. In fact, the defection of the Zoramites may have been so dangerous in part because it gave the Lamanites an outlet in that region, when the Nephites relied on inland riverine transport. Ether14:13 described a running battle in which Lib retreated to sea shore. Again, the context of a recent battlefield defeat, followed by a retreat to a secure base and possible resupply strikes me as entirely consistent.
A good map showing pivotal valleys near the Wei, Fen, and Yellow rivers

Valleys– power base.

Valleys provide a good base of power. Valleys are usually formed by a river, has good farm land, restricted pass in and out which lead to relatively easy security. Multiple dynasties in China rose to power via secure river valleys as I described in my book on Chinese battles. The Di tribe settled in Wei River valley during the period of disunion. With only one pass to the east they could fortify their position, engage enemies, such as those at Luoyang, at their leisure and they eventually established the Former Qi Dynasty. The eventual founders of the much more impactful Tang Dynasty started as governors of the Fen River Valley, to the North East of both the Wei River valley (and its ancient capital of Chang’an), and the frequent Chinese capital at Louyang. The famous war lord Cao Cao started his career as a soldier in Ye, which was one pivotal pass away from the Fen River Valley. But he could also swing around towards the South East and attack the capital through Hulao pass. When the Tang were consolidating their power, one of the most famous battles in Chinese history happened at Hulao Pass, which was often called the Chinese Thermopylae. And to wrap up the importance of valleys, rebellious members of the Jin Dyansty held commands at each of the above centers (Ye, Chang’an, Taiyuan in the Fen River Valley and more), which explained why they so often swooped upon the hapless capital during the War of the Eight Princes to the point that what was once the rival of Rome in the ancient world became a desolate place of huddled refugees.[2] The carnage was so great in such a short time that contemporary historians described piles of white bones that covered the field and that quote inspired my research into comparing the War of Eight Princes with the Jaredite denouement (Ether 14:22).[3]

Of course the Nephite center of power was in a river valley surrounding Zarahemla and the “most capital parts” of the land (Helaman 1:27.) In the Jaredite fighting the Valley of Gilgal witnessed an “exceedingly sore” (Ether 13:27) that lasted three days. (This is a very similar and thus unsurprising time frame compared to the Battle of Hulao, as much of the time was spent eyeing each other across the narrow pass, feeling each other out, and sending out raids before finally engaging each other. Once the fighting started it was rather fierce, one leader of the Tang forces hacked his way across the battlefield so many times his armor looked like a porcupine with jagged arrows and broken blades.)[4] V. 28 and 29 describe a back and forth between that valley and the Plains of Heshlon. The armies likely fought over a key pass that led to the power center in the Valley of Gilgal. The chaos described in verses 1-3 of Ether 14 describe the loss of a power base very well, as I discussed in my first book.

Plains- battles

As mentioned above, the fight for a power base in the Valley of Gilgal led to more fighting in the plains. This is the best place for shock battle, wherein opposing groups of infantrymen rushed toward each other, seeking to cut their way through to their destination or out of a trap (Alma 52:33–34; Alma 43:39–43). The battle recorded in Alma 52 only occurred after the Lamanites refused to meet and battle on the plains, and had to lured out of their strongholds (Alma 52:20-21) The Greeks were particularly adept at this. Their small cities and farming valleys pitted opposing groups of heavily clad infantry that charged each other. The farmers couldn’t be away campaigning for long so the battles had to be decisive. While they typified what some call the Western Way of War, one of the earliest recorded battles in history between Egyptian and Caananite forces that charged across relatively flat land. Again, a pass proved critical in the course of the Egyptian’s march. This connects with the previous point that flat land near bases of power and likely critical valleys were prime locations for shock battles.

Wilderness– hit and run

The other type of battle consists of more lightly armored soldiers often with lighter or ranged weapons conduct hit and run attacks. These can occur on their own or sometimes as a result of a collapse of the army during shock battle. Cao Cao in battle of Red Cliffs had his army trampled in the swamps. They had won plenty of victories before, and were a good army that got routed but they didn’t maintain discipline in the retreat. The Noche Triste of the Spanish fleeing Aztec capital featured the same result. They tried to sneak away from the palace complex under siege. In the running fighting in the streets and canals leading out of the city, and under fire from Aztec light infantry and archers, many people died, and much like Cao Cao’s force, the mounted cavalry used the foot soldiers to gain footing in the muck.[5]

Helaman 11:25 described the Gadianton robbers redoubts in mountains, wilderness and secret places. The Nephite military attempted to route them out but had a great deal of difficulty. The text says they were “driven back” (v.29) with “great havoc [and] great destruction” (v.28). This mirrors Mao Zedong’s (Mao Tse-tung) and Zhe De’s experience in the Jinggangshang highlands. The mountain villages had few entrances, few roads, and could be blockaded with great difficulty. The few roads and avenues of approach made counter attacks extremely successful. In short, the remoteness makes it nice as another kind of power base (usually from predatory forces or those on the usurping side of the power scale compared to valley bases).

Chapter 14 in Ether described how Coriantumr was defeated and retreated to the wilderness of Akish (v.3). His enemy Shared tried to invade, but then “laid siege” to it but was subjected to counter attacks (v.5). Coriantumr stayed there two years while his enemies occupied the center of power (see below.) After a see saw battle against Lib that went all the way to the seashore, Coriantumr was again defeated and again retreated there (Ether 14:12-14). Again, see that the losing side took cover in the wilderness, gained strength, and could launch successful counter attacks against forces trying to root them out.

Capital City- Political and cultural nexus

From the debate about taking Moscow or Ukrainian farms in World War II,[6] the burning of Washington in the War of 1812, or the bombing of Chongqing, the capital is always extremely important for political, cultural, and logistical reasons. They organize the armies that defend the nation and losing the capital is often represents the defeat of the nation.

Ether records how leaders held court (Ether 9:5), dispensed justice (Ether 7:24), oversaw religion (though sometimes it was the other way around, “murdered in a secret pass by High priest” Ether 14:10), and represented others at “outcasts” (Ether 10:9). The Land of Moron was a nexus of important cultural and political power. Though holding it wasn’t a guarantee of victory. As mentioned above, Luoyang was the capital but powerful frontier commanders could force their way into the capital at will. Coriantumr remained in the wilderness regaining his strength enough to still contend with for the throne.


Based upon my experience researching military history for years I found this a useful thought exercise in how fundamental geographic realities affect war fighting. Each region has a particular strength and often provides the economic growth, farming land, key passes, or inspirational center that determines where battles are fought, and often what tactics are used. In fact, my latest book goes further and suggests that geography largely determines what kind of armies are created as well. Each geographic feature mentioned in the brief narrative helps us better understand the bitter struggle for survival and power and the way terrain affected their decisions.

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[1] David Berkey, “Why Fortifications Endure: A Case Study of the Walls of Athens During the Classical Period,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy Victor David Hanson ed., (Princeton University Press, 2009), 58-92.

[2] Arthur Waley, “The Fall of Loyang,” History Today Volume 1 Issue 4 April 1951.

[3] “By the [end of the war,] trouble and disturbances were very widespread….many suffered from hunger and poverty. People were sold [as slaves]. Vagrants became countless. In the [provinces around the capital,] there was a plague of locusts…Virulent disease accompanied the famine. Also the people were murdered by bandits. Their rivers were filled with floating corpses; bleached bones covered the fields…There was much cannibalism. Famine and pestilence came hand in hand [emphasis added].” Lien-sheng Yang, “Notes on the Economic History of the Chin Dynasty,” Studies in Chinese Institutional History(Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1961), 181.

[4] Old Book of Tang, chapter 60. New Book of Tang, chapter 78.

[5] Victor Davis Hanson, “Technolgoy and the Wages of Reason,” in Carnage and Culture: 9 Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Culture (New York, Anchor Books: 2002.)

[6] R. Stolfi, Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpretered, (Norman OK, Oklahoma University Press, 1991.)

Monday, May 7, 2018

Their Kingdom For a Breast Plate

My daughter was on youtube the other day, and she discovered how to go on cruises for free. As a specialist in Chinese history I thought that might be worth trying out. In the process of completing my application to be a subject matter specialist on cruises to China, and here is the point of this weird introduction, I came across a youtube video of my FAIR Mormon presentation and the comments on it. (I much prefer the written word but you can check it out here.)

Some comments are sad, some interesting, and others hilarious while most are all three at the same time, befitting social media I suppose. Someday I might address all of them, but one criticism in particular seemed really strong before I reassessed and realized that my instincts and argument remain sound. The criticism is repeated in full below and questions whether the government provided Nephite armor or if that responsibility fell on each soldier:

Where does it say that the Nephi state is paying for the heavy armor? To be sure Moroni thought it up but my reading has always giving me a sense that it was every citizen’s duty, the the (sic.) Greeks, to fund their own heavy armor so that should the need arise these citizen soldiers could mobilize and go off to war….
The source of Nephite armor is a critical piece to my argument. The argument surrounding the Nephite use of heavy armor was a 40 page chapter in my latest book, and an associated argument occupied 45 minutes at the FAIR Conference. The short version is that the Nephite need to armor their soldiers required money and changed their strategy and tactics. I hadn’t fully considered the source of the armor, and it was apparent I naturally assume the government provided it. Since my book is about reassessing our assumptions of the text that is somewhat embarrassing, but upon further examination (and examining the composition and cost of the armor along the way), I think that criticism is wrong.

The first piece of evidence came from a great know why from Book of Mormon Central. These are great write ups that answer pertinent questions by summarize existing literature on the subject.

In discussing Captain Moroni they said:
David E. Spencer…suggested that prior to this point, individual soldiers were responsible for arming themselves. This probably resulted in uneven or inadequate armor for the rank-in-file. Under Moroni’s command, each soldier was equipped with a full ensemble of protective gear, which included breastplates, arm-shields, head-shields, and thick clothing.[1]
This was good validation, but I wanted to go the primary source to see for myself.[2] I found that a close examination of the text brought more questions than answers, while at the same time reinforcing my assessment of the text. He said that armor was likely self-brought before this but introduced by Moroni at this point as part of his genius.

Spencer mentioned that the armor Morori introduced was cheap. Metal armor was unlikely probably very expensive, slow to make, cumbersome, and unsuited to the tropical climate.[3] As a result, the new Nephite armor likely didn’t contain much metal, but consisted of thick clothes with plates at specific points (head, arm, and breast are specifically mentioned by the text.) He goes on to say that it was likely rawhide, ceramics or wood and thinks that the Aztecs borrowed it. (The last part was somewhat annoying, because he said in the introduction that he was going to comment based upon his personal experience and not necessarily historical research, but then he threw out comments and pictures that strongly suggest historical connections throughout the book.)

This is where my questions come in, because I wonder about everything in the above paragraph. My research determined that the exact nature of Nephite “breast plate” is unknown. One book was particularly enlightening and I found that North American tribes used wood, shell, antlers (I really enjoyed that one,) bones, stone, cloth, stones in cloth with sand and glue, rods, skins (elk, wolf, buffalo, deer) and even tightly woven strands of willow trees.[4] Jones described “breast plates of rib bones” found in Pueblo sites for example. The Spanish noted that wooden helmets from the northwest were “as heavy as iron.” Captain Cook described a “breast plate of wood” that could stop musket balls at mid-range. So it’s possible to have heavy nonmetal armor that used thick clothing, reinforced by rigid “plates” at selected points.
Wooden armor from a Pacific North West tribe.

There are all sorts of details we don’t know which complicate definitive analysis. We don’t know the exact composition of armor, what animal(s) provided the hide (if it was hide), what was indigenous around 100 BC, and if the soldiers were supplied or brought their own. I disagree with Spencer’s analysis because the Nephites show the weaknesses that Spencer said would dissuade them from using them: expense, fatigue, availability of material. For example, even if it was just hide or leather armor, supply and demand could make it expensive. When the fur trade exploded in colonial North America the price of beaver peltscould double within a short timeframe. The Lamanites quickly adopted the same sort of armor (Alma 49:8), and initiated what some have called an “arms race.”[5] So whatever material was used was likely in high demand with two armies each of 10-30 thousand soldiers needing to be equipped.[6]

It’s true that heavy armor is impractical in many things and ill-suited to the Mesoamerican climate, but it worked well for what the Nephites needed. During the war chapters this largely included: defeating Lamanite armies in the field, fighting in and around cities (such as the plains of Nephihah 52:20), and ambushes along likely routes like Alma 43. They would be less effective after quick marches and in rough terrain. For example, Helaman blamed the fatigue of Antipas twice in two verses (Alma 56:50-51). Moroni focused on marching the Lamanites in circles while keeping his forces “fresh” (Alma 52:28, 31). In pursuing insurgents into the “mountains…wilderness,…and secret places” the Nephite army was decidedly less effective to the point of impotence (Helaman 11:25, 28-29). Heavy infantry are far more effective in massed groups. Thus, without the time to arm, equip and mass their soldiers, a mobile army of Lamanites easily slew the Nephites in “small bodies” (Helaman 1:24).

Later in Spencer’s book he compared the tendency to decide a battle in a single day to the Greek (and Western) Way of War espoused by Hanson.[7] But the Greeks were heavy infantry wearing heavy metal plates and decided the action by charging each other. I describe the use of heavy infantry on the battlefield in my book all of the advantages and disadvantages are fully present in the Hoplite. So needless to say, This undermines his idea of mobile, lightly armed soldiers with cheap hide armor.

Now that I’ve shown why I disagree with the assessment of Nephite armor, lets get back to who supplied it. Rome had armories scattered throughout the empire. In fact, Ferrill argued that it was the loss of logistical edge in terms of both men and material replacement that helped lead to their critical decline in the early 5th century.[8] The Book of Mormon strongly suggests Moroni equipped his men with armor supplied by the state. The verse in question says that that the people of Nephi, or that Moroni, had prepared his people (Alma 43:19). I’m not a grammarian but the text clearly takes pains to point out Moroni’s role in preparing his people with armor. The army “delivered” people from famine (Alma 53:7), suggesting they formed a or the distribution network for the Nephites. Finally, the revolutionary and decisive nature of the armor suggests a mass produced and distributed product that even if built using cheaper material (which would likely undermine its revolutionary impact) would have still represented a significant cost to the government.

Not to mention that transferring the cost of warfare back to the state (for supplying the armor) would represent a shift. The government has to pay for the armor somehow. The government didn’t do that because of their largess, but the crisis they were in, the forceful personality of Moroni, and likely the confiscation of land from King Men.

So what kind of infantry did the Nephites have? What were breastplates made of? Did the government supply the armor? The answers seem to be that the Nephite infantry was heavy enough to strike fear in their loin clothed enemies, and win bloody encounters where they charged each other in shock battle. Their battles were such that they recalled the clash of the heavy hoplites of ancient Greeks. The “plates“ are far less specific. But judging from the effects of the armor in battle, it was significantly more than hide armor. Judging from the effects on Nephite tactics and strategy, i.e., more success in shock battle accompanied by fatigue, less speed, and limited strategic range, along with what we know historically where the Nephites likely lived, I would wager their armor consisted of thick cloth as a base, with bones and metal plates adding additional protection in key places with arm shields on the non-sword hand. (Simply wrapping a piece of hide around the fore arm can act as padding, so hide could be a good candidate for the shield.) These pieces were not the same as a metal cuirass, but heavy enough to matter. That’s why I use the term “heavier” in my book because it operates in a space between European style heavy infantry and cloth or hide armed armies. Finally, the mass production and distribution on top of strong clues in the text makes it more likely the government sponsored this.
Notice the clothe plus additional armor for the head, chest, and non sword hand.

The increased cost of this armor and fortifications could have fueled what seemed like a rapacious government, which in turn sponsored a violent insurgency. Much like the British victory in the Seven Years War, the Nephite victory contained the seeds of their own destruction. That’s a good deal to rest on a breast plate, but that’s how amazing the Book of Mormon is.

About the title of this post: I borrowed a phrase from Shakespeare about a kingdom for a horse. In this case I wanted to show that because of its effect on the war, and possible negative effects on Nephite society after winning the war, the Nephite use of breast plates cost them their country. I also thought it had a nice ring to it.

[Thank you for reading. I work as a freelance author. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the pay pal button below.]


[1] David E. Spencer, Captain Moroni’s Command: Dynamics of Warfare in the Book of Mormon(Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2015), 14. Alternatively, armor may have been more limited and less protective before Moroni introduced the full ensemble of armor mentioned in Alma 43:19.

[2] Ironically, I had a free copy of this book so I could provide a blurb. The irony comes because I was good enough to promote a book for Cedar Fort Press, to be placed on book shelves in Deseret Book, but neither organization wanted my books on military history. So I’m good enough to sell books for them, just not my books.

[3] Spencer, Dynamics, 27-28.

[4] David Jones, North American Arms and Armor, Shields and Fortifications (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2004), 85, 107.

[5] John Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 98.

[6] I’m basing army sizes based on what seems like a decimal system described by A. Brent Merrill, and the multiple armies occurring in multiple theatres. A. Brent Merrill “Nephite Captains and Chief Captains in the Book of Mormon” in Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin Ed. Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Salt Lake City: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Deseret Book, 1991).

[7] Spencer, Dynamics, 60.

[8] Arthur Ferrill, The Military Collapse of the Roman Empire, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), chapter 2.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Revisiting Alma 56:28 and Women in Combat

The Book of Mormon includes interesting insights into women and children that accompanies armies, possible military colonies, and the dual and ambiguous role it played in both promoting and diminishing Nephite security.
And also there were sent two thousand men unto us from the land of Zarahemla. And thus we were prepared with ten thousand men, and provisions for them, and also for their wives and their children. (Alma 56:28)
A modern reader would react with a great deal of surprise that women and children would accompany an army to the battlefield.  Modern armies usually travel far greater distances from home and operate as an all-professional force. These professionals often have organic logistical supports built into the unit that are also staffed by professionals. Ancient armies normally operated under different constraints. Even armies that fought at the Battle of Saratoga from the American War of Independence still had a significant camp following.  Ancient battlefields were often just outside their city walls, and rulers constructed armies composed of people who were normally peace-time farmers.  With limited manpower, the bulk of the conscripts were needed for fighting, and the remaining camp followers transported supplies, prepared the food, and performed other non-combat functions in order to maximize the use of fighting men.  The lack of weapons and armor for camp followers allowed them to carry more supplies than the soldiers could carry, thus extending the operating range. It also sped their march to the destination city.  Based on rough estimates from other ancient armies which conclude that non-combatants constituted roughly 33% to 50% of the army,[1] there were an estimated 700 to 1,000 additional women and children following the Nephite army.[2]  Since their intent was to garrison a city (Alma 56:15-28), it is assumed that these additional women and children allowed the maximum number of soldiers to perform military tasks, in this case providing scouts as well as building and manning the city walls.
2016 London 206
A special entrance at the Tower of London. I remember seeing the fireplace in the side room and being rather jealous because it was cold and soggy the day visited.

Additionally, this would bolster the morale of the fighting men, who were presumably conscripted for the duration of the war.  Under this assumption, and unlike America’s modern tour-of-duty system, the soldiers stationed on the frontier at Judea would not see their families until their release at the end of the war.  The pragmatic solution of bringing the families along not only bolstered morale,[3] but also solved the manpower problem that plagued the Nephite nation (Alma 58:8; 51:11).

The brevity of the text excludes definitive statements, but another possible explanation for the verse is the transfer of loyal soldiers and their families to the frontier as anchors.  The Han Dynasty in the first century B.C. established military colonies to protect their frontier and reduce logistical burdens by establishing local farms.[4] Caesar and other early Emperors of Rome granted land bonuses upon the retirement of their soldiers.[5]  These soldiers would gain the chance to become local magistrates, and their sons could become patricians and senators.[6]  In return, the central government knew that their frontiers contained a greater number of demonstrably loyal citizens capable of organizing and leading local militias in the defense of the Empire.[7] In the case of the Romans these military colonies were a short lived phenomenon in the late Republic until the rise of more limited garrison soldiers in the late 4th century.

In the case of the Nephites, they desperately needed more soldiers in the theater, and there is evidence that they needed more loyal soldiers, as well.  The war chapters in this section of The Book of Mormon are replete with references to subversive elements and anti-war factions (Alma 43, 48, 51:13, 53:8-9).  In this theater, Mormon also mentions how the enemy gained advantage through “intrigues” on the Nephite side.  Thus it is believable that the central government and Moroni sought to bolster a faltering theater with a relocation of loyal soldiers and their families.  After the relocation of these soldiers, the Nephite commander felt they were prepared with the addition of these reinforcements.

Women in Combat:

Women and children performed a strategic role in forming armies or defensive colonies and increasing morale as well as lowering the monetary cost of warfare. They also had a close physical and functional relationship to the army for protection and supply. Historically, the breakdown of the front, and particularly the fighting in cities led to women being involved in combat. The Book of Mormon doesn’t record women’s role in combat, but it is still likely, especially in urban combat, or in the camps following the rout of the army.  For example, the absolutely horrific account of murder, rape, and rampant cannibalism in Moroni chapter nine helps explain why it sounds as though women and children were included in the army when the Nephites made their final stand (Mormon 6:7).  In the abyss of destruction found in Ether 14, the last verse says that “the loss of men, women and children on both sides was so great that Shiz commanded his people that they should not pursue the armies of Coriantumr” (Ether 14:31).[8]  Again, the women and children seemed to be included as an integral part of the army. In crusader cities under siege women were recorded as manning the wall with a pot as a helmet.[9] (Some scholars suggest the strange headgear highlighted the otherness of women fighting in a traditionally male domain.) The women normally filled a role as water carries and boosts to morale.  Ancient Greeks women and slave would hurl stones and boiling water to kill invading soldiers.[10] Again, note the nontraditional weapons. The women present in crusading camps often faced the enemy when the army was defeated and fled.  One account includes a camp follower killing a soldier with a knife.  The Muslim victim being killed by a woman was used by writers to make the enemy seem less manly and the knife implied a cooking instrument and not a weapon.[11]

While women helped morale and likely performed vital functions and even fought, the concept of military colonies may have hurt the soldiers and ironically put the women and children in danger.  Again, an example from Roman history might help. Towards the end of the empire the government made the distinction between the frontier soldiers and a mobile reserve. Though there are significant problems with relying upon the mobile reserve. The logistics needed to support an army that big means they were fairly spread out, by the time they mobilized and marched to the frontier their enemies would have had as much as 3 months to complete their objectives and withdraw from Rome’s counter strike.
Roman armor
Evolution of Roman arms and armor.
The forces on the frontier had different problems. They were often regarded as secondary soldiers. In a strategy that called for a delaying action by frontier forces followed by a reprisal by the central army, the frontier forces weren’t expected to win which helped cause dangerous declines in quality. Helping this decline according to some scholars was the farmer soldier model. In order to ease the burden on the state soldiers often grew their own food, ran small businesses, and even became land lords. The basic premise is that every moment that soldiers spent farming, tending their herds, or otherwise engaged in business was time that they couldn’t spend honing their war making skills such as being able to operate in large formations or effectively use their swords. (Though the weapons and armor had changed by the late period.) Then the less effective soldiers would not be able to defeat armies in the field, or keep them beyond the borders of the empire, requiring women in camps and city walls to fight. I’m not sure how much I agree with this. Many military skills are like riding a bicycle, and most soldiers throughout history weren’t full time. Rather they were part time soldiers with military skills drawn from farms.

The inclusion of women and children in Alma 56: 28 is extremely curious in several ways. It suggests that women and children accompanied the army to the field or garrisons consistent with historical practice. This was possibly done for several reasons ranging from money to morale to help the army. But the inclusion of women and children with the armies could have hurt as well. If the army spent too much of their time supporting themselves as farmers and artisans, this would decrease their combat power. If the army failed or a city under siege the women could find themselves on the front lines and having to fight.

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[1] Donald W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 13.  Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 64.
[2] This assumes that every soldier was married with children, which is impossible to say for certain.
[3] Engles, Alexander the Great, 13.
[4] Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare, 29.  Lewis, Mark, “Han Abolition of Universal Military Service,” in Warfare in Chinese History, ed. Hans Van De Ven (Boston: Brill CO, 2000), 33-76.
[5] P.A. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic: And other Related Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 264.
[6] John Patterson, “Military Organization and Social Change in the Later Roman Republic,” in War and Society in the Roman World, eds. John Rich and Graham Shipley (London and New York: Routledge Press, 1993), 92-112.
[7] Of course, local leaders could also raise armies to support their own interests. See chapter two in Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon about the breakdown of central control and the rise of private armies.
[8] See chapter one, in Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.
[9] Michel Evans, “Unfit to Bear Arms: The Gendering of Arms and Armor During the Crusades, in Gendering the Crusades, Susan Edington and Sarah Lambert eds, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 54.
[10] John Lee, “Urban Warfare in the classical Greek World,” Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Victor David Hanson eds, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 152-153.
[11]  Evans, Bear Arms, 52.