Friday, June 26, 2020

Approaching Nephite Thought on Warfare

Military history is more than battles. The extensive war campaigns and drama surrounding those battles tend to promote a great deal of writing them. But warfare is also how societies conceptualize warfare, and leaders justify it. I was doing the Come Follow Me readings and found very interesting verses at the end of Jacob. I have already discussed Jacob’s futile victory before, but I think these two short verses in Jacob set a template for how later Nephite leaders justified warfare.

Jacob 7:24-25-

And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually. 
Wherefore, the people of Nephi did fortify against them with their arms, and with all their might, trusting in the God and rock of their salvation; wherefore they became as yet, conquerors of their enemies.
Verse 24 starts with a discussion of Nephite “means” to “reclaim and restore” the Lamanites. These are interesting verb choices that most likely reflect the difference between Aaron and Ammon’s missionary service. Compare Alma 17 where Ammon becomes a servant of the king, sets a good example, and then preaches; with Aaron’s attempt to preach in the synagogues of Jerusalem in chapter 21. It might also refer to activities like the prayer of Enos for the sake of his brethren. 

But those are futile because of the “eternal” hatred of the Lamanites. They rejected the preaching of the Nephites in favor of exercising their hatred through warfare. The “power of arms” at the end of the verse contrasts with the “knowledge of the truth” that the Nephites missionaries believed would reclaim and restore the Lamanites. (The apostle Paul also compared the spirit and word of God to a sword. Ephesians 6:17.)  The Lamanites then rejected the gospel, turned to hatred, and took literal swords instead of the figurative sword of truth.

The Nephites, after failing to convert the Lamanites, and being the subjects of eternal hatred then fortified against them.  This sounds purely defensive, but the fortifications refer to arms and not walls, and it led them to be conquerors so I wouldn’t read that quite so literally.  What is interesting, is that even though they resorted to arms, the proper place of warfare was to remind them to trust in God. 

Finally, the couple ends with, “wherefore, they became as yet, conquerors.”  The tentative declaration of that sentence is very poignant to me. Its not a final victory. After all, fighting only occurs because the preaching of the truth failed. The Nephites only succeeded in defending themselves by trusting in God. The victories thus hardly seem like it because a true victory would mean they never had to fight in the first place.  

These verses seem to have influenced later Nephite writers. Alma gave up political power to devote his full time and energy to preaching. His reasoning corresponds to the first part of Jacob’s couplet and the primacy of spiritual power over political power. 

Alma 4:19-

These verses from Jacob seem to have influenced later Nephite writers. Alma gave up political power to devote his full time and energy to preaching. His reasoning corresponds to the first part of Jacob’s couplet and the primacy of spiritual power over political power. 

This he did that he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.
Its interesting to note that those who rejected his spiritual teachings at Ammonihah nominally recognized Alma’s former political power, but it was the rejection of his spiritual teachings and the great wickedness of the city that got them killed (Alma 8:12; 16:2). Pahoran clearly echoes this thinking in response to Moroni. 

Alma 61:14:

Let us resist evil, and whatsoever evil we cannot resist with our words, yeah, such as rebellions and dissensions, let us resist them with our swords, that we may retain our freedom, that we may rejoice in the great privilege of our church, and in the cause of our Redeemer and our God. 
Again, spiritual teachings come first, and the resort to weapons comes second. In this case it’s interesting to note that he is referring to subduing internal rebellions while Jacob was referring to external invasion. Still though, the use of those weapons only occurs after the failure of preaching and must be connected back to God.

In Jacob’s time it simply refers to God and his salvation. But here the use of weapons here points towards their freedom to worship God and protect their church. Not every Nephite belonged to the church of God, so this could have been a more divisive point than modern readers understand. Those that didn’t belong to the church of God were subject to Nephite rulers, again, think of the people of Ammonihah.  In the case of the chief judge Nephihah, he was chosen from only among the elders of the church (Alma 4:19), but they still had to fight for that church’s right to worship at the threat of Moroni’s sword (Alma 51:17).  

Helaman 6:3, 37-

The final case is the most revealing as it shows how the Lamanites either incorporated Nephite thought, or Mormon crafted his narrative in such a way that the Lamanites conformed to it. After the Lamanites were converted in Helaman chapter 5 in chapter 6 they are recorded as being more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:2-3). These righteous Lamanites used “every means” to destroy the Gadianton Robbers. These sounds like an aberration because preaching is supposed to come first according to Jacob. But verse 37 says that the Lamanites “did hunt the band of robbers; and they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them.” The printer’s manuscript may have meant the “less wicked” parts of the robbers, or more wicked parts of the Lamanites who, as Ammon and Aaron found out, would still be more receptive to the gospel than apostate Nephites. But the important part is that the Lamanites preached to those that would listen, and fought those that didn’t.  


Jacob’s short verses were an incredibly powerful statement about the importance of spiritual teachings, it’s relation to warfare, and warfare’s ideal purpose leading to trust in God. Adhering to spiritual teaching was supposed to lead to peace, but the rejection of it often led to war. Warfare required warfare to combat it. Not pacifism as many modern readers mistakenly believe. But that warfare was supposed to be done with a trust in God, and it was supposed to lead to greater reliance on God as the ultimate guarantee of victory, and not the strength of arms as a temporary victory.  

It was so important I believe it influenced Nephite leaders and was possibly transmitted to Lamanite coverts or through the entirety of Nephite history down to its great (second to) last record keeper, Mormon. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Take a Left Turn at Crazy Town

I don’t have much to do with the bloggernacle. During the short time I blogged with Wheat and Tares I had a miserable time as I found posts that were politically conservative or orthodox in defending the church made me heavily outnumbered.  Of course, the defining moment was being told to f**k you by a poster and called an a**hole by one of my fellow permabloggers in the same week. (My crime was suggesting that far left lunatic Gina Colvin deserved her excommunication and liberals were hyperventilating by calling it an act of spiritual violence. She really seems traumatized by the ordeal so I stand corrected.)

I still visit the bloggernacle occasionally as it’s a source of fairly good entertainment. The academic stuff at Faith Promoting Rumor is interesting, though they spend most of their time being anonymous cowards and apostates lobbing grenades at faithful members and scholars. Two of the most recent posts involve a radical left turn even for the very progressive community.

This was from a walking stereotype about her left-wing vision for the church. I’m always a bit skeptical when people’s complaints about the church dovetail with their political ideology. It reminds of D&C 1:16 when they create a God in their own image. Only the poster never mentioned God.

The other post is even more radical. Probably my favorite part is after a radical, racist rant against white people, Nate in the comments tells everybody that if you disagree with the post it proves that you are in fact racist.  

Overall it seems like this mirrors the trend nationally. The old school liberals seem sane compared to the new brand of leftists coming out. The Steve Evans and Hawk Girls of the world are giving guest posts to younger and even more looney writers.

Lest you think there is only left-wing lunacy, Geoff B at the Millennial Star is consistently rude and whacky from the right. Here is my facebook commentary on a post from not too long ago:

Well I think we can reasonably discuss Mitt Romney and Tr----oh wait, Geoff B wrote an article on Romney and Trump over at M*? Well I'm sure it was done with tact and sensitivity...naw I'm joking it was awesomely bad.

I had to write this down because it was so ridiculous so often:

His first point was claiming his opponents have “cognitive dissonance.”  Its always a good start when you accuse your opponents of some mental deficiency.

But don't worry, all the other posts are “childish” while Geoff is the grown up in the room. I skimmed his article but it’s always the comments that rock because Geoff drops whatever thin pretense of objectivity, charity, and rationality he had in the OP:

Gerald Smith doesn’t know how to read. This is a favorite tactic of Geoff. It can’t be that his opponents read his piece and disagree, or gasp, know more than him- because after all, he is a history major- they simply don't understand Geoff's definitive take on the matter. 

He calls Michael a “hopeless bigot.”

Old Man is so clueless that Geoff has a “bridge to sell them.”

He says that Jetboy directly contradicts the churches position. Jetboy is widely known around the bloggernacle as the super orthodox right-wing writer, so let the irony sink in.

He dismisses Sute as somebody that will reflexively ignore him. That was the third time he complained that people are narrowminded because they don’t change their opinions to his. Remember, he is the grown up in the room and everybody else has cartoonish points.

Romney, and anybody who doesn’t support his libertarian talking points (anti massive government spending, huge military budget, entitlement spending with a narrow constitutional interpretation) or sides with the amorphous “establishment” is on the side of “evil” and the “Gadianton Robbers.” 

Geoff B then says his arguments are correct because he majored in American history. Well la de freakin dah, looks like we have a Stephen Ambrose here, let me stop the presses on my next history book to listen.

He then relies on argument by question which I find an especially weak way of argumentative writing. 

So pretty much this was an even bigger dumpster fire than I thought it was going to be.

The conclusion of my journey through this lunacy is that I’m glad I’m not a part of the bloggernacle, and extremely grateful to focus on my academic research. I'm hoping to present more of that research to you soon. Thanks for reading. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Reclaiming King Benjamin: A Response to Patrick Mason and King Benjamin's Statebuilding

Patrick Mason recently wrote an evocative piece for the Maxwell Institute as part of the Mormon Theology Seminar. I was extremely interested because his topic of political history was much closer to my area of study than the normal offerings of (often obscure) philosophy.  Unfortunately, his interpretation left out key verses and twisted many others that resulted in a heavily politicized interpretation of King Benjamin who failed to live up the modern political ideals of some.

Masons’ basic argument is that Benjamin’s speech was the culmination of the Nephite state building started by Mosiah(1).  The Nephites arrived in the Land of Zarahemla which featured different languages, belief systems, and political leaders. Mason states that the integration and assumption of leadership under Mosiah(1) became “heavy handed” under the rule of King Benjamin, his son (pg.6).[1]

Mason blames Benjamin for the “serious war” (Omni 1:24) in which the greedy Nephites, who already claimed Zarahemla as their land of inheritance launched what morphed into an offensive war. According to Mason:

In the space of only about a generation, Nephites had entered the land of Zarahemla as a minority, asserted their linguistic, religious, and political dominance over the longtime inhabitants, and eradicated the remainder of the native population that either refused to accept their rule or which they deemed to be dangerously unassimilable. This pattern, with variations, will be familiar to scholars of settler colonialism, particularly as it played out in the modern history of the American West, Canada, South Africa, and Australia (pg. 6.)

The problem, is that Mason makes similar mistakes to those like John Sorenson, who has been accused of stretching parallels and restating things in his own way to produces correspondences. There is little evidence of their being an internal war. Words of Mormon 1:12 says there were “somewhat contentions” among his own people. V. 13 then transitions to external enemies, which is where the military conflict starts. Moreover, that military conflict is explicitly labelled as a Lamanite offensive that didn’t end until they were “driven out” of Zarahemla (v.14). 

Mason seems to be inventing Nephite offensives. Its possible the Nephites responded with tactically offensive maneuvers within a strategic defensive like the campaign of Alma 43. This also resembles an argument I presented at a conference hosted by Patrick Mason and Claremont.[2] There is an important difference, though, between meeting an aggressive enemy invading your lands, and launching a strategic offensive on enemy lands. Mason ignores that difference by at best, assuming there was a defensive counterattack and mislabeling it, or at worst by inventing a Nephite offensive.

Nowhere in Mason’s summary of King Benjamin’s actions did he acknowledge verse 14 which states that King Benjamin fought “in the strength of the Lord” or verse 18 where he reigned “in righteousness.” Of course, it’s possible that Mormon glossed over King Benjamin’s mistakes and we are getting something closer to propaganda from the editor Mormon. But skipping by these verses exhibits a tendency that many pacifist readings of the Book of Mormon must do,[3] in that they craft a “narrative” in the abstract only by ignoring specific verses.  Given that Mason already invented an offensive war, and ignored their refugee status (discussed below), I’m not willing to make that leap. At best, these are crucial verses that make Mason’s arguments hopelessly speculative.

Mason then goes on to argue that King Benjamin suppressed his religious enemies (often with political undertones). Mason says these were likely Mulekites that resented or refused to accept strange new Nephite teachings. While the Mulekites were widely different than the Nephites at this time, they shared a similar religious and ethnic heritage as the Nephites, and thus likely weren’t as ethnically different as Mason contends. Mason is also taking the most sinister interpretation of words like “sharpness” and “punished” (Words of Mormon 1:17, 15).

While I agree there was some ethnic tension at this time, as people like the Kingmen and the group led by Morianton continued to reject Nephite leadership throughout the Book of Alma, I think Mason overstates his case trying to make King Benjamin into some kind of Torquemada leading an inquisition of Mulekite apostates. Mormon was much more likely referring to King Benjamin the same way he described Alma’s statement of vigorous preaching. If we accepted Mason’s analysis, we would conclude that Alma’s desire to “stir”, “pull down,” “reclaim,” [and] “bear down” in his fight against pride and craftiness were also heavy handed (Alma 4:19). Except we know that isn’t the case because we have his speeches and actions. Unfortunately, Benjamin does not have the same luxury and thus similar evocative verbs about his spiritual efforts are transformed into “religious zeal” and “little tolerance” for such deviance (pg. 7).

Regarding the punishments, Mason expands that to include “criminalized, silenced, suppressed, and punished” (pg. 7).  It is worth nothing, however, that Mason praised the sons of Mosiah(2), (King Benjamin’s grandsons) yet they and Alma the Younger caused a great deal of damage, including plotting to “destroy” the church (Mosiah 27:10, Alma 26:18)) with legal impunity. They may have had had immunity as the sons of prominent elites, though they would be powerful leaders with the ability to topple the dynasty, the church, and the ruling class. All of which suggests Nephite leaders would have been more sensitive to their shenanigans and not less. Their impudence makes me believe that King Benjamin wasn’t as liberal in criminal punishments as Mason would have us believe.      

Finally, we must consider why the Nephites left the land of Nephi in the first place. It would be difficult to imagine the Nephites under Mosiah(1) left the land of their inheritance unless they were forced. They were not a representative faction sent by the Nephites in the Land of Nephi. Unlike Hernando Cortez, they didn’t claim the land for their absolute monarchial patrons. The narrative in Omni 1:12-13 suggested they were the few righteous inhabitants fleeing like their ancestor Nephi had to flee Jerusalem and could reasonably be called refugees. In today’s political discourse, refugee status would engender heartfelt sympathy, especially those that generally eschew state power and seek items like “ethnoracial” inclusiveness and economic justice like Mason (pg.4). But the Nephites and King Benjamin are the subject of attacks here, so their status as refugees is transformed into imperialists conquering a new land.


Thus, a close reading of the text suggests a vastly different narrative than the one offered by Mason.  Mosiah(1) and the Nephites were refugees who forged a new, mutually beneficial, consensus with the original inhabitants based on cooperation and possibly intermarriage.[4] Those refugees and their new allies faced serious assaults from the determined and aggressive enemies that forced them to leave in the first place. They defended themselves “in righteousness” (Words of Mormon 1:17) to establish “peace in the land” (v.18).  King Benjamin, like his predecessor Alma, tended to the church by rebuking apostates, and managed both civil and spiritual concerns by criminal prosecution of the worst offenders. The latitude afforded the apostate Sons of Mosiah(2) and Alma the Younger suggest these criminal punishments were applied rarely to only the worst offenders and treasonous. Possible intermarriage would have acted as a further deterrent on widespread excessive punishments. That is far different than imperialist Nephite forces dominating ethnic and linguistic others into submission, and then oppressively assaulting dissidents, criminalizing ethnic minorities, and invading their Lamanite enemies for little reason beyond asserting their own political power as Mason asserts.

I’m a proponent of more critical readings of the Book of Mormon. I have no problem with scouring the texts to produce new and even critical insights. I endorse that approach so much it was the methodology of my second book. But Mason here seems to be ignoring stronger readings, plainly listed in the text for more speculative material based on wild reinterpretations to support a politicized message.  

Sadly, this seems to reinforce perceptions of the new direction Maxwell Institute. The 1998 Maxwell Institute called King Benjamin’s speech a “treasure trove of inspiration, wisdom, eloquence, and spiritual insight.” The 2020 Maxwell Institute solicits, sponsors, and advertises work that provides some theological window dressing on the speech, but mostly calls King Benjamin a colonialist inquisitor and warmonger to promote their ideology.  Most ironically of all, the Maxwell Institute posted this on social media as a spiritual study aid. But I don’t know many members that will find this a spiritual bonanza.

Thanks for reading! I work as a freelance author and military historian. Producing ad free research for over a decade takes a great deal of time and effort. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below, or buy one of my books using the link in the top left. Thanks again for reading! 

[1] The exact phrase is “heavier hand.” All page numbers are from Patrick Mason, “King Benjamin’s Statebuilding Project and the Limits of Statist Religion.”
[2] Morgan Deane, Offensive Warfare in the Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 29-40. See also, Karl Von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret Eds., (Princeton University Press, 1984,) Book six, chapter one.
[3] See for example, 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,) 13-28.
[4] The Ammon that found Zeniff referred to those individuals as “his brethren” (Mosiah 9:1) but was also described as a descendent of Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:3), implying dual origin. King Benjamin named two of his sons with Jaredite name ending, possibly filtered through the Mulekites, suggesting a Mulekite wife. Mosiah 1:2. Plus, marriage is how political alliances were sealed in premodern times.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Battle Pause in Alma 44

The battle account in Alma 44 always confused me a bit. In this chapter the Lamanites are caught in Captain Moroni’s trap and the battle is reported in Alma 43 as being incredibly intense. The Lamanites fought with such fury they were described as dragons that could spilt breast plates in two (Alma 43:44).  Yet a short time later the battle ended, Moroni gave a speech, Zarahemnah handed the weapons to Moroni, gives a counter speech, and Moroni hands the weapons back. 

This was very confusing to me because it suggests a level of command and control over the battlefield that seemed too great for Nephite armies. Once battles are joined, they aren’t paused and restarted multiple times like a stop watch.  Having some extra time at home on my hands I’ve been rereading my material from grad school, and I found a quote which suggests that battles could be paused or put into some sort of stasis. 

Speaking of Roman warfare Harry Sidebottom wrote: 

“That [hand to hand] fighting was physically exhausting- and we can estimate some battles like Cannae, lasted for hours- has led some modern scholars to hypothesize that at times such combat reverted to a ‘default state,’ where the two sides would draw back and hurl missiles and insults at each other as they got up their courage [and strength] for another short burst of hand to hand fighting.”[1]

There is certainly a great deal of this that applies to the Book of Mormon. This is the battle in which the Nephites debuted their heavier armor. (I say heavier instead of heavy because the Nephites armor was enough to scare their loin clad enemies, but not metal enough to be similar to heavy infantry throughout history as I explain here.)  The Nephite armor would have caused their fatigued. The Lamanite exertion would have caused their fatigue. And certainly, the exchange between the two leaders was testy so this matches up in some respects to Sidebottom’s quote.

But this quote is not completely satisfactory. This battle includes some sort of ceremonial element when Moroni demanded his opponent’s weapons and a covenant (Alma 44:7-10). Thus, the description of battle as a free for all that eludes any ability to pause the battle, but then is so exhausting that it produces a stalemate isn’t completely satisfactory. I suspect these ritual elements hold the key. They represent the paused elements in the battle and there seems to be some sort of mixture between formal rules to battle and the lack of it. After all, this was a pivotal battle that first displayed Moroni's heavier armor, and he seems to defensive about his ambush (Alma 43:29-30), which makes sense if one is to be believe there is a ritualistic element to the battle.  I believe that research more into such items as flower wars, mourning wars, desecrecation ceremonies and similar conflicts that limited warfare to find a better answer. I’ll just have to wait for the libraries to open again.  

[1] Harry Sidebottom, Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004, pg. 88.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

When flames first arise, they are easily extinguished: Ideas Behind Stopping the Corona Virus

My latest project discussed classical Chinese military theory beyond Sunzi. And it has a great deal of impact surrounding the reaction to the Corona virus. At the time of this writing most major sports have suspended their seasons, colleges are going exclusively online, my job teaching chess after school is cancelled until further notice, and both the federal and state governments have declared states of emergency.  But for many people this seems like an overreaction. After all, here in Nevada there have only been a dozen confirmed cases and the deaths in the country still number a small fraction of those that come from the flu.  This leads some to say that government officials are over reacting.  This is where Chinese theory comes in. 

The two relevant ideas come from the third century BC scholar Shizi in a post from 2019. Little is known about him though he seems to be China’s first syncretist and his writings have recently been reconstructed from quotes in other texts. He states that it’s easier to solve a problem before they become big, and there is little thanks in doing so:

Even a tree so big that it shields the sky was, at its beginning, only as thick as the base of a tree sprout: easy to get rid of. But once it has fully manifested itself, a hundred people using hatchets and axes are unable to fell it!  
When flames first arise, they are easily extinguished. But once it has gotten to the point where the Yunmeng and the Mengzhu swamplands are aflame, then even with the help of the whole world ladling out the waters of the Jiang and Han rivers, one will still be unable to save the situation!
[The] beginnings of misfortunes are like flames and tree sprouts: easy to stop. But then they are neglected and become great matters, then even worthies like Kong Zi [Confucius] and Mozi will be unable to save the situation! 
When a house burns and someone saves it, then we know their virtue. But the elderly who daub chimney cracks to guard against fire, thereby living their whole lives without the misfortune of stray flames causing a fire: their virtue remains unknown! 
When they enter a jail or prison to relieve one who has suffered difficulty [by bailing him out], then his relatives are held to be acting virtuously toward him. But those who would teach him with goodness, propriety, parental love, and sibling concern so that his whole life will be without such difficulty: no one considers this to be virtue! 
Misfortunes also have chimneys and if worthies were to travel the world to aid in daubing them, then the world would have no military suffering, yet none would know their virtue. There it is sad: ‘Safely people rectify things when they are yet spirituous [or forming]; stupid people contend with things after they have become obvious.’[1]

It might seem like an overreaction to the virus, but a person could also say that the problem is being addressed while it is yet small.  If the leaders are successful, they will continue to face criticism for over reacting, but it would be those overreactions that keep the problem small. Nobody knows what the future holds but because of Shizi and so much more I would rather ere on the side of action and prevention. 


[1] Shizi: China’s First Syncretist, Paul Fischer trans., (Columbia University Press, 2012) 67-68.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Game of Thrones, History, and Details in the Book of Mormon

Game of Thrones ended on what I thought was a funny and thoughtful note. All the survivors serving under the new king gather to discuss how to rebuild the kingdom. It was so charming in fact I wouldn’t mind seeing a spin off series about these meetings as they combine many of the fan favorites. One of the major complaints from this scene though is when the events of the show get put into a book. It turns out that Tyrion, the dwarf who was part of most of the major events was not even listed. One youtube scholar wrote:

That "Song of Ice and Fire" joke was dumb; Tyrion, not mentioned? His arrest caused the War of Five Kings, he served as hand to three (Joffrey, Dany and Bran) monarchs, he lead part of the vanguard at Green Fork and organized and lead the entire defense at Kings Landing. But sure, hack writers needed a cheap laugh.

But with a knowledge of how historians write, it is possible to conceive of a Game of Thrones history that doesn’t include Tyrion Lannister.

Tyrion is arrested by Catlin Stark:

This event was monumental because it caused Tywin Lannister ordered his forces to attack Catlin’s ancestral lands. The king was incapacitated from a hunting accident (really an arranged murder from his wife Circe Lannister), and couldn’t keep the peace between his wife’s family (Lannisters), and the family of his biggest supporters (the Starks).  The average historian has a great deal to cover, and the dwarf was merely the catalyst for larger events and thus could have been summarized as, “Tywin Lannister attacked to avenge his wrongly implicated and arrested relative.” Or if the historian is pro Lannister, since the Ned Stark took advantage of the king’s absence from court to order a punitive expedition and was later executed for treason, the historian would write, “Tywin defended himself against the wrongful arrest of his son and malicious attack ordered by the traitor Ned Stark.” 

Tyrion as Hand of the King: 

The Hand is the Game of Thrones equivalent of palace or prime minister. Throughout history, some are inconsequential, while others like Pepin the Short inaugurate new dynasties.  Chinese legal scholars warned that not every conquest resulted from armies scaling the walls and breaking down the gates. Moreover, Tyrion was sent to Kings Landing to act as Hand in the name of his father. His last stint as Hand was largely ineffectual. He governed the city of Mereen quite well, but that is a distant city in the East that Westeros historians wouldn’t know or care about. By the time the Dragon Queen came to Westeros he was often ignored and eventually he quit and imprisoned by her. His time as Hand of the king or queen could be described as, “Tywin Lannister, governing through proxies…” or simply, “The Dragon Queen ignored her ineffectual advisors.”

Tyrion leading several key attacks:

The show put a lamp shade on this one. After he led a key counterattack at the Mud Gate during the Battle of Blackwater Bay, he was horribly wounded but the counter attacked succeeded and saved the city at a critical moment. One of his visitors was the spymaster, who thanked him for saving the city, but warned that the people thought he was the imp and Tyrion won’t get credit for it.  

Tyrion’s counterattack was simply one of many twists and turns to the battle. The use of a fictional version of Greek Fire, called wildfire, destroyed much of the opposing fleet. During the Muslim siege of Constantinople in 678, the Greek Fire is often mentioned but not the ministers  or even leaders that employed it. Tyrion was only one player in this event out of many. The historian would write something like, “The king, Joffrey Baratheon oversaw the battle from his central position on the parapets. He would likely have seen the counter led by his grandfather, Tywin Lannister. The ladder secretly marched his army away from the usurper Rob Stark to defend the capital and attack Stannis from behind. The ghost of Stannis’ brother attacked from the west. This was Loras Tyrell, in a new alliance with the Lannister’s forming yet another flank attack in the king’s great victory.”  

As you can tell, there was so much going on in this battle and so many important players, a minor counter attack from an unpopular person wouldn’t be missed. Tyrion’s attack at the Green Wood was more conspicuous. (In the budget challenged first season though, Tyrion gets conked on the head and both he and the viewer completely miss it.) In the books he does a good job of commanding the left flank.  But that battle was only a diversion for Rob Stark to fight at Whispering Woods, where they captured the very important Jaime Lannister. Thus, the history could be, “Lannister forces defeated a diversionary force from Rob Stark, while the latter counter-marched and captured Jaime Lannister.” 

Tyrion kills Tywin Lannister:

Tyrion is blamed for the poisoning of King Joffrey and is sentenced to death. The spymaster frees him and before he goes, he killed his father and eventually makes his way to the Dragon Queen. Given that Tywin was shot while he was in the privy with his pants down, and there was a dead prostitute in his bed (also murdered by Tyrion), this could have been glossed over by historians. (Though not forgotten by the bawdy Game of Thrones version of a theater troupe.) 

Historians had several easy scapegoats in contrast to tawdry family drama.  Sansa Stark was the daughter of the traitor and disappeared on the day that Joffrey was killed. The Sand Snakes killed or disfigured (tv or book respectively) the queen’s daughter and could also be blamed for the Tywin’s death around the same time. Religious fanatics quickly overran the city after Tywin’s death. They install a reign of terror and they eventually arrested Circe and King Tommen’s wife. With plentiful rumors at their disposal, and a dead boy on the privy, historians could say it was various traitors fulfilling the wrath of the gods while leaving out the details or focusing on the post Tywin mistakes and subsequent downfall of the kingdom. 

The Book of Mormon:

This clearly shows the limits of being a historian. Ancient historians often had a lack of primary sources to create their narrative. Thucydides, for example relied on a combination of personal knowledge, and contemporary events to craft his narrative. He plainly said that in his speeches he wrote what he “thought the situation demanded.” They had to sift through mountains of rumors. They often had their own biases. Many religious writers such as Gregory of Tours wrote to show God’s hand impacted history. They could change the narrative slightly to enhance that effect.  

The Book of Mormon itself reveals several of these interesting glosses that could be covering up important people or events like Tyrion was left out of Westeros history books. The war chapters describe “some intrigue, which caused dissensions amongst the [the Nephites], [so the Lamanites] gained some ground over the Nephites. (Alma 53:8).” We don’t know if these were factions of cities rebelling against Nephites and installing Lamanite friendly governors. (Which happened in Zarahemla Alma 61:8) We don’t know if it was a dispute between cities as described in Alma 50. We just don’t know much except it happened. We know how Amalickiah gained the throne through treachery and deceit but not Tubaloth or Lachoneous for that matter.

For example, I find it suspicious we have a long line of no name but generally wicked leaders, many of them kill each other to gain power, and we are even told at one point the Gadianton Robbers have “sole management” of the government (Helaman 6:39), but then here comes Lachoneus and tells them to repent (3 Nephi 3:12).  What was his backstory and how did he keep power when so many other rulers were being assassinated?  Perhaps like Helaman (Helaman 2:6), Lachoneus had servants willing to infiltrate factions and kill potential assassins and enemy’s before they carried out their quest. This would be very inconvenient for a story about God saving the Nephites because they prayed.

This is not some radical retelling of the story but simply a careful reading of the text based on what other documents, and the text itself tells us. For example, Mormon selectively edited his narrative in many places. In the most notable instance he wrote that the Lamanites captured some of the people of Noah (Alma 16:3), but when portraying the event as the wrath of God and desolation of Ammonihah, he left it out (Alma 49:3). Presumably the people of Noah were not wicked and didn’t deserve God’s punishment. So Mormon the historian included those details, but Mormon the prophet, pronouncing God’s judgment, did not. This particular detail was first noted by Grant Hardy in a FARMS volume almost 30 years ago.

The Book of Mormon is an excellent spiritual text that has historical value. Mormon as the historian had the same habits of other historians with limited sources and space to advance his objective for the book. We can see some of those methods but using a fictional example from pop culture. I hope we can dive deeper into some of the little noticed details that hint at much larger events or people.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Churning for Power

My recent methodology focuses less on parallels and how they prove the Book of Mormon. We don’t necessarily have to point to a direct connection between Rome, China and the people of the Book of Mormon because the underlying behavior, motivations and feelings are so similar.

I’ve talked about many principles between the Jaredite and Chinese Civil War in my first book. In this case, I was particularly impressed with the jealousy of the Roman empress regent against powerful generals and how those generals held key commands around Roman territory. The power struggle between generals, politicians, and priests using the levers of the state or their personal commands to protect their own power against rivals aided by assassination. Aetius also had to recover from defeat which recalled the similar effort by Coriantumr. These scrums for power place the Book of Mormon firmly in ancient settings.

We might consider how chaos in both China and Rome allowed associated barbarian groups to enter and seize control. One Chinese source said they “picked the bone of the dynasty.” Aetius used his time as a hostage to the Huns to use them as allies against his enemies. This presents an intriguingly possibility concerning others in the Book of the Mormon. The Jaredite fight for power among themselves and crush for manpower could have led to unconventional alliances or allowed nonaffiliated groups to expand their power. In fact, the Mulekites could be some of those outsiders. They were too late to affect the twilight wars of the Jaredites (though the account says Coriantumr lived with the people of Zarahemla for 9 months.)  But they entered the Jaredite (possibly San Lorenzo) culture zone and soon created their own mix aristocracy and control of nearby regions.

The more I read ancient accounts and documents the more firmly I’m convinced of its ancient setting. Without further ado here are the three summaries of the churning for power in ancient society. If you get lost trying to keep track of all the power players, don't worry, that is kind of the point.


After a period of disunion, romantically called the “Three Kingdoms Period,”1 Sima Yan united China and proclaimed the beginning of the Jin Dynasty in the mid-3rd century A.D. Sima Yan placed his relatives in strong military commands surrounding the capital of Luoyang on the Yellow river.2  As is typically the case in Chinese history, however, commanders capable enough to protect the frontier were also powerful enough to assert their will against the Emperor.  It took a strong Emperor at the center to hold these ambitious commanders in check. 

Upon the death of Sima Yan in 290 A.D, his mentally feeble son Sima Zhong assumed the throne.  His wife, the Empress Jia, suppressed, executed or ran off members of the Sima clan, and effectively ruled until 300 A.D.  After the murder of the Sima Yu, the various Princes stationed along the periphery asserted their will in favor of the Imperial (Sima) clan.  Two Princes, Sima Yong and Sima Lun, violently seized power in the capital and forced the Empress to commit suicide.

Up until this point, the various political machinations had been done under the fa├žade of Imperial authority.  The Empress signed an edict in the name of her feeble husband, and then executed or exiled the various “traitors” to the Empire.  The naked use of power without a justifying edict by the Sima brothers led to what historian David Graff calls a “plunge into the abyss.”3  Members of the Sima clan justified their actions based on assertions of military power, and not Imperial authority. 
Less than a year after the two Simas coup, a third, Sima Yun, attempted a coup but was killed.  In response, Sima Lun abandoned all pretenses of ruling through his feeble cousin and declared himself Emperor.4  Yet this caused the former Emperor’s younger brothers (Sima Ying, Sima Yih, and an area commander Sima Jiong) to attack from the West. They defeated the new Emperor and restored their mentally challenged brother to the throne. 

With the unremitting carnage among the princes in their struggles for power, by May of 302 A.D., no clear heirs remained to the (recently restored) Jin Emperor. Sima Ying hoped for the nomination, and he resented the dominant position taken by the more distant relative Sima Jiong, while Sima Yung from the west also sought a role. In complex intrigue during the last days of the Chinese year [heading into 303 A.D.], Sima Ying and Sima Yung involved Sima Yih in their rivalry with Sima Jiong, but when Sima Jiong sought to destroy Sima Yih, Sima Yih turned the tables on him and took his place at the head of government...5

After heavy fighting, Sima Yih defeated Sima Ying’s forces and held off another army from Sima Yung, commanded by the vigorous general Zhang Fang.  However, Sima Yih was betrayed by his own soldiers, under the influence of Sima Yue.  In 304 A.D., the latter had the former burned at the stake, and he continued his efforts to gain control over the Emperor.  Sima Yue’s enemy, Sima Yung, tried to appease him by offering the head of his general Zhang Fang.  Sima Yue accepted the head but continued the fight to gain control of the government. He accomplished his design in 306 A.D.  


The Jaredite Civil War is no less sanguine, complicated, or less known by the public at large. Ending in roughly 300 B.C.,6 the historian Moroni summarized Ether’s account.7 The final war begins with the latter’s eviction from the rulers’ court. At this point, many “mighty men” fight Coriantumr.  Knowing “all the arts of war” (Ether 13:16), Coriantumr fights back for three years before being put into captivity by Shared.  His sons promptly rescue him and restore him to the throne. This naked aggression seems to throw the kingdom into continual bloodshed, as there was “none to restrain them” (Ether 13:31).  A “curse” upon the land corresponds to this bloodshed. It is manifested by a complete lack of trade and a shredding of the Jaredite economy.

Shared and Coriantumr continue their back and forth fight and exchange victories across the land until the latter kills the former.  Shared’s brother, Gilead, beats Coriantumr in a series of battles and assumes the throne.  Then Gilead’s high priest murdered him as he sits upon the throne.  The text is a bit unclear, but this high priest is either Lib, or killed by Lib so that he can take the throne (Ether 14:10).8  Renewed from his defeat and succored by what appears to be a regional power base, Coriantumr regains the throne and kills Lib (or the man who killed Lib).  By this point, the armies are forcibly conscripting soldiers and destroying large populations and cities in their path. Lib’s brother, Shiz, continues the fight, despite peace overtures from Coriantumr, until the nation ceases to exist in any organized form.9 


A six year old boy cannot rule an empire, even in the hands of so capable and experience a mother as Galla Placidia….The fragmentary records indicate that she aimed to sustain a balance of power in which no one figure among the military or bureaucratic elite should become too dominant. The main contenders for power and influence in the years after 425 were the leaders of the three main western army groups: Felix [Italy], Aetius [Gaul], and Boniface [North Africa]…

For awhile, Placidia’s strategy just about worked. The threatened dominance of first one figure, then another, was kept in check, if not entirely smoothly. Slowly, however, the situation fell out of the Augusta’s control. Felix made the first move. Accusing Boniface of disloyalty, in 427 he ordered him to return to Italy. When he refused, Felix sent forces to North Africa, but they were defeated. Then Aetius stepped in. On the strength of some military successes in Gaul against Visigoths (426) and Franks (428)…he felt confident enough to move against Felix. Perhaps his successes had won him new favor with Placidia, or perhaps personal extinction was the price of Felix’s failure against Bonficace, but in 429 Aetius was transferred to Italy and to the post of junior central field army general…In May 430 Aeitus had Felix and his wife arrested for plotting against him. They were executed at Ravenna. Three had become two, and high noon was fast approaching for Boniface.

Aetius seems to have lost little ground at court after he got rid of Felix. Perhaps, one again, Placidia was fearful of the dominance of one unchallenged generalissimo. Boniface was therefore recalled to the Italy, seemingly while Aetius was absent in Gaul again; and Boniface too was promoted to the post of central field army general. Aetius immediately marched to Italy with an army, and met Boniface in battle near Rimini. Boniface was victorious but also mortally wounded; he died soon afterwards. His political position, and the struggle with Aetius, were immediately taken up by his son in law Sebastianus. After the defeat, Aetius first retreated to his country estates, but after an attempt was made on his life, he turned to the Huns, as he had in 425. In 433 he returned to Italy with enough Hunnic reinforcements to make Sebastianus’ position untenable…Aetius had emerged by the end of 433 as the de facto ruler of the western Empire.

Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance author and providing high quality ad free research takes time and effort. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below or buying one of my books using the link in the top left. Thanks again. 


1 This period is similar in legend and romance to that of Arthurian Britain. 
2  See Appendix B in my book a map of Jin Provinces.
3  David Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare: 300-900 (New York: Routledge Press, 2002), 62.
4  Edward Dreyer, "Military Aspects of the War of the Eight Princes, 301-307," in Military Culture in Imperial China,  ed. Nicola di Cosmo, 112-142 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).
5  Rafe de Crespigny, “The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin: A history of China in the Third Century AD,” Internet Edition, 2003. 
6  The timeline for this section of The Book of Mormon is incredibly tenuous. I give a tentative timeline of the battle below (see fn. 53). 
7  This following is a summary of the major events starting in Ether 13:15 to the end of chapter 15. 
8   Ether 14:10 could be explicating verse 9 or could be introducing a new actor. 
9   At this point in The Book of Mormon’s timeline, the Jaredites fade from history and the Nephites assume a central role.  While the common assumption is that the Jaredite nation is destroyed, Hugh Nibley concludes that the political leadership is destroyed, but Jaredite individuals continue to participate in Nephite society, usually as bad actors.  See Hugh Nibley, The World of the Jaredites.
10  Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, (Oxford University Press, 2006), 260-262. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Preemptive War and the Book of Mormon: Part VII Conclusion

This is the conclusion to a multi part series. See part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six.

The use of preemptive war was fairly common in various cultures throughout history and the Nephites are no exception. Writers mentioned or alluded to the practice in many of the major periods of Nephite history, on the small plates of Nephi, the included record of Zeniff, the speech of Ammon and the Sons of Mosiah, the summary of Captain Moroni’s tactics, the period immediately after that in Helaman 1, the fight against the Gadianton Robbers, and the final fight for survival. There are other strategies mentioned. Zeniff for example presented an alternative to invading and destroying the Lamanites (that he later called overzealous.) The Sons of Mosiah employed missionary service, and Moroni mostly focused on defensive actions, or offensive maneuvers within a generally defensive posture. The Nephites at the end of the nation also assumed a mostly defensive posture as they held various choke points and fortifications for years. The Nephites faced an extended period of peace after the ministry of Christ. Though anthropologists point out that the severe destruction, smaller populations, and more basic political units made an egalitarian society much easier to maintain and almost completely erased the competition for resources and land (i.e., the underlying causes of war).[1] Mormon himself said that the only true method to peace was to lay down their arms and repent (Mormon 7:4). But Pahoran also said that the people would subject themselves to bondage if they had to, but the Lord doesn’t command that (Alma 61:12). Those other strategies have been discussed fairly often, and combined with the several verses that seem to forbid offensive war, and has been the generally accepted position on warfare in the Book of Mormon.

Yet given the number of instances and justifications behind them, Nephite leaders considered preemptive warfare a valid option. Nephite leaders preemptively attacked their opponents or discussed it without editorial comment. In some cases, such as the actions by Moroni, the actors were specifically praised for their righteousness. In other examples, such as those by Zeniff’s group and the seizure of Paanchi, it was such a non-issue that the preemptive nature of the attacks remained in the background. The futile attacks of Limhi, and the desperate last minute counter strokes of Alma the Elder show that attacks at the time and location of the Nephites choosing could have been far more effective than desperate defenses in reaction to seemingly inevitable attacks, or later counter attacks from an inferior position. The refusal of the Lamanites to take up arms against the Nephites in Alma 47 suggest that preemptive war had a deterring effect and could reduce conflict. The controversy over the preemption in Helaman chapter one underscores the debate over the perceived imminence of attacks.

Regarding Mormon and Gidgiddoni’s supposedly explicit verses condemning the practice, their condemnations were just as likely strategic directions and attacks on blood thirsty, arrogant behavior, more than prophetic denial of preemptive war. And the comparison between Ammon’s peaceful mission and the war mongers fall flat. The martial prowess of Ammon, military culture of the Lamanites, political instability they caused, innocent Nephite captives and soldiers that died because of that instability, and later Lamanite fear of mobilizing for war suggest that the Nephite leaders had legitimate reasons to believe a preemptive attack could save lives.

Even if the Nephites commonly held justified reasons to use preemptive war, that doesn’t always mean the attacks were successful. Zeniff’s attack was launched, but a good number of people had second thoughts about the attack which led to civil war. Moroni’s preemptive behavior likely enhanced Amalickiah’s arguments about Nephite perfidy in front of the Lamanite king and strengthened his position there. The Nephite’s preemptive execution of Paanchi was the catalyst for the Gadianton Robber threat, and likely fueled their social bandit ideology that proved so potent. The Nephites utterly failed to root out the Gadianton Robbers, though they did have some success with the offensive defensive strategies once they lured the robbers out of their mountain strongholds. The Nephites at the end of the nation had some military success and if we take an honest look at Mormon’s praise of the soldiers, not just his spiritual condemnation, and we look at the strategic context in which these attacks were launched, we see enough in the text to merit their offensive attacks. In other words, wicked people tend to use the same tactics as righteous people, they just liked it more.

Ultimately the efficacy of preemptive war was mixed and fraught with unintended consequences. Although inaction and a purely defensive posture has consequences as well; the innocent captives of Noah after Ammon’s rebuff of preemptive war, and the bondage of the people of Limhi after Zeniff deferred against a preemptive attack suggest that not attacking could have been just as dangerous. At the end of the day, the proactive nature and potential benefits of the policy likely tipped the scales in favor of the policy.

The Book of Mormon exhibits the historical features that make preemptive war desirable even if it’s dangerous and opened them up to condemnation. The chief historical reason for a preemptive attack is the attacker’s belief that preemption now is better than facing worse consequences later. The Japanese war machine in World War II only had a few months of oil left because of American embargoes. They felt that a surprise attack on America would stun them long enough for Japan to seize their prosperity sphere, especially the oil fields in Java. A preemptive attack immediately for them was better than waiting. The Germans in World War I faced enemies on every side, but they believed they could quickly defeat France and then be ready for Russia by the time their slower, Eastern foe had fully mobilized. They needed a quick strike through a neutral country to do so.[2] Epaminondas and the 3rd century Thebans faced yearly invasions from Sparta. He thought they should launch a surprise attack to permanently remove the devastating attacks on their homeland, weaken Sparta, and alter the balance of power.[3]

The Nephites were always talked as though they were vastly outnumbered by the Lamanites (Mosiah 25:2-3; Alma 51:11; Mormon 2:3). A surprise attack could throw their enemy off balance, capture territory that would make the Nephite realm stronger, prevent an imbalance of power arising from defecting dissenters, preemptively stop a gathering attack, root out endemic banditry before the government fell, or simply fight at a place of their time and choosing instead of unpropitious battle being forced upon them. The Book of Mormon shows us that preemptive war was a justly held strategy, commonly employed, with as much effectiveness as other strategies but with potential pitfalls. In a world where a surprise nuclear attack is likely and the numbers of dead in a preemptive strike by terrorists could number millions, the attractiveness of preemptive war is even more enticing. But there is a strong stigma associated with it based on a narrow interpretation of a couple of verses, and an almost demonic dislike for it bred from a dogmatic devotion to political planks more than a substantive and thorough interpretation of the scriptures. Given the lives at stake it’s important the Latter Day Saints have all the tools for judging a preemptive strike and have an understanding that these strikes are just another tactic used by both ancient and modern powers, the Book of Mormon does not condemn it, but actually justifies it.

Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance writer and providing high quality, ad free research over the last decade takes time and effort. If you found value in the work please consider donating using the pay pal button below or buy one of the my books linked in the top left. 


[1]Jon Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: A Mesoamerican Book, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013,) 653-655.
[2]See Matt Flynn, First Strike: Preemptive Wars in Modern History (New York: Routledge Press, 2008), for more.
[3] 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.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon: Part VI Third Nephi and Mormon

This is part of a series. See part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part seven.

There seems to be several verses that forbid preemptive war.[1] In Third Nephi, Gidgiddoni claims that the Lord forbids them from preemptively going into their opponents lands ( 3rd Nephi 3:21). But considering the disastrous offensives against the robbers on their territory (Helaman 11:25-28) this was more likely strategic advice than a commandment from the Lord. In that same campaign, Gidgiddoni maneuvered offensively to cut off the robbers. His tactically offensive operations in a strategically defensive stance suggest, at least, a more flexible approach than an overly simplistic notion that offensive war is inherently immoral.

Mormon 3:15 also seems to prohibit preemptive war. However, the real sin recorded by Mormon was not the offensive tactics but rather the bloodlust and vengeance that dictated Nephite strategy (v. 14). One might also say it was their false oath (to a false god?) in Mormon 3:10 that finally forced Mormon into his utter refusal. Again, that doesn’t have much to do with their strategy. The seemingly unequivocal anti-war sentiment expressed in Mormon 4:4 does not record any saying of the Lord, but can just as easily represent a strategic description (that isn’t completely accurate, see below). If this is a command against offensive action it is also contradicted by other writings by Mormon. This is most clearly seen in a reevaluation of Alma 48:14. The traditional understanding of this verse is a prohibition against offensive warfare. But a slightly different reading suggests the Nephites are rather commanded to never “give an offense” except “against an enemy” and “to preserve their lives” (Alma 61:3).

Finally, there is Mormon’s statement that the wicked punish the wicked (Mormon 4:5). This seems to describe the inverse of the ideal to trust in the Lord and implies, unsurprisingly, that making strategic decisions while not “under the influence” of the Spirit results in lousy choices with equally horrible results. Here the German military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz can lend us assistance with his description of an essential element of leadership called Coup De’ Oeil.[2] This term is complex but it basically describes both a commander’s ability to “see the light” and his strength to follow it. Clausewitz did not have any spiritual implications in mind, but it certainly applies here. When the Nephites were spiritually darkened, their ability to make correct military decisions were severely impaired (though not completely destroyed, see below). Thus the military prohibition described in the Book of Mormon is not against offensive or even preemptive action, but it is rather a condemnation against passive stupor, lacking trust in the Lord, and lusting for vengeance—in short, a darkened mind.

In fact, leaving aside Mormon’s denunciation of his soldiers, he recorded their admirable qualities many times. The people were “arouse[d]…somewhat to vigor” and they did meet and beat their enemies (Mormon 2:24, 26). They “went forth” and won against the robbers and recovered their lands (Mormon 2:27). They “beat” the Lamanites in Mormon 3:8. Again, they “repulsed” the Lamanites, and again, the only sin is what Elder Neal A. Maxwell called a pronoun problem in taking credit for themselves instead of giving it to God (Mormon 4:8).[3] A short time later the Nephites stood with “boldness” which gained them another impressive victory (Mormon 4:15-20). If somebody was told that a somewhat vigorous army with bold soldiers repulsed and beat a much larger enemy multiple times to defend their territory, wives, children, and houses (Mormon 2:23) that person would think that army was incredibly skilled and maybe even praise worthy. But the descriptions of their sins were so pervasive that readers have failed to adequately assess their military strategy itself separately from faithfulness of those doing it.

Some might argue they shouldn’t be separated, but one of the difficulties in applying the Book of Mormon to a modern American context is the difference in political systems. The modern notion of separation of church and state precludes a prophet leading the United States and thus begs the question of what constitutes “righteous” leadership. Likewise, the concept of a civilian audit over the military excludes a prophet-general leading the country or even determining military policy in any significant degree. That leaves Latter Day Saints to assess strategies like preemptive war, at least somewhat independently from sin and righteousness.

While Mormon makes it seem as though the Nephites were hopeless (and in a spiritual sense they certainly were), their martial conduct and even the result of their offensive attack was not as disastrous as Mormon makes it seem. They had already repulsed the several Lamanites attacks. In the Nephite preemptive attack they debouched out of Desolation and had some initial success though they were ultimately pushed back. The arrival of a new army caused a further retreat to the city of Teancum. The Nephites (again) “repulsed” the Lamanites and then retook the city of Desolation. In the 8 verses of Mormon 4 that describe their supposedly horrible offensive, they ended up right back where they started.

Mormon blamed their offensive attack, saying that if it wasn’t for that the Lamanites would have no power over them (Mormon 4:4), yet the course of the fight and resulting status quo ante make this offensive essentially a draw and no worse than the annihilation they faced.[4] The skill of the soldiers that produced at least a draw makes it clear that the real sin was their, anger, vengeance, blood lust, and boasting which withdrew the divine strength of the Lord, and not their tactics or strategy. (Sensitive readers might also notice the weary matter of fact after action report in Mormon 4:9: And many thousands were killed on both sides.) In fact, one might say that no strategy except repentance could have save the Nephites, which is a great spiritual message but hardly a condemnation of preemptive war.

If the readers see this period of the war as a back and forth see saw, then a spoiling attack launched from a narrow point against a much larger enemy actually has a good deal of merit. In tactical combat, a narrow point that people must pass through is called a kill zone. If the Nephites knew the point of Lamanites attack, and knew that attack was imminent, they could see a good deal of value in launching an attack against a massed foe in a killing zone. Again, just like Zeniff, and the leaders in Ammon’s day, they could reasonably argue that fighting at a time and place of their choosing, with the advantage of surprise, was better than waiting to receive an imminent and inevitable attack from a much larger enemy (Mormon 5:6).

Returning to the beginning of the paper and the difference between a moral preemptive war and morally suspect preventive war, the justification or lack thereof is based on the relative imminence of the threat. The more imminent (or even ongoing) a threat, the more justified it becomes. Mormon says in the 362nd year they defeated the Lamanites and began to boast (Mormon 3:8). Their supposedly wicked and forbidden attack occurred in the 363rd year (Mormon 4:1). Arguably this event was less like the devastating catalyst for their destruction that Mormon makes it seem, and more like an attempt to recreate Moroni’s expulsion of Lamanites from the wilderness in Alma 50. They both occurred during a period of nominal peace but what really seemed like a simple lull in between phases of fighting. Arguably, the only difference in strategy seemed the relative enthusiasm for the conflict based on their spiritual condition (compare, Alma 48:23 and Mormon 3:9). The Nephites were only 14 years removed from ceding their land of inheritance by treaty and were only a year removed from the previous attack (Mormon 2:28-29 lists the 349th year which would be more recent to the Nephites than the 2000 election is to us at the time of this writing). With an existential threat gathering across a narrow pass, and a generation of warfare to suggest an attack was being launched from a land violently conquered within recent memory, even allowing for an irredentist faction that wanted to recover their homeland at any cost, this strategy had more justification than Moroni’s in Alma 50, and it becomes one of their most justified attacks.

There are several verses that make it seem as though the Lord clearly forbids preemptive war. Those scriptures are more likely strategic advice based on specific context, which are also contradicted without editorial dissent elsewhere in the text by its leading figures like Moroni. At other times it was contradicted by the unnoticed background of a story like in Zeniff’s case, or in the unexamined consequences such as those in Ammon’s case. Other verses clearly condemn blood lust, boasting, the pronoun problem, false swearing, and overall a darkened mind, and not the specific strategy of preemptive war. In fact, when the strategy used to defend the Nephites in their last days is assessed on its own merits, and compared to earlier actions by righteous figures, they actually have what is arguably the most justification for preemptive war in the scriptures. A careful reading of the text suggests the high operational tempo with almost nonstop fighting and loss of territory from year to year, with lulls in the fighting without true peace, leading to their final extinction, makes this a long series of attacks and counter attacks which erase the supposed dichotomy between righteous defensive action and horrible, demonic, and evil preemptive war.

Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance author. Providing quality, ad free research for the last decade takes a good deal of time and effort. If you found value in this research please consider donating using the paypal button at the bottom of the page or buy one of my books linked in the top left. Thanks again! 

[1] Jeffrey Johanson, “Wars of Preemption Wars of Revenge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol.35, no.3 (Fall 202), 244-247.
[2] Clausewitz, On War, 101-102.
[3]Neal Maxwell, “Consecrate thy Performance,” April 2002, Ensign, 2002.
[4] Of course, if the Nephites had a smaller population than the Lamanites the loss of Nephite soldiers would be harder to replace than their enemy, and thus fatally weaken their armies despite their retention of territory and battlefield victories. This is a major criticism of Confederate Robert E. Lee. His spectacular battlefield victories drained the South of manpower and lost a war of attrition.