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 act as judges of Moroni’s strategy. (If you don't like to chase links, you can find the third section here.) 


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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.) 

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