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.

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[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.

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[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.