Friday, January 19, 2018

Let he that is without doubt throw the first spear: Tikal 378

The benefit of being a blogger and free-lance writer is that I don’t have to come up with different projects for every cap. What follows is preliminary research for my next book about battle at 400 AD. These will likely undergo further revision, though, as you’ll see, there is still plenty to debate about Tikal in 378 so I will disagree with somebody no matter what the final form looks like. For a brief primer I would the this page, especially rulers 14-16. For its place in apologetics you might consult this article.

The first part of this post examines pre battle insults, the second part examines the impact of new technology on Mayan warfare and some of the changes to Tikal’s army that remains unexamined by most scholars, and the last part summarizes the highly speculative analysis surrounding issues with Tikal, before offering a few thoughts on apologetic arguments.

Nature of Pre Battle:

Tikal 378 AD is a pivotal year for Tikal. In Mormon circles it supports the idea of a militaristic influence and expansionist warfare that could decimate entire cities. Fire is Born arrived in the city of Tikal on Janurary 16th 378 on the same day the previous king, Jaguar Paw died. He amassed the forces of Tikal to fight their rivals at Uaxactun. In the decisive victory for Tikal they conquered their neighbors, introduced a new form of warfare, and left some very ambiguous questions in the process, many of which can be aided by the use of military history.

For the sake of length I will not summarize the battle in great deal, though you might enjoy reading the dramatic recreation in The Forest of Kings, though that recreation could use the hand of a dedicated military historian. The most glaring case occurred when Linda Schele and David Friedel suggested that the Mesoamerican battlefield included ritualistic pre-battle insults. These activities followed an “honorable precedent,” as far as the written sources say, that went back 20 katuns (about 400 years) or more.[1] Yet a study of historical battlefields finds these behaviors unrealistic. Real-life battles, even in the early stages of the conflict, were a confused melee of screaming warriors bellowing battle cries; commanders attempting to shout orders; battle drums, gongs, trumpets, or cymbals; the braying of pack animals or cavalry horses; and the pounding of one’s own heart. This noise had to be processed or understood by those likely wearing helmets or head gear that limited hearing. The records describing the battle of Tikal don’t mention all or many of these specific things, but 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.

Based on the analysis of the chaotic and loud battlefield then, Schele and Freidel’s recreation of Mayan battle fails to take into account the impractical nature of trying to understand each other during this kind of physical stress on a chaotic battlefield.[2] As other historians have suggested when examining pre-battle insults, this honorable tradition is more likely a stylized recreation of the account embellished long after the battle rather than a realistic recreation of events. The battle between Tikal and Uaxactun did include some verbal chanting, but instead of ritual communication between groups it was far more likely they were prearranged outbursts with some elements of spontaneity to strengthen the shouter’s morale and that of nearby comrades.

During the Battle

My next book focuses on the connection between armies and the society that creates them. This is especially important in considering why the Battle of Tikal in 378 was so important. After the embellished account of pre battle ritual insulting the two sides clashed. According to the most detailed account of the battle, initially the forces of Uaxactun pushed back Tikal’s military. The sides then separated, and that’s when Tikal forces debouched from the tall grass flanking the enemy army. Armed with hunting weapons like the spear thrower (atatl) and green obsidian tipped blows darts, apparently the first time adapted to the lowland battlefield, they had a devastating effect that killed the best warriors of Uaxactun, and drove the enemy army back to their capital. These changes had several implications about the changing nature of warfare that simply focusing on glyphs would fail to assess.

Generally, the skill required of a weapon and form of combat limits the number of participants in that form of combat. Elite warriors and possible members of military orders, fighting another elite warrior required a certain amount of skill and training which in turn limited the amount of warriors an army could field. Ross Hassig showed in detail the complicated way that warriors faced off with other warriors. Even though it was Aztec warfare, the weaponry and goals are familiar enough to glean specific details about the skill and danger required in hand to hand combat among elites.

For example, in striking their opponent, the obsidian tipped swords embedded in wood had a difficult time cutting through bone. Since the warriors aimed to capture, and the swords had difficulty with bones, they likely aimed for the fibula of the lower leg, which was thinner, likely covered by less armor, and happened to be the most broken bone found in ancient battles. (My daughter’s friend showed up to school in cast because she broke that bone falling off her scooter.) Yet even though it’s incredibly painful and would temporarily incapacitate an opponent, the captured enemy with a broken or damaged fibula could still walk back to meet his gruesome fate in the ball courts or pyramids.

Yet instead of using a weapon that required training, expert parries and even targeted blows at a specific part of the body, the new weapons in this battle were so easy to use that the militia and commoners used them. The mass of elite infantry in front of them made relatively easy targets as well. The spear throwers and darts had greater range, accuracy, and penetrating power than regular throwing spears. This meant that Tikal could field a larger military with a smaller population in quicker time. They didn’t have to spend massive amounts of time and money training an elite military class (that their population probably couldn’t support anyway). Tikal could lose the first part of the battle where their warriors were pushed back, but win the second part because they massed an untrained population that could strike from a distance at an opportune moment.

Long term, Tikal could likely rely on its militia of spear throwers to give them an edge in battle against their enemies. It’s unclear how long this advantage lasted and likely didn’t last for long. In the short term Fire is Born is attested by monuments at Uaxactun, on the monument to the new ruler of Tikal (see below), and in several other nearby cities. Tikal entered a long silence from the late 6th to late 7thcentury that suggests a period of subjugation and weakness. But it is a very generous inference to say that some spear throwers gave them a 200 year advantage. As a matter of survival other powers would quickly implement the new equipment and tactics unless two factors prohibited it: Some kind of cultural prohibition against it. But the Star War ideology and spear thrower iconography became a dominant feature of Classic Maya, so that is unlikely. Or it was technology that was remained a secret, but the spear throwers weren’t a secret, it was their aggressive and unexpected use that made the difference.

In short, Tikal likely gained only a short term advantage from changing both weapons and tactics. The consequences of those changes- the larger military made possible by slightly different tactics as well as the additional prestige and income from their conquests, combined with the vigorous leadership of Fire is Born resulted in a roughly 40 year advantage.

I’m pleased to add that after I wrote the above analysis George Cogwell wrote this and he seems to agree with my anlaysis: I see such success as results of new tactics and more discipline units, possibly new weapons such as atlatls, probably the demographic strength to put more men in the field [though he posits a larger army based on a larger population, not a large army based on simpler weapons and tactics as I argue]…[and] a few exceptionally skilled leaders.[3]

After the Battle: Limitations of Sources

The failure to answer the question of technology implementation and the effects of the new battle weapons and tactics to change society fundamentally suggests the limits of sources in Mesoamerican studies. The glyphs on monuments are important keys to understanding and certainly better than nothing, but they are still incredibly limited. What follows are a summary of major hypothesis concerning key figures such as Owl Throwing Spear and Fire is Born, the extent of foreign intervention, and the relative use of military force in these events. They are intended to show the head spinning nature of all of these conflicting theories, are will then be contrasted with the supposed “speculative,” “weak,” or “fringe,” apologetic arguments using similar sources.

First, even their pronunciations remain in flux. I’ve been using the name Fire is Born, but he was originally called Smoking Frog, and you can also call him Siyaj K’ak’, which many modern scholars prefer. (I’m a Chinese historian that hates the dashes and apostrophes of the Wade Giles system, so I gravitate towards names that keep me near the home keys.) Fire is Born is nominally recognized as the Tikal war chief but anything beyond that is debated. It’s not in doubt that Fire is Born won the battle and Tikal conquered Uaxactun.

The story begins with his arrival on the same day as the previous king’s death. But its not even clear fire is Born physically arrived from somewhere else or was even a foreigner. The glyph describing the arrival of Fire is Born in Tikal could also mean that he is “of” or from Tikal. One author suggested that Fire is Born could also have been returning from a pilgrimage to Ho’ Noh Witz, which is assumed to be Teotihuacan, but could also be a place name of a different city or one that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Alternatively a powerful king of Teotihuacan, a symbol, and a title, depending at turns on the monument and who you ask.

One of the most contested terms is Spear Throwing Owl, a glyph that originated in Teotihuacan and is assume to refer to particularly powerful king that ruled from 364-439. Fire is Born could be Spear Throwing Owl’s war chief who arrived in Tikal the same day their last king, Jaguar Paw, died. There is no battle glyph so some suggest that the ruler simply died without an heir. Yet the snakes tail entering owl eyes glyph was a secondary phrase that meant violent conquest. This was added to the glyph for arrival in other cities such as Palenque which leaves open the possibility of a violent military event that killed Jaguar Paw (or Chak Tok Ich’aak).
Curled Snout. He is notable for the spear thrower and square shield, both of which are militaristic and foreign images.

Curled Snout (or First Crocodile, Yax Nuun Ahiin I), the new ruler of Tikal installed by Fire is Born, has been called the figurative son of Spear Throwing Owl (in a supposed bid to help commoners overlook the fact that he was not the son of a last king), and called the literal son of Spear Throwing Owl. Scholars further suggest that Fire is Born had Spear Throwing Owl as a kingly title, or as part of his name. Others point out that the iconography for Stormy Sky (Curled Snout’s son), that supposedly refers to Spear Throwing Owl, don’t include an owl or spear thrower, (they argue its another bird like an Eagle and just a shield) so it could refer to some kind of kingly title or influence from Teotihuacan.

Schele and Friedel argued that Fire is Born was the brother of the last great king, Jaguar Paw. At the death of the previous king Fire is Born then appointed his nephew, Curled Snout as ruler of Tikal, and Fire is Born ruled Uaxactun as sort of an empire by family rule. Finally, “arrive” might also be a figurative sense and not refer to movement at all. Scholars postulate that Fire is Born was the head of a great house that overthrew the last king or gained power (and arrived in a sense) after his death.

The limited reference to previous rulers and the martial iconography suggests a retrenchment and change in Tikal back to traditional iconography. This is not an Owl and only contains a shield, which leads to debate if this is a different way of saying the Spearthrowing Owl, or the something different.

When I was an undergraduate I was told that history is more like Swiss cheese than we normally think. It is full of holes and historians use their sources to try and fill them. The holes for Mesoamerican history and this event in particular are bigger than most. When your head stopped spinning from the previous section you likely noticed the significant questions pertaining to the identity, role, origin, and accomplishments of pivotal figures in Mayan history, and interaction between various groups. If you had trouble following the previous section and all of the conflicting theories, its okay because that was my point. The analysis that tries to solve these problems is so speculative and based on so little data that there are wildly different theories that interpret them.

After reading about the wildly different interpretations, analysis, and conclusions, as well as the obscure grammatical debates that come from a very small set of incomplete stelae, I am even more convinced that apologetic arguments, particularly those about Mesoamerica, are dismissed because of a prioribeliefs that historicity of the book is laughable, and not because the arguments are inherently weak.

John Sorenson presented a case that place Book of Mormon people in history with Mormon’s Codex. Off the top of my head it includes the sudden absence of white sculptures in highland Guatemala, the two different building materials suggesting two different ethnic groups building a temple in Santa Rosa, the sudden building program around 75 BC in the same area, the volcanic eruptions around 50 AD, and the sudden depopulation of Chiapas in the early terminal classic followed by new and different settlements, are all arguments that take incomplete data, apply the same scholarly methods, and come up with conclusions just as strong as the argument Spear Throwing Owl is mentioned in a glyph that doesn’t contain either a spear thrower or an owl. This point is debatable, but if I adopted the same tactics as critics of apologists, I would say they are grasping at straws, demand more proof, claim the argument doesn’t really show anything, question the scholar’s credentials and character, and insist upon peer review for every minute point, but never actually say why the argument is wrong. Then I would copy and paste a list of objections to the argument from Wikipedia, call it a sincere letter, let it go viral and then become a professional copy and paster. As you might have guessed, I think more study of limited data is important, even if different conclusions are reached, I just wished critics would allow arguments in favor of a historical Book of Mormon the same courtesy.

[Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance author, if you found value in this work please consider donating using the pay pal button below.] 


[1] Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 151.

[2] Karl Friday, Samurai Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, (New York: Routledge Press, 2004), 145–149. While modes of battle aren’t the same between Samurai and Mesoamerican peoples, the important points are the practice and effect of pre-battle insults, as well as the general chaotic nature of the pre-battle phase and the effect it had on participants.

[3] George Cogwell, “A Perspective From Outside the Maya Region,” in The Maya and Teotihuacan Geofrrey Braswell, ed. (University of Texas Press, 2003,) 331.

[4] Maria Ponce De Leon, “Problematic Deposits and the Problem of Interaction: The Material Culture of Tikal during the Early Classic Period” in The Maya and Teotihuacan Geofrrey Braswell, ed. (University of Texas Press, 2003,) 192.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ma$ter$ of War or Non Cent$?

Ron Madson is a popular peace advocate and writes at the Mormon Worker. We’ve bumped into each other at conferences and each have dueling chapters in the same book. At the Mormon Worker he wrote a piece called Ma$ter$ of War. My eye was attracted to it because, and I swear, my first hope was  this was some random post about the latest expansion to Lords of Water Deep, a cool ability in the Big Trouble in Little China table top game, or forgotten classic by Avalon Hill.  Instead, it was a long argument against warfare.  I invite you to clink the link on the Mormon Worker and read for yourself as I won’t quote much. But I will respond to the major arguments he made about the financial waste of war, and what seems like, upon initial inspection, a convincing moral case against war.

Problems in the Numbers Game
American Spending

The first major flaw concerns defense spending. Madson offers an infographic that shows a giant bar graph of American defense spending, followed by the next 7 to 11 countries combined (depending on which chart is used.) Yet the problem is that many countries likely misreport their spending.  Just with China there is considerable evidence of cooking the books. Sinologist June Teufel Dryer for example estimates that Chinese spending is much higher based on several factors.[1] She points to complaints of province leaders feeding and housing soldiers to argue that the Chinese don’t report many of their personnel costs, such as housing and food. She argues that the cost of their nuclear weapons program, which is rather large, and the cost of their weapons acquisition programs are not included either.

The low range of the reconfigured Chinese budget is 30-40% higher than what the Chinese report. The high range of estimates would place their budget as much as ten times higher. The median derived by most analysts suggests a military budget three to four times their disclosed amount. Using the amount China admits to (144 billion in military spending in 2015) and then multiplying by 4 (the amount that most analysts suggest) would place China roughly equal with the US in spending. And considering the low cost of living, that money can sustain a much larger military than it can in the United States.

The Problem with Spending

More importantly, Madson’s arguments assume that threats are simply a function of math. As though there is some sort of theme park cut out with his hand out that says, your spending must be this high in order to be safe. If that were the case then mathematicians and accountants would be the generals. More important than just the amount of money spent, is how the money is spent, the way soldiers and systems are deployed, and then the way they are led in combat.

Military analysts contend that America doesn’t need more spending that what it does not to meet its threats. They simply have to better use what they currently have and spend. For example, since we already mentioned China, America regularly conducts Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea. These stress the importance of international law which is needed to counter the use of brute force to seize disputed territory.  American forces have upgraded their anti-missile defense by doing such things as upgrading the radar on Aegis ships, and networking the advanced sensors on the F35 with anti-missile firing platforms. Yet to meet the threats from China the air and naval bases needs more built in resiliency. This means they need repair kits, bomb shelters and redundant communication systems.  The ships need better close in defenses such as rail guns. (Not to mention they could probably use some remedial courses in how to steer.)

Both of these are necessary to counter a Chinese strategy that relies on hundreds and even thousands of missiles, some of which that can hit Guam. In the event of war China is expected to launch these missiles at key elements of U.S. expeditionary forces such as airfields, ports, logistics hubs, and carrier strike groups.  Without the built in resiliency the US forces could be paralyzed and denied access to Taiwan, the South China Sea, or disputed islands around Japan.  China would then have a free hand in seizing key territory in what they call the “first island chain.” If successful, by the time American forces recover from the missile barrage, China would have seized the territory they wanted, and could present the world with a fait accompli similar to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Speaking of Russia, the geography of the Baltic members of NATO places the US in a similar problem of seizing key territory before America can properly respond. In extensive war games RAND concluded that Russia could field as many as 25 battalions within 10 days of the start of hostilities, compared to 17 for NATO. That doesn’t sound like an insurmountable difference, especially with NATO’s advantage in airpower. Using Madson’s logic then, we are wastefully spending more money than we need to. Except that current NATO forces are overwhelmingly light and would be overwhelmed by concentrated Russian artillery, missiles, and armored units. In the same war games analysts concluded that the Russians would capture Riga, the capital of Latvia, within 48-60 hours after invading.

To counter this, analysts have suggested pre supplied and forward deployed heavy battalions in the region. The armored brigades don’t represent many more soldiers than are already deployed in the region, but they will provide the key elements that force Russian heavy units to slow their advance, get off roads, and concentrate for battle, and essentially make them better targets for NATO air power. I asked over a year ago if the current NATO brigades in the Baltics are just a speed bump, and without critical adjustments that largely don’t involve money, but just a repositioning of forces and systems already in the area, they will remain that way.

This is getting a bit detailed, but I wanted to show the reader that matters of budget, strategy, and force structure matter just as much, if not more than simple screeds against spending money. The US faces real threats from a resurgent and aggressive China and Russia. Both of whom often cook the books to distort their massive military spending, and which have upgraded key forces such as missile technology that can stun the US into inaction through a massive surprise attack.

Problems with Morality

So far, I’ve shown how numbers are not a simple measure of threat. Countries like China cook the books and allies cut their military budgets to spend on social programs, which both distort the relative amount of spending. But spending money takes away from valuable social programs that help lives when the military just take lives. According to Madsen, we’ve been terrorists nonstop since 9/11.  There is significant debate about the efficacy of social programs and their solvency, and perhaps I’ll address that in another post, but here I want to discuss the misuse of the word terrorist, and offer a brief word concerning morality in warfare.

I discussed this in far more detail back during the Bundy fiasco.  But the short version is that terrorism is used far more for its pejorative and emotional value than its clinical description. Its very popular to repeat the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In the sense that words themselves are weapons, this is entirely true.  Various revolutionary groups, terrorists, and the governments that oppose them can use the terms to either bolster their position or undermine their opponents.

Yet, despite the manipulation of words, and despite some of the disputes over the definition of terrorism, it’s still entirely possible to tell the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.  Items such as the donning of uniforms, discrimination between military and nonmilitary targets, discernment against or deliberate targeting of civilians, and declarations of war from recognized heads of state, makes it very easy to distinguish between George Washington and Abu Al Baghdadi. There is some overlap between insurgents and terrorism, but its not nearly so indistinguishable as the purveyors of the cliché would lead you to believe.

Manson had a cult of personality that viciously and randomly stabbed people, including a pregnant women, while walking on the street. A soldier, wearing a uniform, in a constitutionally declared war is ordered into combat against other soldiers. This makes the morality of killing far different between the two.  Even saying that, America rains death from above which is still horrible right? Yet killing a civilian by accident is different than deliberately targeting him or her. If they happen in the course of legitimate acts of war and the direct intention is a morally acceptable military target, then unintentionally killing civilians is within the realm of just war. That is still tragic and a horrible loss of life, but not a war crime or terrorism.[2] The public could reasonably ask if the military should have been more cautious, and used better judgement (not to mention aim) during the situation. But the military already works hard to have precision weapons that only hit their intended target, they assess targets and before they bomb in built up urban areas (such as the recent Battle for Mosul) they assess potential civilian loss. Even after all of these precautions, civilian lives are lost which doesn’t make it terrorism.

To make matters even more difficult, ISIS and other groups deliberately cloud the situation by militarizing nonmilitary targets such as hospitals and schools, and then trying to shield military targets with civilians. (The deaths of civilians in the latter case would be a war crime on the part of those using the human shields.)[3]  This complication makes it more than “the US is evil for killing civilians or bombing a hospital,” because bad actors deliberately muddle the distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable targets. Moreover, like the hands up, don’t shoot narrative, (which was the lie of the year,) the supposed victims of these air strikes wale to the nearest reporter with an often tendentious narrative, which is then tabulated by anti-American NGOs and repeated by people like Madson.

In short, the context of fighting a war makes American actions legal, civilian losses are strenuously avoided, but often accidentally happen; despite being unintentional consequences of just warfare they are often exaggerated by American enemies to anti-American sources by the very people who criminally muddled the distinction between military and nonmilitary targets and put civilians in harm in the first place.  Madson magnifies rare American misdemeanors and ignores the frequent felonies from bad actors.


I’ve provided a sober assessment of the American budget, disposition of forces, and morality of warfare (as well as my pet peeve when people misuse terrorism.) I did go into a bit of detail and couldn’t cover many other items.  But I hoped that I showed that these are complex issues that deserve more than shrill moral condemnation.

China and others cooks the books to make American military spending look overwhelming. Even if it was, money spent is not the entire sum of threats faced, but based on particular circumstances and the US faces real challenges. American forces fight justly within recognized rules of war and seek to avoid civilian casualties against a barbaric enemy that deliberately kills, rapes, and uses civilians as shields in pursuit of their savage world view.   Instead of Master’s of War, his post is more like some $hoveling Non-cents.

[Thanks for reading. I work as a freelance writer so if you found value in this work please consider donating using the pay pal button at the bottom of the page.] 
[1] June Teufel Dryer, Recent Developments in the Chinese Military,” A Military History of China, David Graff, Robin Higham eds, (New York: Westview Press, 2002), 285-302.
[2] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 153-155.
[3] Gary Solis, The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War, 320. “If civilian casualties result from an illegal attempt to shield a legitimate military objective with a human shield, those casualties are the responsibility of the side using the human shield.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Surprise! Attacks in the Book of Mormon

Cross Posted at Wheat and Tares.

This is the 76th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.  The nation still mourns and Roosevelt correctly called it a day that will live in infamy. Given the sadness and anger over that attack, the lingering resentment and fallout over the preemptive Iraq War, and the foreign policy challenges ranging from a nuclear North Korea, and aggressive Russia, it is worth looking at what scriptures have to say on the matter.

I’ve written about this topic before. The way that nuclear warfare changes the modern nature of warfare is one of the reasons I started my blog over 8 years ago. At the very least I’m familiar with what Colin Gray called the “demonic” opposition to even supporting the practice. I’ve also contributed a chapter on the subject to the Greg Kofford volume on War and Peace, have a chapter on it in my first book, and discuss the topic in Decisive Battles in Chinese history. (Despite the rhetoric from China as a hapless victim of Western imperialism, since 1949 they have fought offensive, preemptive wars with every one of their neighbors.)  I think the discussion can move forward a good deal, and make judicious comparisons to the Pearl Harbor attack.

Decisive Battles


The current debate revolves around a handful of scriptures. Opponents of the practice add two scriptures to their anger.[1]  The chief captain Gidgiddoni said “the Lord forbid” in response to offensive action (3 Nephi 3:21). And Mormon was supposedly so disgusted with the Nephites desire for offensive warfare that he resigned his command (Mormon 3:11).  Yet, Gidgiddoni’s command is likely a strategic observation more than command from the Lord. He likely witnessed disastrous Nephite attempts to root out the robbers before (Helaman 11:25-28), and he used offensive actions as part of an overall defensive posture to maneuver and “cut off” the robbers (3 Nephi 4: 24, 26). Mormon moreover, attacked the Nephites bloodlust, vengeance and false oaths and not their strategic decisions (Mormon 3:9-10, 14).  Viewing the Nephites outside of the lens of Mormon’s spiritual denunciations a person sees that the Nephite soldiers actually performed with great skill and élan.  A few verses after their disastrous offensive they actually ended up at the same place as they started (Mormon 4:1, 8)!  Faced with endemic warfare against a stronger enemy, absent the Nephite’s blood lust and false oaths, this was actually their most justified preemptive action! Of course, none of this excuses their rape and cannibalism, but it does suggest we can assess the effectiveness of their strategy apart from their apostasy. In both cases then, the texts don’t say exactly what their proponents believe that they say.


Yet proponents of the practice face the same problems. Defenders of preemptive war and national security practitioners most commonly cite Moroni’s preemptive attack in support of preemptive war.[2] Though there are strong elements in Moroni’s past that support such behavior and even stronger negative consequences of this policy that remain unexamined. Moroni past includes the Amlicite invasion in the first few chapters of Alma. The Nephites barely held off the attack, but because of its defensive nature they fought at the time and place of the Lamanites (and their Almicite allies) choosing. Alma had to fight his way across the river and was wounded doing so. On top of that, the Nephite crops were destroyed resulting in near famine. Moroni clearly learned from the Amlicite war that aggressive preemptive action prevented disaster.

Since Cumorah 001
Since Cumorah tactical map of Alma 43.

As he prepared an ambush for Lamanite forces, Moroni “thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem” (Alma 43:30).  Moreover, Moroni preemptively “cut off” Amalickiah, based on the assumption that preventing his escape through military action would prevent a future war. As with his ambush and Zeniff’s scouting, this action is presented without editorial dissent, and it is instead given as part of Moroni’s stellar resume. In the same chapter that describes a period in their history that was “never happier,”[3] Moroni “cut off” the Lamanites living in the east and west wildernesses (Alma 50:11). This occurs during a time of supposed peace, but it could also be described as a lull or “cold war” between the First and Second Amalickiahite War.[4] And Duance Boyce created an entire just war theory out of Moroni’s preparations in Alma 48.[5]

While the text says that Moroni was making plans to secure the Nephites, a careful look at his behavior suggests that Moroni’s aggressive tactics contributed significantly to the start of the last phase of the war and even difficulties in the Book of Helaman. The arguments from the people speaking in towers for example (Alma 48:1), would have been much more effective as only slightly more sinister variations of what actually happened or was about to happen. This includes items such as the possible militarization of the vote (Alma 46:21), and the seizure of lands during what was nominally a time of peace, though it might be termed a lull in one long war (Alma 50:7).  Amalickiah would have presented the proposed action to the Lamanite king in the starkest terms. Then it when it actually happened and a flood of Lamanite refugees were entering Lamanite lands, Amalickiah’s position would have been strengthened a great deal.[6]

Unexamined verses:

Yet the debate can move even farther. In the Book of Omni the Nephites fled the Land of Nephi. A few verses later and within a short space of time, and then in greater detail in Zeniff’s record, the Nephites sent scouts to spy on the Lamanites, that they might “come upon and destroy them” (Mosiah 9:1).  This verse seems to strongly suggest that the Nephites had already committed to launch a sneak attack, and they simply were looking for the best location. Zeniff changed his mind after seeing what was good in the Lamanites, but with the benefit of hindsight he also admitted at least living among them was overzealous and naïve. The account might also suggests the entire story suggests a need to reassess his description of the other Nephite commander as blood thirsty and austere (Mosiah 9:2.) 

The main attractiveness of preemptive war is that a power can attack at the time and place of their choosing, instead of waiting for the enemy to choose the battlefield. This is usual for weaker enemies to surprise and stun their enemies, and also for powerful states to subdue a dangerous and rising power. The Nephites later had to fight the Lamanites when the latter power invaded, suggesting that the preemptive strategy had merits.

Shortly later Ammon recorded, using almost the same words as Zeniff, that the Nephites wanted to “take up arms” and destroy the Lamanites instead of send missionaries to them (Alma 26:25).  This repudiation and the fabulous success of his missionary work is commonly cited as repudiation of the supposedly war mongering tendencies.[7]

Yet there remain various unexamined items which undermine this interpretation. Brant Gardner and other scholars discussed how a new king had to legitimize his rule through the successful military campaigns that captured sacrifices, and the Lamanites needed a new king because both Lamoni and his father converted.[8]  The innocent victims in the city of Noah from the subsequent attack (Alma 16:3), and the innocent Nephite soldiers who died retrieving them suggest unexamined consequences of Ammon’s actions and an under appreciation of Nephite offensive plans (Alma 28).

The next examples are recorded in Helaman 1.  This chapter contains both the dangers against and motivation for using preemptive war.  The Nephites faced a serious challenge to leadership and executed somebody for being “about” flatter the people, which may have increased the feelings of social alienation and gave rise to social bandits who are romanticized as brave fighters by the people against a corrupt government.  But a few verses later the Lamanites, with both political and military positions filled by dissenters, captured Zarahemla in a quick strike and smite the Nephite chief judge against the wall. These verses provide an example of how the distinction between unrighteous and aggressive wars and increasingly justified preemptive wars is incredibly thin, and becomes thinner with the rise of modern technology.

I wrote down the same ideas many years ago, but I already transcribed the fellow published by Cambridge Press:
[W]hat is different today is the combination of speed and destructiveness; in the [1839] Caroline case a decision had to be taken very quickly by the man on the spot, but although the volunteers carried by the Caroline would have been a nuisance had they landed on the Canadian side of the river, they did not pose an existential threat to large numbers of civilians, or to the colony Britain itself. The stakes today are potentially a great deal higher. 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 people and could easily have killed more; the use of some form of WMD could push the death toll much higher, and there is no reason to think that potential terrorists would be loath to cause such mayhem. The central point is that although "instant, overwhelming....[leaving] no time for deliberation" [the legal precedent established by the Caroline case] sound like absolute criteria they are in fact, and must be, relative terms- a second was, in practice, a meaningless unit of time in 1839, but in 2007, the average laptop can carry out a billion or more "instructions per second."[9]

The final result is something far more nuanced than a couple verses or stories favored by either side. Preemptive war was clearly on the minds of most Nephite leaders. Given how preemptive war fades into the background of both Zeniff and Captain Moroni’s actions, and the lack of clear denunciation of the practice, outside of the spiritual state of the participants, preemptive war is justified. But even though it can be used, the record of the text, and particularly the fallout from Captain Moroni’s changes, suggest that it was of extremely dubious value.
This last point is best application to the Pearl Harbor attack. The devastating Japanese attack seemed dastardly.  As I’ve written before, both the Japanese and Chinese have a history of using strategic surprise. After a surprise sneak attack to start the war against the Russians, the Japanese quickly ran out of steam before signing a favorable peace treaty. But in a long war they had little strategic vision beyond a quick strike. They gained a similar advantage against America, but they again showed they had little staying power.


Readers might be wondering why I could spend a significant amount of time on Pearl Harbor day justifying its use. After all, the dead in the USS Arizona still remain there as a reminder of the injustice. The practice can seem like a sucker punch, which is why America still remembers this day so poignantly. Yet Epaminondas and the 3rd century Thebans used the same strategy. Instead of living in infamy, they stopped the yearly invasions from Sparta. He struck at a surprising time and place to permanently alter the balance of power, and free thousands of helots living in near slavery.[10]  The practice of preemptive war is simply a tool of statecraft among many.   As you've heard in every lame lecture on pornography, tools can be used for varying purposes.  A sucker punch for one country can be another’s war of liberation. I mourn the fallen of Pearl Harbor and wish there could be a better discussion of the practice and application of scriptures.

[1] This is a representative example: Jeffrey Johanson, “Wars of Preemption Wars of Revenge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol.35, no.3 (Fall 2002), 244-247. content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N03_244.pdf
[2] Mark Henshaw, Valerie Hudson et. Al. “War and the Gospel: Perspectives from Latter day Saint National Security Practitioners,” Square Two, v.2 no.2 (Summer 2009.)
[3] Mormon said there “was never a happier time” during a lull in the war chapters (Alma 50:23). R. Douglas Phillips refers to it as a “golden age” in “Why is so much of the Book of Mormon Given Over to Military Accounts?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 27.
[4] Using the terminology of John Welch, “Why Study War in the Book of Mormon?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 6-15.
[5] Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed, chapter 15.
[6] I have significant additional research into the fallout from Captain Moroni’s decisions. It is available upon request in my new book length manuscript, Starving Widows and Evil Gangs: A Revisionist History of the Book of Mormon.
[7] Joshua Madsen, “A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Richard Bushman eds, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015.) 24. “The mission of Ammon and his brothers to the Lamanites, specifically in defiance of Nephite cultural stereotypes, ultimately demonstrates that acts of love and service can break through false cultural narratives, unite kingdoms, and converts thousand to Christianity where violence could not…In the end, Nephite just wars did not bring peace, whereas those like Ammon who rejected their culture’s political narratives and hatred did.”
[8] Brant Gardner, “The Power of Context: Why Geography Matters,” Book of Mormon Archeological Forum, 2004.
[9] Chris Brown, “After ‘Caroline’: NSS 2002, practical judgement, and the politics and ethics of preemption,” in The Ethics of Preventive War, Deen K. Chatterjee ed., (Cambridge University Press: 2013), 34.
[10] Victor David Hanson, “Epaminondas the Theban and the Doctrine of Preemptive War,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy Victor David Hanson ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 93-118.
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Monday, November 27, 2017

Decisive Battles in Chinese History

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book, Decisive Battles in Chinese history. The study of Chinese military history faces steep hurdles where English academics have to afford trips to far away archives, from Chinese cultural values and the way events were transmitted to the West. The first Westerners who had significant academic engagement in China were Jesuit missionaries, beginning in the sixteenth century. They interacted with Chinese elites who also disdained war and emphasized cultural values over military ones. The Jesuits sent back to the West the stories of Chinese civil virtue and martial impotence. (Ironically, Jesuit cannon making skills were among the most sought after technologies the Chinese wished to obtain.) Chinese scholars emphasized the strongly held cultural values that helped create the great dynasties and almost completely ignored the equally important role of warfare. From the first dynasty of China in 221 BC, civilian leaders exercised political dominance over the military. Though outranked by their civilian counterparts, the military men held great power, and it was the use or lack of military power that brought about the rise and fall of dynasties. It’s true that many Chinese leaders adopted passive or nonviolent ways to subdue their enemies, such as marriage proposals or generous trade agreements. But these were often done as a way to compensate for military weakness. During times of martial strength, Chinese leaders preferred pacification campaigns because they had the means to carry them out; during times of weakness, in contrast, they often adopted other methods. But it was the relative martial strength of the dynasty, its ability to project power, and other practical considerations that often determined strategy, not an overwhelming cultural preference for pacifism.[1]

Song Dynasty warship, 13th century. Notice the trebuchet on the roof. (All pictures used with permission.)
There are many books about major or decisive battles, but few have more than a handful of non-Western battles, nor do they examine the battles with the expertise of a Chinese military historian. If they do include non-Western battles, it is usually because of their association with (and defeat by) the West. In A History of War in 100 Battles, for example, only four battles do not have a European or American opponent, and only six are from the Southern Hemisphere.[2] Another book presented itself as the authoritative guide to battles in world history but didn’t include a single section devoted to Chinese history, the index did not include an entry on China, and the book contains only scant references to Japanese history.[3]

It is true that China entered a long period of military weakness at the same time the West was expanding its influence globally, and there are significant questions about its capabilities even today. But the picture is far more complicated than the West dominating and China trying to keep up. China has one of the oldest civilizations and has a claim to some of the longest continuous cultural traditions. It fielded armies as big as half a million soldiers during the Warring States period, or roughly the same time that Rome was little more than a collection of huts on a few hillsides. (See more about numbers and army sizes below.) China invented key technologies such as the crossbow and gunpowder. During a time when America was a small nation clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, China extended its rule over hundreds of thousands of square miles with hundreds of millions of people. It also has a history that seems almost cyclical at points, where a strong dynasty would eventually collapse, followed by a period of weakness and then consolidation and expansion under a new emperor. It had the singularly unfortunate timing to enter a period of weakness and fail to industrialize during a period of rapid change in the West. For example, at the start of the Opium War in 1839 (see chapter 10 of my book), the Chinese armies possessed fairly modern weapons and defensive fortifications but could not keep pace. The British fielded their first ironclad the very year the war started and had several other advantages that unfairly cast the Chinese as backward and hopelessly inferior.

Battle of Shanghai
Japanese soldiers entering the port of Ningbo during the Battle of Shanghai, 1937.

This book uses battles as a hook, and each chapter highlights an engaging battle that selectively focusing on unique Chinese characteristics including their major belief systems, ruling ideology, connection between technology and warfare, Chinese military theory, major political events and key rulers, their foreign policy with their neighbors, cultural developments, and their interaction with the West. The text pushes back on a variety of ideas and stereotypes ranging from the Chinese use of gunpowder, their supposedly weak reaction to the West, the viability of the Dynastic Cycle in studying history, the context of their military theory, the exclusivity of martial and cultural spheres,  and the uniqueness of Western imperialism.  It offers a groundbreaking reassessment of Mao Zedong’s leadership and his impact on the development of guerilla warfare. In world filled with disturbing reports of conflict and potential warfare, Decisive Battles in Chinese History offers a unique addition to students, historians, and anybody wishing to better understand Chinese history.

This is great but you might ask, what does this have to do with Mormonism? Truthfully, not a great deal. Like the Pirates of the Caribbean, when I get involved in Mormon discussions I feel a bit like Captain Barbosa.   I’m just a humble pirate or military historian. The intersection of my studies with Mormonism remains somewhat small. I mostly like to discuss military history, Mormon stances on warfare, and specialize in warfare in the Book of Mormon. But I’m also branching out as a thoughtful member of the church who is struggling with the standard Orthodox positions and I appreciate Wheat and Tares bringing me aboard.

That being said, there are still several intersections between Decisive Battles and Mormonism. The most ironic one comes from the charges of antagonistic Mormon critics. I have a book coming out that looks to be, if I can say so, quite good and successful. One of the chapters I presented in Kings College London, in front of Richard Overy (see footnote 2), to enthusiastic applause. But when I take the same skills, research, methodology, and apply them to the Book of Mormon suddenly I’m some Mopologist hack. In fact, I know that the critics tend to obsess over details and try to delegitimize scholars that sustain the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, so I tend to work even harder on my Mormon studies than my already successful writing career.

More substantively, I have an entire chapter that discusses numbers in Chinese history. The Battle of Fei River was, naturally, one of the most decisive battles in Chinese history. Fought in the late 4th century AD, a rising dynasty based in the north marched south to conquer the dynasty who fled there a century earlier. (I’m being somewhat brief here, but you can get the fun details in the book.) The battle was a loss for the north, and their empire quickly disintegrated, and resulted in the longest period of disunion in Chinese history. Not surprisingly, this is called the Period of Disunion and it’s roughly contemporaneous with the fall of the Roman Empire and early medieval history.
Northern Qi heavy cavalry from the 4th century AD. They were particularly unsuited to warfare in Southern China.
Reportedly, Fu Rong lost over 800,000 men in the Battle of Fei River, and this is the big intersection with the Book of Mormon. The numbers could either be correct or wrong, but either solution doesn’t present a problem for the text. Exaggerating the size of armies and numbers of the dead was often done for several reasons. Scribal error, the unreliability of eyewitness estimates, and the use of the wrong numbers to make a deliberate moral or political point were the primary factors. Ancient historians often wrote not to tell what happened but with a specific moral purpose. Hence, they didn’t have the same scruples about bending facts to fit their story.

In this case, one of two sources for the battle was written during a period in which the contemporary ruler planned a massive, large scale invasion of Korea, so Confucian historians likely massaged the numbers in order to dissuade the current emperor from his endeavors. The other source that records this battle was written by the southern dynasty that survived, and hence they also probably massaged the record to enhance the legitimacy of their rule.

Even though they were likely inflated or exaggerated, the numbers were still within the realm of possibility. While modern readers should have a healthy skepticism of numbers, the ancient Chinese could field and kill large armies. The War of the Eight Princes (also a chapter in my book), decimated the western Jin dynasty in ancient China; scholars argue that the Jin army had seven hundred thousand soldiers at the start of the war. The battles from this civil war raged across northern China for only about six years, and one ancient historian suggested that capital province had only 1 percent of its population survive the conflict. Modern historians posit that the powers in the Warring States period from almost a thousand years earlier could possibly field up to half a million men for one campaign. Historians will likely never know what the true numbers were. There is good evidence that the numbers in the Battle of Fei River were wildly inflated (but just as strong evidence to say that those numbers were still possible) and that they were overstated because of political and cultural factors. Whatever the size of the army, the effect is not in question as the northern dynasty quickly collapsed after their battlefield defeat.

12th century ink painting of the 3rd century Battle of Red Cliffs.
Careful readers will of course be reminded of supposedly ludicrous accounts of million man battles in the Book of Mormon. I’m giving you the short version because this post is already getting long, but as you can tell from the above discussion, this is a bread and butter topic for military historians. The first modern historian, Hans Delbruck, reassessed battle numbers in classic and medieval sources. When I say I take the same methods and techniques and apply it to the Book of Mormon this is exactly to what I’m referring. I have several chapters and blog posts that deal with this subject in great depth and I will probably detail them in future posts as they are predictably brought up by critics.

My answer to the question of wrong numbers in the Book of Mormon is the same as those for Fei River, the numbers could be right or wrong but the text is in good company either way. Suggesting they might be plausible, the Aztecs raised up to 400,000 men for routine campaigns, and the Toltecs reportedly lost millions in the course of a campaign. The Nephite and Jaredite numbers are well within historical norms, for the region. And the evidence of those battles remains as hard to find as other historical norms.  The archaeological evidence of battles is notoriously difficult to find because battles rarely produce permanent structures that remain to be studied hundreds or thousands of years later. And the most prominent and permanent features of warfare like walls are often mistaken for slight rises in the ground and often missed.  Yet critics of the Book of Mormon expect the evidence to look like Triceratops poop from Jurassic Park.

But let’s say the numbers are wrong. Brant Gardner has research that some battlefield numbers could be symbolic, and Mormon would have the same proclivities and tendencies as other ancient historians that had trouble counting large numbers or deliberately exaggerated to make a moral point.

More interestingly, there are additional avenues of approach in Book of Mormon that takes numbers as unit names and combines that with something called the military participation ratio to come up with a much smaller number. A century, centurion and myriad are two examples from Roman and Greek history that show how 100, one hundreth, or 10,000 might not refer to a number of people. The Roman century actually had 80 people by the late Roman Empire and that’s not including any sick, wounded, or desertions that likely would have made a number of soldiers in a century far lower than what the recorded that recorded the number of legions and centuries would have the reader believe. (As I discussed in my first book, the Theodosian Code allowed soldiers up to four years of leave without significant punishment, so this was not a random concern.)   Again, ancient historians did not have a golf clicker as an army walked by, but relied upon supposed eye witness accounts based on things like the number of banners, but not the exact troop strength of each unit marching under the banner.

The military participation ratio is the number of soldiers compared to the population that a society could field. 25% was the upper limits for any society and the normal about 15%. The final number at Cumorah was listed as 230,000 and 15% of that ratio is 35,000. That number is right in between the only two specific numbers listed earlier in the text: Mormon 2:9 (42,000) and 2:25 (30,000). (See Mormon 6:7 as well, which suggests women and children were in the order of battle and strengthens the idea that the final number is the total population.)  Just from a logistical point of view I have trouble believing Mormon started the war with 30,000 but at the end of that desperate war of survival 20 years later he had seven times that number. (Though Hugh Nibley suggested that’s because we are only getting one minor thread of their defeat personally witnessed by Mormon until the final gathering of the entire realm.) That being said, 23 unit names of 10,000 filled with only about 30,000 military aged males (calculated using the mpr) and civilians makes much more sense to this historian. This might open me up to charges of being a mental gymnast, yet I’ve seen the same arguments modifying the size of armies listed in ancient sources, done by first rate scholars in excellent journals, and they are published with a golf clap from the academic community.[4]

Thanks for reading this post. I hope you found it informative and have better insights into my background and what I bring to the study of scriptures.
  • What kind of discussions of Chinese topics would you like to see here?
  • What kind of subjects would you like to see concerning the Book of Mormon?
  • Why haven’t you pre ordered my book already? (Just kidding…mostly.)
  • Why is there a different perception between Mormon and non-Mormon research despite the same skills and methods being used? It can’t just the supposed begging the question of apologists, but I believe it’s a rather skilled campaign to delegitimize so called “faithful” research.
[Thank you for reading. I work as a free lance author and I'm struggling with medical bills. If you found value in this work please consider donating using one of the pay pal buttons at the bottom of the page.] 
For more pictures that didn't make it into the book please see my personal blog.
[1] A good book that shows how Chinese officials were far more practical and realistic in their war making than the stereotypical portraits painted of biased Confucian historians can be found in Peter Lorge ed., Debating War in Chinese History (London: Brill, 2013).
[2] Richard Overy, A History of War in 100 Battles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[3] Richard Holmes and Martin Evans, eds., A Guide to Battles: Decisive Conflicts in History (London: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[4] N. Whatley. "On the Possibility of Reconstructing the Battle of Marathon" N. Whatley, Journal of Hellenistic Studies 84.1 (1964):119-139.  Kelly DeVries. "The Use of Chronicles in Recreating Medieval Military History,” Journal of Medieval Military History, 2.1 (2004): 1-30.