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. ( 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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Best Book of Mormon Movie?

[Some comments I made in response to a great video posted on Mormon Dialogue and Discussion. I posted the video in question below and I quite like it.]

I talk about this a bit in the introduction to my first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

Warfare is generally dismissed out of hand in liberal and academic circles, and this has filtered out through society. My daughter for example told me she isn't allowed to play cops and robbers because that involves guns. I pointed out that cops are here to save and protect us, so its no the gun that is the problem, but how a person uses it, and the desires of their heart that matters. I don't worry when my daughter wants to play cops and robbers because its a good way to teach basic versions of the positive and negative qualities associated with war. Warfare teaches concepts like honor, justice, duty, courage, and sacrifice, especially when you are reading about them in scriptures, service academies or other peace time venues. Of course there are negatives about war that include sexual violence, child soldiers, blood lust, and rage. The BoM contains both of these examples, so as Nehor said above, the BoM is an extremely complex book on the subject and its difficult to simply say its one or the other. Though I think that even if you can point to justifications for war, I think that even victory is ultimately futile as I wrote here and expanded in my second book: Futile Victory

About the video in question, I thought it was kind of cute. In its essential form, warfare, particularly in the scriptures, is a morality tale. The tale they are reenacting is one of the clearest examples of just war presented in the scriptures. Unlike most big ideas, it also has a clear and compelling story to go along with it. I wouldn't mind seeing these types of things between conference sessions. As a reenactment of a story that sets a clear example of just war, it only glorifies violence to the extent that the viewer dislikes the "military stud muffin" (as Jana Reiss put it) that is Captain Moroni. In some circles Moroni is just the Mormon GI Joe that sets a horrible example of militant behavior. I think its a bit more nuanced than that. I spend a good deal of time in my second book (Reassessing the Book of Mormon) looking at some of the events before the great war that might have justified his actions, but also some of the things that happened after the war that suggest the negative consequences of them. I also look at how his actions likely played into Amalickiah's hands and strengthened his ability to wage war against the Nephites. For example, Moroni expelled settlers from the East Wilderness in chapter 50. If Amalickiah was warning about the Nephite menace, and the need for Lamanites to preemptively attack them, this attack by Moroni couldn't have been a better example of that danger. This action did strengthen the Nephite realm, but it was incredibly provocative and also strengthened Amalickiah's rationale for attacking the Nephites. This kind of analysis is sorely lacking in our discussion of warfare. I've been astounded in fact at the number of otherwise intelligent people that simply haven't studied these matters in depth or refuse to consider alternative positions.

Anyways, thanks for sharing the video and letting me comment.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Approaching the War Chapters: Part One, Causes of the War

A great deal has been written about the war chapters. This includes spiritual principles, and a sequential listing and analysis of events within the narrative.  I think many of these accounts are good but sometimes miss the forest from the trees. What follows would be a few of ways I approach the study of the war chapters as whole.  This study uses specific details, but doesn’t get bogged down in a meticulous campaign narrative. And it starts to see how the entire block signifies larger issues and connects to what happened before and after it. 

This examination assumes that readers are well aware of spiritual insights within the text. It takes an explicitly academic approach to add vital depth, nuance, and context to the account that we read.  Reading the Book of Mormon for the first time after graduate school was like changing from a black and white television to color and I hope to share those insights with you.

To illustrate this principle I might look at the chapter of my new book (yes that still exists) called “TheUndissected War.” It looks at the major reforms of Moroni and asks how they might have changed Nephite society and led to a rapacious government, high taxes, and insurgency.  This is an example of how one set of chapters tends to be studied in a vacuum, without asking how it might look as a cohesive whole, and as something that is connected to what happened before and after it. [1]

To start the study here I would look at three models for looking at why the war started.  The first is the anthropological model for warfare.  John Sorenson first suggested this model and it’s rather popular for, naturally, anthropologists.[2]  It posits that increasing population leads to intense competition for resources within and among societies.  They forcefully compete for resources like farm land, trade routes, or to avoid famine.  This model tends to downplay personal factors like great people (see below), in favor of inexorable social factors.  To use a modern example, these would be people who argue that the long term trends of the Soviet Union would have led to its eventual collapse because they were failing to compete internationally and ruinous domestic policies. 

Examples of this model would include that many verses that refer to Nephite population growth (Alma 50:18; 62:48, 51), their increased wealth (Alma 4:6, 8; 45:24; 62:49), the Lamanite desire to plunder (Alma 17:14), and the expanding settlements (Alma 49: 3; 50:13-15; 63:4).  These events point towards an increasing population, expanded wealth, and the competition among the Nephites and Lamanites for it. A more detailed example is that of the Zoramites. I discuss this in my first book, how the Zoramite elites wanted to flaunt their wealth and increased status within society (Alma 31:28.) But this clashed with the egalitarian nature of Nephite kingship (Alma 31: 4, 19, 24.) This contrasted a great deal with King Benjamin who emphasized how he farmed with his own hands and the humility of serving one another (Mosiah 2:14, 26.)This compares with the Mesoamerican system that emphasized wealth and equated it with power during this period.[3]

The second model is based on interstate competition.  Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian war is the classic tale of interstate rivalries. After leading the Greeks to victory Athens and Sparta split and started to compete for leadership of Greece.  Athens started in the much more dominant positions. But the Spartans were powerful as well and they continued to vie for influence in Greece. 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. 

The modern example for this would be the rise of Germany before World War I. Britain had ruled the waves over an empire where the sun never set. But Germany began a rapid buildup, repeatedly created international crisis through the belligerent use of force, and expanded their navy.  This growing threat created things like the alliance system and strict mobilization tables that set up what Henry Kissinger called a doomsday machine.[4]  Henry Kissinger would say that the British sphere of influence was being threatened by the expanding German sphere which created conflict. 

The evidence in the Book of Mormon is somewhat similar to the anthropological factors, but would look more at politically inspired events.  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. (Think of the common phrase: power abhors a vacuum.) 

The third model is the great person concept of history. In classical history this would be closely related to people like Caesar and Alexander the Great who, through force of will, marched across the world, won many important victories, changed governments, and altered the thousand year history of their people respectively through Hellenization or ending the Roman Republic.  To use the modern example, in contrast to the argument that the Soviet Union would inevitably collapse under the weight of communism and their military adventures, the great person model stressed people like Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev. They collectively change their countries through their force of will and policies such as the Star Wars initiative, Perestroika and Glasnost, and the Solidarity Movement.

This model is fairly obvious to see within the Book of Mormon.  Moroni and dissenters like Amalickiah dominate the text. The latter’s rebellion instigated the long conflict. He erected tours to inspire the people to war (Alma 48:1) and overcome significant resistance to implement his plan (Alma 47:2.)  Moroni had to pull down the pride and nobility of many within his own society as well (Alma 51:15-21). And the text explicitly states how arch dissenters placed fellow dissidents in leadership due to their animosity towards the Nephites (Alma 43:6-7).  

This post presented several models to help readers better understand the war chapters and the causes of war within the text. The anthropological model emphasizes the competition for scarce resources among different groups, and the conflict in how to consume and display wealth within society.  In spiritual terms it helps readers understand the natural man and the tendency towards satisfying wants in dangerous and violent ways.  The competition model can help readers understand the swirling eddies are local and international politics, the way that states can be sucked into war, and the dangers or even possible benefits of interstate competition.  And the great person dynamic takes out rather large accounts involving thousands of people and cataclysmic battles to offer respective inspiring tales about the power a strong righteous person can make (Alma 48:17), or a cautionary tale of the influence of one bad man (Alma 46:9.)

The next section will examine more useful models and ideas concerning Nephite conduct within the war.  Among other things it includes a brief summary of the Nephite experience in battle, the home front model, and use of selected military theorists to as judges of Moroni’s strategy. 

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[1] History is sometimes maligned as insufficiently grand to study the Book of Mormon. But I can’t think of anything more powerful, not even esoteric philosophy, that compares to a sound understanding of multifaceted causes and effects of complex events like the most dense and detailed narrative within the Book of Mormon.   
[2] In a more detailed and formal paper I would provide a source. I would also summarize his ideas more extensively and offer a judicious assessment. But these are rather detailed notes and not a formal paper so I haven’t done that yet. 
[3] Chapter 3, “They Fought on Both Hands with Exceeding Fury,” in Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Ebookit Press, 2014).
[4]  Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.) 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Sword and the Suit

I'm happy to announce that I'm writing at a new blog called the Sword and the Suit. Its a business strategy blog that takes military theory and history and applies it to the business world.  The name directly recalls the sword and the stone in Arthurian literature. Just as one must be worthy to draw Excalibur and use it, the businessmen must apply knowledge which will make him or her worthy to be a superior business person. Of course I'll keep blogging here and keep you updated on all of my exciting projects as well. I've got two manuscripts in with publishers, and I'm working on a few more projects. Thanks for reading.

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