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.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Gendered Violence in the Book of Mormon

I hope all of you are having a great summer. I came across a great article about gendered violence.  Most of modern academia is obsessed with the new holy trinity of race, class, and gender/ sexuality. In part, this is simply due to new approaches to history that ask questions and pursue lines of research that haven't been done before. But its also a highly politicized field, and it tends to crowd out military history studies. This is one reason why John Lynn says that military history has an embattled future. Yet John Lynn also mentioned that these studies, done right, can help military history. John Lynn uses the example of French aristocrats that raised armies at great personal cost to themselves out of a sense of masculinity. Its why I want to look at the Stripling Warriors discussion of their mothers, and how the feminized courage might change our understanding of the text. In this case, the author talks about how the women of the believers were burned alive.  (You can also see some of the politicization as well, as the author seems to almost pivot into an Ordain Women lecture.)

Keep your eye out for some of my future projects as well. My article on the battle experience is on the final stages of being edited.  I'm also working on my power point for the FAIR Conference. I'm writing about insurgency in the Book of Mormon.  I have some exciting ideas about the causes of the conflict that include the unintended consequences of Moroni's reforms in the war chapters, and a reconstruction of the Gadianton ideology. I hope to see you there!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Approaching the War Chapters Part Three: How to Grade on a Curve

This is part three of a series describing how I would approach the war chapters. You can find part one here, which discussed some models examining the causes of the war. You can find part two here, which asked some hard questions about Captain Moroni and the consequences of victory seen within the Book of Helaman. Part three finishes the series by looking at cultural attitudes and ancient practices that warn against simple applications.

Cultural Attitudes:

Probably the most important point at the end of the war chapters is to try applying this. Latter Day Saints are good at making applications to their life, but not all comparisons and applications are equal in quality and application.  The utility of ancient history to modern application is one of the important factors. For example, modern Democracy is far different than a premodern tribal based society.  There is the separation of church and state, and foreign policy is based on things different than a cosmological worldview. That means that Latter Day Saints living in a modern liberal Democracy don’t have the same amount of power over foreign policy as the Nephite Chief Judge. 

Returning to part one, Henry Kissinger described two views concerning foreign policy.[1] These models show us a way we might tentatively apply modern principles to help understand some of the lessons the text might offer.   One is a realist view based on balance of power considerations. As part one discussed, the rising powers of Germany and Sparta threatened the sphere of influence with the dominant powers of Great Britain and Athens.  This unbalance created tension that led to war.  The second kind of foreign policy is based on democratic ideals and an almost crusading concept of intervening to support democracy and greater humanitarianism.  The most vivid example of this would be Woodrow Wilson’s War to End All Wars, 14 Points, support for the League of Nations, and his intervention in World War I. While this is also a modern concept, it helps the reader consider how ancient moral ideas, such as God punishing the wicked Nephites using wicked Lamanites,[2] might be inappropriately applied and morphed into a crusading foreign policy.  Latter Day Saints have a responsibility to consider God’s will concerning warfare, but it isn’t quite as simple as a taking a verse or two and then making sweeping pronouncements in support of warfare. As Sunzi famously said, warfare is the greatest affair of state, the way to life and death, and it must be thoroughly examined.[3]  Considering the justifications for war, both modern foreign policy models and ancient scripture, requires an extensive consideration and application of both.  

For example, the concept of sheltering civilians from the horrors of war developed in the modern Western world largely after the 30 years war ended in 1648.  The humanist movement in Europe reacted against this carnage by trying to regulate conduct on the battlefield, and the discrimination between military targets and those that were off limits. (Though every culture and time has a back and forth struggle and conversation with what is acceptable in war and what isn’t.)  Thus modern Western readers come with a very specific version of what people can and can’t do based upon a series of cultural assumptions that have grown for hundreds of years and are fully expressed in documents like the  Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Geneva Convention.  This is why we might suggest that Moroni is not as righteous for things like indefinite detention and his use of prisoners to test poisoned food. Conversely, judging Moroni solely based on modern standards is a fallacy called presentism. Its most extreme form means that anybody judged racist or sexist by today’s standards, which is pretty much everybody, can be discarded. The best way to use our modern sensibilities is to be aware of them, note the differences, and using a phrase, to assess Moroni’s actions and “grade on a curve.” This means the modern expectations and standards are useful guides, but not necessarily a final determination of his righteous, as even God declared that he teaches men according to their state (2 Nephi 31:3).  

Destructiveness of War:

On top of that, the modern world makes it more difficult to directly cut and paste ancient tactics and strategy.  Pre-modern battle consisted of face-to-face encounters. The armies that traveled to these battles were limited by the primitive logistics of that age. Their logistical limits were compounded by an apparent lack of wheeled transport in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. But even with an army’s damage limited to what they could personally smash or kill, and a nation’s limitations in supplying its troops, the Lamanites could quickly desolate many cities before the Nephites “could raise a sufficient army.” (Alma 16:2-3).  In Helaman 1:19, the Lamanites marched “with such great speed” they and captured the capital city and ultimately they enacted genocide with these primitive means.

                Today’s battlefields stretch over many miles. The personal weapon of American infantrymen, the M-16, has an effective range of roughly a third of a mile. Jet fighters, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles can launch from one location and strike a thousand miles away. And Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles live up to their name, attacking and strike from continents away. Worldwide airline and naval travel easily transport dangerous people and materials. During the Cold War the United States could nominally count on the international order to restrain the actions of the enemy.  Now, the United States faces regimes that explicitly reject that world order, support terrorism as an arm of foreign policy, and seek the most devastating weapons known to man.

Case Study: Nuclear Weapons

It was this triad (rogue regimes, seeking WMDs, and supporting terror) that George W. Bush presented as justification for the attack on Iraq.  This section presents a brief case study that suggests how me might take ancient scriptures that didn’t know about nuclear weapons, and apply them in the modern world, and I adapt it from my work in War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives.

In Alma 46 we read how Amalickiah presented a threat to the liberty of the Nephites. The actual results of his behavior could not be seen until his treachery and murder in chapter 47, his agitation of the Lamanites in Alma 48, his devastating offensive in Alma 50, and his brother’s hellish letter in Alma 54. While it is possible Moroni acted with incomplete intelligence, I believe he correctly identified Amalickiah’s intent and latent evil, and followed a righteous course of action in Alma 46:30-32. In these verses Moroni did “according to his desires” and sought to “cut off” Amalickiah. Thus Moroni saw Amalickiah (using George W. Bush terminology) as a “gathering storm.”  Precise details of Moroni’s specific military campaign are scarce. But the reason for his pre-emptive action is not far removed from George W. Bush’s removal of Saddam Hussein. And it is not at all unlikely that the kingmen who opposed Moroni did so by labeling him as a war-mongering fascist (or its ancient equivalent).

It is always hard to justify offensive action based on possible future events or simply latent evil, but from the actions of Moroni in Alma 46 and several other places, it is clear that offensive, proactive, and even pre-emptive attacks are morally sanctioned from the righteous actors in the Book of Mormon. For example, as already noted, the Nephites at times adopted a vigorous counterinsurgency campaign, meaning they actively sought to search and destroy their enemies.  And on another occasion, the Nephite government established a military outpost in enemy territory to try and strengthen their position. 


You’ll notice I’ve provided many ideas such as the way that treatment of civilians has changed, or the changes brought by nuclear weapons. But I haven’t provided many firm and dogmatic answers.  As the development of the barges in Ether showed, true growth comes from having a pertinent question without any clear answers (Ether 2:18-20, 22-23). I believe reading the text should be a demanding experience.  Sacred scripture gives us answers to questions that potentially affect the lives and deaths of millions of individuals.   The individual must thoughtfully examine and reassess their preconceptions, dive thoughtfully into the text, and then develop a foreign policy vision consistent with the scriptures.[4] Sacred scripture that deals with potentially millions of lives and deaths should be a challenging experience that pushes, engages, strengthens, and radically changes our will and understanding towards God’s. We have amazing modern tools such as foreign policy models that can help us understand the scriptures.  But we also have a different world view from ancient writers, and we are separated from God.  We need all the help we can get in understanding warfare, what it means in understanding the Book of Mormon, and how it applies in the world. I hope this series helped.


[1] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.)
[2] Hugh Nibley, “Warfare in the Book of Mormon,” Warfare in the Book of Mormon, William Hamblin and Stephen Ricks eds, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991).   Though as Duane Boyce pointed out, this model has significant exceptions within the Book of Mormon and does not account for every war. Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015) 73-80.
[3] Sunzi, “The Art of War,” Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993,) 157.
[4] I was incredibly disheartened for example when I praised an author’s work for examining those assumptions, and almost immediately an anti-war proponent copy and pasted a long list of proof texts with no analysis whatsoever. See Jeremy Orb Smith’s comment here:  http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/a-vital-resource-for-understanding-lds-perspectives-on-war/#comments

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Approaching the War Chapters Part Two

The Conduct of the War

This is the second part that examines how I would approach the war chapters.  You can find the first part here. A long summary of the battles has already been done in several places.[1]  I’ll refer you to those accounts but will not repeat them here. The major goal of this project is to help you appreciate finer details that help you notice the forest among the trees. This means that I try to connect the war chapters to larger ideas, and what happened before and after.  This section in particular will ask some questions about the conduct of actors throughout the war chapters. 

Righteous Leadership?

The first question is the most controversial, was Moroni a righteous leader?  The scriptures clearly say that if all men were like the Moroni that very powers of Hell would be shaken (Alma 48:17.) This tends to inculcate Moroni from any criticism, let alone serious ones.  Yet even the best people and best laws have unintended side effects.  Many critics like to equate Smith’s statement that the BoM is the “most correct” book with perfect.  Yet the same defense of this statement can be applied to Moroni.  Shaking the foundation of hell doesn’t mean that Moroni was perfect. Moreover, it is rather dangerous to automatically think that every tactic or strategy in the war would work perfectly well cut and pasted into today’s conflicts. (See part three about how to apply ancient scriptures to modern conflicts.) Moreover, the modern strategist Edward Luttwak said that sometimes victory can be as dangerous as defeat.  With defeat the current policy makers are repudiated and reform parties strengthened. But with victory every policy and strategy is automatically enshrined even if it had nothing to do with victory, and might have been counterproductive.[2] 

Moroni’s Title of Liberty is a very inspiring story. It helped this author get through the tough days of Marine Corp Boot camp and remains stirring today. But whose liberty was Moroni referring to, and is it the same kind of liberty as modern day Americans envision?[3]  It is possible that the liberty being defended was that of a special class of elites in Nephite society with Moroni, Pahoran, and other leaders represented.  As an example of this elite status, consider that that when Moroni cleared the Lamanites out of the East Wilderness the new cities founded were named after the Chief Captian (Moroni), another general (Lehi), the former crown prince (Aaron), the retiring chief judge (Nephihah), and the leader of an ethnic group (Morianton.)  This new land likely increased their wealth and power a great deal,[4] and suggests that other officials (such as the lower judges, Alma 46:4) chafed at the difference.  This is admittedly speculative, but suggests a basis for why so many people might not have enjoyed or appreciated Moroni and the Nephite’s concept of liberty.[5] 
Moroni also indefinitely detained political enemies (Alma 51:9; 62:4), forced prisoners to test for poison (Alma 55:31-32), refused the prisoner exchange he requested (Alma 54:2; 55:2), and threatened extermination and genocide (Alma 54:12.)  If one compares Moroni’s letter with Giddianhi’’s in fact, Moroni is the one that seems like a dangerous and aggressive individual and the Gadianton Robber sounds reasonable and conciliatory. (Of course, Giddianhi’s tone may have concealed his true intentions.)  

This period also witnessed an increase on decisive and bloody encounters between armies for which Moroni might bear responsibility.  Alma 28 listed an incredibly battle but doesn’t include many details. Alma 43 is the first section that included rather detailed attempts to attack the enemy at the front and rear at the same time (that I call the Moroni doctrine),[6] the need for heavy armor, and the importance of fortifications. These changes and behaviors made made battles in the open even more important and sought after (verse), as well as more bloody.[7]

These quick questions admittedly bypass much of Moroni’s good points. Many people from Jana Reiss to Joshua Madsen complain about the military stud muffin and action hero portrait of Moroni.[8] Those complaints, while annoying, arise at least in part because of the effusive and uncritical acceptance of Moroni’s behavior. Moroni’s actions in the most detailed war and his glorious victory are considered by many to be a golden age.[9] (Though in fairness, the text itself does state there was never a happier time in their history, Alma 50:23.)  Yet he is used rather extensively and uncritically. He is the hero of many strident right wing actors in the US, including the prophet Ezra Taft Benson.  He is also the hero of many antigovernment forces including the most recent ones in the Oregon standoff. As a result of this uncritical acceptance and use in radical political behavior, its important to examine Moroni’s actions more critically. 

What kind of General:

The manner of Moroni’s combat is extremely important. What strategy could (or should) Moroni have used to reduce casualties? We get excited over victory, but Sunzi says the pinnacle of excellence is subjugating the enemy without fighting.[10] Moroni's emphasis on heavier armor made them lethal in battle. His new fortifications multiplied the power of his force. This sounds great, until a person realizes that heavy armor and the need to prevent an enemy from retreating to his fortifications causes a greater emphasis on chasing down an enemy in the field, and forcing them to fight face to face. Moroni's innovations then, could have caused a tendency to seek decisive battle, and make those battles far bloodier. As we might ask of the Confederate Robert E Lee, is bleeding a nation dry in pursuit of a climactic battlefield victory, really best for the nation? Is it Christ like? The bloody tallies of Moroni, even if he was victorious, suggest that perhaps even his victorious policies were not necessarily immoral but also not the best policy. The Law of Moses is often called the lower law, compared to the higher law of Christianity. Based on Moroni’s actions, there is a strong argument that Moroni pursued a lower law victory.

The Dangers of Victory:

After the 7 Years War in 1763 the British stood triumphant over much of North America. But their victory actually caused more problems than it solved. In terms of financing the war, trying to prevent conflict with both Catholics in French Canada and Indians in the Ohio River Valley, the British ended up with more problems from their victory. So we must look at what changed during the war. There are four factors there were vital in Nephite victory, increased use of heavy armor, reliance upon fortifications, preemptive warfare, and the seizing of territory in the east wilderness. Again, moving past a study of every minute campaign we might look at how these innovations affected Nephite society. Things like heavy armor and fortifications require more money. More money means more taxes, and rapacious taxation easily fuels an insurgency. The "getting gain" in the Book of Helaman, and the unrighteousness of Nephite society could refer to unscrupulous tax collectors. Military gains bring added security but usually require military expenditures to keep. On top of that, soldiers can easily develop a sense of corporate identity and strike out violently (such as almost killing the prophet, or slaying each other with the sword, Helaman 10:16-18)) when their interests are threatened. This resulted in a weird feedback look where the military is needed to hold the cities, and those cities are taxed to the hilt to fund the military. This can lead to civil unrest and insurgency, which needs more soldiers, which requires more taxation.

Again, as Luttwak pointed out, the strange logic of war is that sometimes victory can be the worst thing for a nation. Because in victory every unexamined assumption, regardless of its contribution to victory, becomes enshrined as untouchable doctrine, and needed reforms become harder to implement. While defeat, in contrast, brings truth that much faster and discredits opponents of reform.


This ends the study of part two. The war chapters are a dense narrative filled with exciting details. Its important to consider them as a whole, and how they might impact the rest of the Book of Mormon.  Moroni is indeed a dominant individual within the text, yet we should also critically assess his actions.  The next section will help examine ancient and modern cultural attitudes, the destructive power of ancient and modern weapons, and a case study to illustrate how we might judiciously apply the war chapters in our life.

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[1] Sorenson, Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. 239-264. Nibley, Hugh.  An Approach to the Book of Mormon. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988). 
[2] Luttwak, Edward. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. New York: Belknap University of Harvard University Press, 1987), 20.
[3] I’ve read something which suggests this refers to the rights of elites within society to enjoy taxes. 
[4] David Webster, “Warfare and the Evolution of the State,” American Antiquity 40 no1. (1975) 464:470.
[5] See “Undissected War,” from Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon. (Forthcoming.)
[6] Chapter 3, “They Fought on Both Hands with Exceeding Fury,” Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Ebookit, 2014.)
[7] See “Undissected War,” from Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon. (Forthcoming.)
[8] Jana Riess, Dear Mormon Militia Men: Stop the Insanity, Flunking Sainthoot, Jan 4th, 2016. (http://religionnews.com/2016/01/04/dear-mormon-militiamen-stop-the-insanity/ Accessed May 15th 2016). Joshua Madsen, "A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon." War and Peace In Our Times: Mormon Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 13-28.
[9] One particularly shallow example comes from the pugnacious libertarian Kendal Anderson who said: the fruits of the Nephite war of defense against the Lamanites were peace, liberty, freedom of religion, the mass conversion of Lamanite POWs, and the restoration of Nephite lands and property (144). Kendal Anderson, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective: How the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon Warn Against Wars of Aggression and the Warfare State (Self Published, 2014.)
[10] Sunzi, Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993), 161.