Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Moving Beyond Empty Words


        Almost ten years ago David Pulsipher wrote about the “extraordinary agility” pacifists must use to make their case:

Crafting an argument…requires navigating a spiritual minefield…The Book of Mormon…contains the most hazards. Compiled by a seasoned general the text exudes a just war sensibility. To diffuse the power of that story Latter Day Stain pacifists resort to…arguing that a careful observation of the larger Book of Mormon narrative speaks to the futility of violence, its endless cycles, and its inability to achieve lasting peace.[1]

        With this in mind I’ve been shocked and bemused to find it exhibited so frequently by those that write for and follow Latter Day Saint Peace Studies. I regularly see people who disqualify quotes from the Book of Mormon as being less than Jesus. They say that Moroni was just a general, Pahoran just a chief judge (and often mix the two) to say they weren’t authoritative. They claim that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where Jesus superseded the law means that his words supersede all other scriptures. This especially applies to the Book of Mormon. Of course Jesus himself said that whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants it is the same (D&C 1:38), and that Mormon wrote that righteous leaders were in fact prophets (3 Nephi 3:19) so I don't buy those arguments and think they are merely picking and choosing which scriptures to accept based on what they like. 

        But by disqualifying they are missing out on even more. Finding how seemingly contradictory scriptures interact with each other can increase one’s appreciation for matters of war and peace, and lead one away from facile, proof texted arguments. To show an example of that I will use my research into classical Chinese military theory beyond Sunzi.

        Guanzi, considered the epitome of good Confucian ministers said that good rulers should “vanquish [their enemies] without resorting to treachery.”[2]  This, along with the claim of Confucius that the “sage is not crafty,”[3] seems to directly contradict Sunzi’s words that “warfare is the way of deception.”[4] The easy explanation is that Sunzi was an amoral cretin. Yet he became the most famous theorist and was used by emperors and leaders throughout Chinese history. Like those figures that used deception in warfare and remained good Confucians, there are ways to reconcile the two.

        First, Guanzi mentions treachery which is different than deception. The Chinese believed in what various translators have described as orthodox and unorthodox attacks. The orthodox pins down, or “spikes”[5] an enemy to prepare for the army’s unorthodox or “tilting” maneuver. But the difference between the two can become blurred. If an enemy is expecting a surprise flank attack, the surprising unorthodox attack instead becomes the expected orthodox attack. So, the definitions of these terms can often change during one battle, depending on the intent of the attacker and perceptions of those being attacked.

        A conversation from the film The Princess Bride (1987) serves as a memorable illustration. Westley, the hero, enters a battle of wits with Vizzini the Sicilian. In the course trying to outwit each other, Vizzini described how he knows that his opponent knows his mind to predict Vizzini’s next action. Vizzini goes on to say (with dazzlingly circular logic) that, sometimes, his opponent knows that he knows, so he must do something completely different. But his opponent must know that he knows that he knows…so he must do what was originally predicted. The repetition of “he knows that I know” represents the inexhaustible permutations between opting for the orthodox and unorthodox and describes the difficulty in trying to know your enemy while trying to keep your own strategy a secret. 

        In short, both armies know they are entering a maze of mirrors, with complex prebattle maneuvers and fake feints and real deceptions, then they are accepting the parameters of the battle. There is nothing treacherous or crafty upon entering a struggle in which both know the rules. On top of that, a sudden surprise attack from an unexpected direction could produce a psychological trap, win the battle without a fight, and become a moral, bloodless, and proper Confucian way to end the battle. As Guanzi wrote: If one attacks a city or lays siege to a town so its occupants are forced to exchange their sons for food and crack their bones for cooking, such an attack is merely to uproot oneself…[6] Those that resort to deception to capture the city or win the battle can claim they are being good Confucians by winning with minimal bloodshed.

        The second example comes from the impetus and planning for the Battle of Maling. The rulers discussed the need to declare war on a mutual enemy on behalf of their ally. This would honor their alliance and maintain honor among the other leaders of the Warring States. That was the part that fulfilled Confucius’ advice for a sage not to be a crafty.  But that didn’t mean they marched straight at the army invading their neighbor. Doing so would have left their allies in a stronger position even if the won! They would relieve the siege of their ally’s capital by depleting their own resources for nothing gained except the abstract concept of honor.  Instead Sun Bin advised that they take an indirect route through their mutual enemies’ homeland. The campaign marched in the opposite direction of their besieged allies, protected their supply lines, offered an easier battle than lifting a siege, and left both their enemy and ostensible ally in a weaker position than the start of the war. This would place them in a stronger position to eventually conquer both. Thus, they were honorable by declaring war, but showed how they pursued their self-interest as well.

        By looking at how both statements can be true at the same time, to avoid being crafty and pursue a way of deception, we see insight into the nature of battle in Chinese history, the difference between treachery and deception, the moral role that deception can have, and how moral decisions can be used to advance self-interest. The writings of the masters, or scriptures are not catch phrases from fortune cookies or silver bullets for discussion boards. They are complex thoughts that try to prescribe moral behavior among an even more complex world.

        After this book is published, I plan to bring the same amount of analysis to Mormon scripture. Instead of simply having a favorite set of scriptures and downplaying the rest, or as the Chinese scholars complained of those that quoted Sunzi, “merely reciting empty words...without penetrating the depths of their teachings,”[7] we might instead consider how they interact with each other. I’ve already showed some of the interactions in posts like Nephite thought on warfare, and the word and the sword. I’m confident I’ll find more and the interplay between seemingly contradictory verses will be just as multifaceted as the examples I showed above. The scriptures deserve more than petty facebook pontificating and crafty attempts to ignore uncomfortable verses.

I work as a free lance author and researcher. Producing high quality, ad free research for more than a decade takes time and effort. If you found value in this work please consider supporting more of it by donating to the pay pal button below, or buying one of my books through the link at the top left. 


[1] Daivd Pulsipher, “The Ammonite Conundrum,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (West Jordan UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 1-2.

[2] Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophic Essays Vol I, Alan Rickett trans., (Princeton University Press, 1985,)277.

[3] Analects of Confucius, Chichung Huang trans., (Oxford University Press, 1997,)111.

[4] Sunzi, in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Ralph Sawyer trans., (Westview Press, 1993), 158.

[5] Benjamin Wallacker, “Two Concepts in Early Chinese Thought” in Chinese Warfare to 1600 Ed. By Peter Lorge (New York: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 235-240.

[6] Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophic Essays Vol I, Alan Rickett trans., (Princeton University Press, 1985,) 394.

[7] Questions and Replies Between Tang Taizong and Li Weikong in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Ralph Sawyer trans., (Westview Press, 1993), 338,360  "People who study Sunzi today only recite emtpy words. Few grasp and extend his meaning."  Thus the study of military strategy must be from the lowest to the middle and then from the middle to the highest, so that they will gradually penetrate the depths of the teaching. If not, they will only be relying on empty words. Merely remembering and reciting them is not enough to succeed."

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Heartland Starter Pack


I’ve been asked occasionally about the Heartlander theory of Book of Mormon geography. I’m stumped by this answer, not because I’m unfamiliar with their research, but because I’m so familiar with it that I categorically reject that line of thinking. My first encounter with the Heartlanders was at the Mormon History Association conference in St. George around 2012. I talked to the representative of their press and when I disagreed with their geography I suddenly felt like a mongoose trapped in the corner by a chatty cobra. My short answer to these questions is that their scholarship is cringe worthy poor, their most frequent tactic is to criticize the faith of their opponents, and they should be avoided. Here are a few links that explain that summary.

Having a Form of Scholarship:

Historian Ardis Parshall visited the FIRM Foundation Conference led by Rodney Meldrum.  She provides good summaries of the presentations but an even better explanation of why they miss the mark and resemble conspiracists more than sincere believers or researchers. 

Poor Book of Mormon Scholarship:

One of the most erudite people I know, Stephen Smoot, provides an 8 part review of the Annotated Book of Mormon. It’s a shoddy work that consists of rampant errors, abuse of historical sources and DNA, reliance on forgeries, and unsubstantiated claims.  Brant Gardner, one of the leading scholars on the Book of Mormon reviewed two more books here.  I like this review because it provides detailed pictures and analysis about why key pieces of evidence are forgeries.

Abuse of DNA:

This one is longer, but its needed to show Rodeny Meldrum’s DNA evidence is really snake oil and strained proof texting.

Personal Behavior and Apostasy:

By making these claims so iron clad, they are making their own faith brittle, while at the same time clubbing those who disagree with them.  This post explains why their obsession will lead them out of the church. This series of posts explain why their geography theories are often no better, and many times worse, than what they peddle.

I could do many more posts about their atrocious behavior where their favorite tactic is misreading a source, making it binding doctrine (against the official church position) and then questioning the faithfulness of those that disagree.  They’ve strapped Joseph Smith to the hood of their demolition cars so often their logo should be a Mad Max car. Now you have a few resources that should help rigorously examine their often too good to be true claims.   

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Moroni's Tactics and the Vandal War

Belisarius led armies from the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) empire in the 6th century AD. He fought the Persians on the eastern front of the empire and eventually fought a long war to reclaim Italy from Gothic tribesmen. The subject of interest here is the Vandal war in North Africa. The Emperor Justinian, taking advantage of a revolt against Vandal rule and a peace with the Persians, sent Belisarius with a small force of ten thousand men to attack the formerly held territories of the Roman Empire in North Africa.

One the invasion landed on the beach; Belisarius marched towards the Vandal’s capital at Carthage. He ordered his soldiers to pay for their supplies and forbade them from pillaging. As a result, they had the support of the people and moved “as if in their own land.”[1] Gelimer, the Vandal king, planned an ambush along their likely route. At Ad Decimum, Gelimer planned a three-pronged attack. His brother, Ammatas, would attack the advance of Belisarius from the front. Another force under Gibamundus would attack Belisarius from the left flank. And Gelimer would use his local knowledge of roads to take an interior route to attack Belisarius from the rear. 

The plan compensated for the division of forces by relying on the surprise of attacking simultaneously form multiple directions. Unfortunately, the plan collapsed quickly. The cavalry of Belisarius defeated the flank attack led by Gibamundus and the latter fell among the fighting. A short time later the frontal attack led by Ammatas smashed into the Byzantine force. He engaged the vanguard of Belisarius’ army, but the former hadn’t prepared to attack Belisarius so far north; as a result, Ammatas had his army spaced out along the road. The forward units were defeated piecemeal as they marched into the Byzantines, and then as those units retreated, they affected the next column and forced them to retreat and so on. His entire force ended up fleeing in a panic back towards Carthage. 

Finally, Gelimer arrived and attacked towards the north at what he thought was the rear, and already engaged, army of Belisarius. If the plan had worked, the two attacks by Gibamundus and Ammatus would mean that Gelimer attacked the rear for a coup de grace like Helamans “furious” attack upon the rear of the Lamanite army in Alma 56:52 with his Stripling Warriors. Gelimer routed the screening cavalry (the force that defeated Ammatas earlier), who then fled to the safety of the main camp of Belisarius. Gelimer regrouped his forces and stood poised to attack the bulk of the army of Belisarius. He hadn’t achieved his goal of attacking in the rear for the finishing blow, but still commanded motivated soldiers flushed with initial victory, while Belisarius, seemingly under attack from every direction, was trying to reorder his forces. Yet upon seeing the dead body of his brother Ammatus, Gelimer paused to assess the situation.[2] The pause by Gelimer allowed Belisarius to rally his fleeing cavalry, and counterattack with his entire force. Gelimer fled south, and Belisarius had an open road to Carthage. He took the city, defeated the resurgent Gelimer and reclaimed North Africa for the Byzantine Empire.