Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Runnells Has an Absolutely Terrible Grasp of Warfare, Science, and Scholarship



I found and then wrote something on facebook that would be useful if posted in a more lasting setting with sources. I never engaged that much with Runnels because he repeats criticisms (badly), that have been refuted elsewhere.  My personal interactions with him, while brief, were incredibly negative and make him seem odious.  Finally, as I say and show in my response below, he just doesn’t practice sound scholarship so his "critical" thoughts are often insipid and mind numbing. 

Runnels wrote this in his section of the CES Letter on science:

Native Americans around this time did not have steel swords. Millions of dead natives would have left a trace. And according to historians,[Morgan’s note: this links to the incredibly scholarly reddit] hand to hand engagements did not last that long. We’re talking about a maximum of hours, not several days. Routing, sieges, and hunting down enemies would extend it, but that is not the story being told here. And the final one-on-one battle is so incredibly unlikely, especially when you get to the means of death. A beheaded man doing a pushup and trying to breathe? Not likely.

My response with added sources in parenthesis and footnotes: Just glancing at number 8 his points are superficial and don't engage the text or extant data. There are lots of points about steel. Personally based on the data I think the text refers to an extremely small number of weapons made out of meteoric iron (which is often compared to Damascus steel). And that’s ignoring the literary qualities that make the discussion of the sword of Shule and his band of followers sound more like Excalibur. He then conflates Ether 7:8-10 with the mention of millions in Ether 14-15. There are numerous differences and a rather great time span [25 rulers] between those chapters, so its lazy reading at best, and deliberately misreading at worst to assume there were millions or even more than a few steel swords that we should expect to find.

He has no clue about battlefield archaeology. Even one of the most studied battles at Hastings yields little direct evidence,[1] and historians still debate its exact location. Scholars recently "found" a lost army and so forth.

He then conflates the skirmish warfare of most Northern American tribes with far less social and political organization with the far more advanced cultures from Central America that had rather sophisticated cultures.[2] San Lorenzo and La Venta both had large populations and decent territorial control at a time when Rome was a still a collection of huts on a few hills, and this was centuries before the final battles of the Jaredites.

These societies could sustain rather long conflicts and battles. (For a general discussion of numbers and what Mesoamerican nations could field and sustain see this post.)  Moreover, medical studies show that failing to completely severing the head in one blow, such as by the last standing warrior in a three day battle, the body will go through upper body spasms.[3] Again, Runnels combines a narrow reading of the text with a shallow research to proclaim something as fact, when a careful reading of the text and better grasp of military history would suggest something else.

Overall, Runnells shows he is a dilettante that wouldn't recognize actual scholarship if a stele fell on him. 

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[1] John Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, (Deseret Book, 2014), 383, fn 9.
[2] The best book I found on native warfare is David Jones, Native North America Armor, Shields, and Fortifications, (UT press, 2004.) You might also consider my book that compares and contrasts Cree warfare, which was much less organized, with Mayan warfare from the same time period in the late 4th century AD, Morgan Deane, From the Cree to Korea: A World History of Battle at 400 AD.)
[3] M. Gary Hadfield, “Neuropathology and the Scriptures,” Brigham Young University Studies 33 no. 2 (1993), 325.  See also Morgan Deane, "Experiencing Battle in the Book of Mormon," Interpreter a Journal of Mormon Scripture, 23 (2017), 237-252. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Book Review: Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon



One of the slightest controversies in Book of Mormon studies includes the concept of making the text easier or harder. Readers at Deseret Book often see various scriptures “made easy,” while scholars enjoy what Richard Bushman called wrestling with important questions, or making things harder. The unique joy of the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon is that it assembles the text in such a way that it’s easier to read, and thus makes it a blessing for both groups.

The text is reformatted into paragraphs with the markings for chapters and verses added in later additions in Arabic numbers in this edition. I particular enjoy original chapters being marked in Roman numerals. As editor Grant Hardy noted, these were apparently marked on the gold plates, and thus reflect the author’s intent. I found them especially helpful in noticing major themes and sections of the text.

The text is further aided by select footnotes that explain possible emendations to the text, highlight or explain major points, and provide cross references.  I’m currently working on a major project that examines classical Chinese military texts beyond Sunzi (Sun-Tzu). I have plenty of experience noticing how subtle changes in punctuation, spelling, and grammar along with occasional emendations can critically change the meaning of the text. This addition takes particularly trenchant commentary from Royal Skousen’s voluminous and excellent work on the matter and presents it to the reader.

Many of the footnotes, as well as a glossary of short essays addressing pertinent topics at the end of the book provide excellent summaries of existing research and major questions about its provenance and such topics as geography and Hebrew poetry. Simply by summarizing and assessing them in a forthright manner Hardy provides aids to both believers and non-believing but interested academics. Explaining something like seer stones in a forthright manner helps members accept items that may be disturbing in other settings. Providing a careful analysis of past apologetic efforts is more palatable for skeptics studying the book, while still making them aware of pertinent research.

The text also includes basic maps, highlights major figures in the text and its organization through simple charts. Probably the most helpful are the excerpts of primary sources from key people involved with the origins of the book, process of translation, and the testimony of those that saw the plates. These are rather informative on their own, but also show that, as the very least, Hardy and the Maxwell Institute care about grounding the reception and origination of the text by using primary sources and proper historical methods. As a historian this makes me proud, while still leaving unresolved the fact that the new MI seems a bit more interested in the 19th century than the old AR (ancient research) part of FARMS and the Book of Mormon.

Overall, I highly recommend the text for believers looking to aid in their devotional study of the text to non-believing scholars wishing to familiarize themselves with what some people say is one of the most important books in American history.  This truly fulfills the purpose of being a study edition.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Approaching Immigration in the of Book of Mormon



There was a recent debate in the comments section of the Desert News that I think deserves an entire follow up.  The article in question was about the importance of building the wall from an expert, Tim Ballard, fighting child sex trafficking. The comments section included a long debate about the efficacy of walls in the Book of Mormon. But they failed to note significant points that alter the debate and provide a better understanding. The key point is that the walls were part of Nephite military strategy, not immigration strategy, and people see what they want to see in the scriptures without understanding immigration in the book.  

It is tough to determine if any ancient power, or a people described in the Book of Mormon even had a coherent policy. Edward Luttwak’s description of Roman Grand Strategy often falters as critiques point out that there was little chance that rulers had little more than an ad hoc reactions to many frontier incursions, and not a strategy planned and implemented over decades and centuries.[1]
But we might still look carefully for how the Nephite rulers and ancient version of policy makers controlled the movement of people. We find that the Nephites did little in most cases to forcibly control the movement of people. In several cases, and moving chronologically through the text, the moving groups received permission from the ruler. 

The People of Limhi received permission from the Lamanite King, though they were, to use modern language, eventually exploited for up to half of their goods (Mosiah 9:5-7). The escaping Anti Nephi Lehis received permission to enter Nephite lands. They even offered to be slaves to the Nephites, but instead were granted land (Alma 27:8-9). Later in their history, they provided both men and food to support the Nephite war against the Lamanites which suggests a possible tributary relationship with the Nephites where they give food and soldiers for protection and land. (In fact, settling refugees in military colonies who then supported the mustered soldiers was a strategy advocated by Chinese legalists like Lord Shang and Han Feizi.[2])

The Nephites under Moroni did adopt an immigrant program, but it is hardly something most modern readers would approve. In Alma chapter 50 He took the soldiers and forcibly removed Lamanite settlers and seized the lands in the East and West wilderness. I doubt he gave them 30 day notices, and a flood of refugees entering other Lamanite lands likely helped galvanize opposition to what Lamanite leaders could easily portray as aggressive Nephite expansion.  Moroni also used the army to prevent the movement of Morianton under the guise of national security (Alma 50:32).

In the Book of Helaman the events are often described in brief, but there are even more movements of people, and less control by the government. The rise of the infamous Gadianton Robbers was connected to a failure of government officials to effectively enforce its laws, and an inability of the government to control the movement of their people and maintain territorial integrity.  The autonomy of local officials increased.  The chaos created new frontiers and borderlands, and new leaders rose to fill that gap.  In addition to Helaman chapter one, the Nephites faced other losses of territory.  As a result of contention, many settlers left for the far north (Helaman 3:3).  This pattern was repeated by separatists that later toppled the Nephite government (3 Nephi 7:12).  Shortly thereafter, the Nephites lost all of their territory to the Lamanites, with only a part of it being recovered (Helaman 4:10). Nephi was forced out of his position as chief judge (Helaman 5:1-3).  Their territory was only recovered through miraculous means (Helaman 5:52) that I think was the result of governing Lamanites converting in order to gain advantages (such as a just war against the Gadianton Robbers, Helaman 6:20) similar to the conversion pattern seen throughout European history (Helaman 6:3, 8-9).Later armies explicitly “took possession” of the land suggesting more armed control over men and material (Mormon 2:4; 4:2).

This is a cursory examination of the scriptures involving movement of people. It doesn’t involve ideologies and needs much more study. We can see that walls had some effect in security Nephite cities. But these were explicitly military and the immigration policy was far more extemporaneous in response to current events and the relative power of the ruling elites at the time. Early in Nephite history the migrating groups asked for permission to enter lands they entered. But both Nephites and Lamanites extracted compensation from it. Under powerful leaders such as Captain Moroni, they violently seized land and actually created refugees. This seems to go unnoticed by many American conservatives, and confirms  that most people see what they want to see. Finally, throughout much of the Book of Helaman people and groups move without any hints of government intervention.

The conclusion I draw is that most people see what they want to see regarding immigration. They see the word wall and naturally want to argue that walls work. Or they read the book with their woke goggles and bemoan the militaristic stud muffins like Moroni. But in reality, the ancient Nephites didn’t have an organized immigration system like modern nation states, in many cases they didn’t actively oppose it, and they did many things with which modern readers would find morally disagreeable. The Book of Mormon has limited value in immigration debates and is not a handbook on that debate, except in reminding us that we are all part of God’s family. 

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[1] Peter Heather, “Holding the Line: Frontier Defense and the Later roman Empire, in Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Princeton University Press, 2009, 228.
[2] The Book of Lord Shang, JJL Duyvendak trans., University of Chicago Press, 1928, 50.

Monday, February 4, 2019

To Love the Appearance of Dragons




My readings into classical Chinese theory are going well. I haven’t posted about the project yet, but it takes advantage of dozens of translated and relatively easily available sources about warfare and statecraft from the Warring States period, but hasn’t been studied yet. For example, Xunzi is often called the Chinese Aristotle and has significant writings on warfare, but there are no extant studies of his work. (I did find a few lines about him in my latest book, but it’s from an author that obviously doesn’t know military history.) As you can tell from my last few posts, I’m finding a good deal of relevant materials beyond military theory that isn’t from Sun-Tzu (Sunzi.)

The subject of intellectuals relates to every Latter Day Saint. At church we often like to cite the Doctrine and Covenants verse about how the glory of God is intelligence and the School of the Prophets. But many members are just as likely to quote general authorities or Jacob about the dangers of intellectuals.

I’ve written about how many people like to have an appearance of scholarship but deny the power thereof. There are many in the church that like to look like a scholar with footnotes and discussion of thesis statements, but then when a real scholar comes along they attack the person as arrogant and somehow distrusting or undermining God for using their scholarship to discuss and understand issues.

The Chinese philosopher Shen Buhai has some information on this particular trend. This man is little known even by Chinese scholars because his work was largely lost, though some fragments have been reconstructed. He was an effective minister during the Warring States Period and his words were influential enough that he was the first scholar banned when Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty made Confucianism the official state religion. 

He discussed the story of a man that likes dragon and his fear when actually meeting a dragon:

The manner in which His Highness likes scholars has some resemblance to the way Duke of She, Zi Gao [a discipline of Confucius], liked dragons. Being fond of dragons, he lived in a house carved in patterns representing dragons. A heavenly dragon heard of this house and came down to perch on it. It looked in at a window, and its tail trailed into the hall. The Duke of She, catching sight of it, fled from his house and continued running scared out of his wits.[1] Thus it is clear that the Duke of She did not like dragons; he liked that which resembled a dragon but was not a dragon. Now when I heard that His Highness liked scholars, I did not consider a thousand li too far to come in order to have an audience with him. And yet, although I have waited seven days, he still has not treated me with the proper courtesy. He does not like scholars…[Confucius was told this story and] said, ‘Yes he likes scholars who are not scholars.’[2] 

I don’t know anybody that says they willingly want to remain an ignorant, fundamentalist jerk. And yet I have met plenty of people who seem even more scared of intellectual arguments than Zi Gao was of that dragon. Many amateur psychologists quote material about porn addiction that sounds really sciencey, but they do so without understanding or even basic awareness of a wide body of research that paints a far more nuanced picture. People like Jeremy Runnels use Wikipedia and crowd sourcing on Reddit to attack the church, but again, they show little awareness with how to conduct thorough academic research and construct sound arguments. I’ve met others that throw what essentially are hissy fits and attack a person’s faithfulness because their interpretations of the scriptures differ, or the other person offers cogent analysis and counter arguments.

For example, in response to my FAIR presentation where I suggest that the Gadianton Robbers may have had some legitimate complaints, I was called a Marxist Schmuck. This ignores the instance in the same presentation where I made a joke at the expense of hipsters wearing Che Guevara t shirts. The irony is especially thick when I consider the notes I took during my copious non research into primary sources and insurgency on my way to being a fake scholar. In one noticeable case I laughed at biased accounts from left wing reporters that said Communist insurgent Zhu De read biographies of George Washington and essays on liberty by Montesquieu.[3] Even though I literally laughed at leftist bias in my sources, I’m the hack according to anybody that stumbles across my writings and is frightened by my arguments.

To cite another example, most members of the church claim the Book of Mormon is history, but then they read the stories uncritically and essentially accept the propagandist portraits inside the book. When I research the Book of Mormon as if the text describes people that actually lived and acted, the same individuals who claim a love of dragons become more scared than Zi Gao.

There are many people who claim to love scholars and knowledge, but then they don’t act like it. Scholarship can be scary, especially when it combines with faith and sees strange or foreign. But like the dragon that visited Zi Gao, there is nothing to be afraid of if you truly love dragons.

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[1] Literally: losing his soul.
[2] Shen Pu Hai, A Chinese Political Philosopher of the Fourth Century BC, (Herlee Creel trans., University of Chicago Press, 1974,) 363-364.
[3] Agnes Smedly, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh,(Valor Press, 2014,) 86.