Friday, June 7, 2024

Moroni's Extreme Aggression? Notes on Alma 46:30


I'm busy making final edits on my next book. As I make those edits I thought this is an interesting nugget you might enjoy reading. 

        When Moroni’s thoughts are summarized by Mormon those thoughts not only suggest his behavior was a preemptive military action, but it was on aggressive side of what just war theorists consider acceptable. Moroni reasoned in the text that Amalickiah would inspire the Lamanites to war in the future when they are stronger. Alma 46:30:

Now Moroni thought it was not expedient that the Lamanites should have any more strength; therefore he thought to cut off the people of Amalickiah, or to take them and bring them back, and put Amalickiah to death; yea, for he knew that he would stir up the Lamanites to anger against them, and cause them to come to battle against them; and this he knew that Amalickiah would do that he might obtain his purposes.

        The future tenses are highlighted. Moroni sought to stop Amalickiah from gaining more strength and attacking later so he justified attacking now. Capture and kill him now, before they get more strength and attack us later, is a classic motivation for instigating war, but is more concerned with the future than the present.[1] Micheal Walzer summarized the many theorists of preemptive war and the varying justifications for the practice by using a term called the anticipation spectrum. In that spectrum he suggested that the only just preemptive wars are concerned with the present alarm of an immediate attack such as a charging assailant with sword in hand, nuclear armed planes already on their way to targets, or planes full of terrorists on their way to the Twin Towers. Walzer argues that unjust preemptive wars are concerned with stopping a gathering threat (Sparta, Germany, or the Lamanites will be stronger in the future so Athens, Britain, or the Nephites must attack now), or punishment for past actions (this nation is so unjust, greedy, prideful, ambitious, and aggressively expansionist it is too dangerous not to attack.)[2]

        By this measure Moroni’s use of preemptive war is more expansive than most just war theorists concerned with the imminent threat, because Moroni focused on the future threat and not the present. This leaves most students of the Book of Mormon in a unique situation, especially for those that use the infection model and place restoration scriptures as always superseding non-LDS theorists. Because in this case Moroni and the Book of Mormon seem more aggressive and less justified than what many commonly assume, especially compared to just war theorists that moderate the practice of preemptive war. This additional analysis becomes a much-needed caution to those that fail to do what Brigham Young advised and find truth even among professed infidels. There is much more in my book about theory and practice, and Walzer’s description serves as an excellent summary of just war theories regarding preemptive war as I discuss those details. In short, his desire for seeking battle places him on the aggressive extreme of justified preemptive war and serves as a reminder of the immense benefit of studying the great thinkers on the topic.

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[1] Graham Allan, “The Thucydides trap,” Foreign Policy, June 9th, 2017, (Accessed, May 14th, 2024.)

[2] Micheal Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 81.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

The Bloodthirsty Commander and King Benjamin's Preemptive War


        Part of an ongoing series about preemptive war in the Book of Mormon. See part onepart twopart threepart fourpart fivepart sixpart sevenpart eight.

        Twice in recent years writers have used Zeniff’s description of his “blood thirsty and austere” commander as evidence that diminishes or casts doubt on the morality of the preemptive attack listed in Mosiah 9:1.

        The first mention comes from a piece which discusses the potential wordplay on “good.” The authors mentioned the preemptive war in Mosiah 9:1, but then focus on the term bloodthirsty. As far as I know, they seem to be the only other authors to recognize the preemptive war in that verse. They only mention it in passing, but they seem to connect the strategy with the description of Zeniff’s bloodthirsty commander.

        The second attempt is from Mark Henshaw who claims the commander's "bloodthirsty" nature undermines the righteousness of the attack. Henshaw’s opposition in this case is especially frustrating because earlier in the same piece he said there is no “unequivocal case of righteous preemptive military action,” as though the Book of Mormon is supposed to be an exhaustive guide to strategy instead of a religious text that testifies of Jesus Christ and his mission. But he also questions the lack of Mormon’s editorial dissent as evidence that favors preemptive war. In other words, the silence of Mormon in not explicitly endorsing preemptive war is enough evidence for Henshaw when dismissing the concept, but Mormon’s lack of explicit dissent is not enough when supporting the concept. It certainly seems like a standard about explicit details that changes based on the side he wants to favor.

        Regardless of his shifting standards regarding details, those we do have in the text do not suggest that the bloodthirsty commander makes this attack unrighteous because the Book of Mormon outlines the importance of the heart, the unreliability of Zeniff’s narrative, and implications of Omni’s narrative that suggests King Benjamin at least allowed this attack.

The Heart:

        As I’ve written about often, the heart remains the most important part of the just warrior. The bloody accounts at the end of the Nephite nation seem like an odd place to make that argument, but they represent the best example of how readers have missed the heart of the matter. A careful reading of the account in Mormon chapter 3 and 4 shows that Mormon is not objecting to offensive warfare but objecting to the wicked state of their hearts.

        In describing the behavior that led to his refusal to lead the Nephites, Mormon wrote (Mormon 39-10):

And now, because of this great thing which my people, the Nephites, had done, they began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies.

And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land. 

        It was the boasting and swearing that Mormon rejected, and the strategy has been thrown out with the wicked bathwater. As I remind people often, the Nephites lost and were annihilated on the defensive as well. But we blame their hearts for their wickedness and defeat, not the strategy. Once the pattern is recognized that a person can renounce war in their heart while wielding the sword, it becomes clear that it permeates the Book of Mormon, and they can even launch righteous preemptive wars. The importance of the heart includes many scriptures that weren’t considered pertinent to warfare. For instance, in the next chapter of Mormon, “it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (Mormon 4:5). And in verse 11: “every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually.”

       I could go on for thousands of words, as this subject makes up significant parts of the first and eleventh chapter of my book, as well as multiple blog posts and presentations. But the point is that strategy is assessed independently of the heart. And thus the bloodthirsty commander of the expedition doesn’t necessarily negate the potential reasons for the attack, and the hearts that launched the attack.

The Narrator:

        We don’t even know this commander is bloodthirsty because we depend on an unreliable narrator that admits to seeing what he wants to see in others and being overzealous to the detriment of his own people (Mosiah 9:3). He saw the good in the Lamanites while later admitting he was deceived by cunning (Mosiah 10:18). Despite seeing what was good in them a chapter before, Zeniff then tells us the Lamanites are “wild and bloodthirsty” (Mosiah 10:12).

        If he was so mistaken about the Lamanites, going from good to bloodthirsty and cunning in his description of them, he could be just as mistaken when discussing his “bloodthirsty” commander. In fact, careful reading suggests Zeniff was the aggressor that caused the conflict. (Since Zeniff is giving a primary account, we should accept his narrative more than the secondhand Omni narrative that suggests the commander caused the fight.)

        In Mosiah 9:2 Zeniff “contended” with his brethren and leader to make a treaty with them. Zeniff was the one disobeying orders or the intent of the mission. He argued his point so much that apparently, he was bound and set for execution because he had to be “rescued” by those who agreed with him. As far as I know, this is the only example of munity among Nephite armies. And Zeniff was the culprit. Mormon argued his people were “without order” (Moroni 9:18), and Moroni threatened to “stir up insurrections” (Alma 60:27), but this is the only actual recorded civil war.

        In contrast, the austere and bloodthirsty leader that Zeniff defied was simply following orders or the intent of the mission in the face of intransigence. Zeniff’s disobedience is reinforced when he recounts that in their second attempt Zeniff admits the Lord smote he and his people because they were slow to remember their God (Mosiah 9:3).

        Zeniff is the narrator and sees some good in the Lamanites. But in a mere three verses he is mistaken about the Lamanites, instigated a fight with his commander, mutinous to the point of treason, seems to cause a civil war, and the Lord smote him and his followers for their unrighteousness. A chapter later his people are snared by cunning and unprepared in their defenses. (He had to “invent weapons” in [9:16], and despite being a scout he didn’t set guards until [10:2]). In later chapters they are often wicked (9:17; 11:2-14), and the Lamanites eventually enslaved his people. Zeniff’s account admits in so many ways that he is horribly misguided and that should include the bloodthirsty commander.

The Omni Narrative:

        We should think further about the very start of Zeniff’s account. Zeniff’s account makes it sound like a military expedition. But Omni’s account makes this an armed expedition to settle the land (Omni 27). The Book of Mormon doesn’t record free-lance Nephite attacks from armies. The army is raised (Alma 16:3) and gathered (Helaman 1:19). It is then led by a captain or chief captain appointed by the government or the people. The Book of Mormon does include the free movement of settlers such as Hagoth (Alma 63:-5-6) and Alma the Elder escaping the Lamanite king. But the Anti Nephi Lehi’s had to receive permission to enter Nephite lands (Alma 27:15). And an expedition that was aimed to expel the Lamanites by force of arms in a preemptive attack could be considered an act of war. And a similar expedition by Morianton to “possess” the land of Bountiful made Moroni fearful enough to intercept him (Alma 50:29, 33.)

        If King Benjamin opposed this, it beggars’ imagination to believe that he would have allowed it to continue. There is a chance he didn’t know about it. But the last writer of the Small Plates of Nephi had a brother that joined the attack (Omni 30). And that same writer delivered the plates to King Benjamin (25). In fact, it seems that the loss of that brother ended the direct descendants of Nephi and record keepers, which necessitated the transfer to King Benjamin. All of which suggests a close community which undermines the idea that Zeniff’s party was a secret, free lance attack.

        This means that King Benjamin, “a just man,” who “fought in the strength of the Lord,” the heart that fights righteous wars, actively equipped, supplied, and launched this attack or at the very least, allowed the expedition (Omni 25, Words of Mormon 1:14)! He looked at their swords, heard their intentions to possess the land by preemptively attacking the people there, and didn’t stop it.

       The more passive allowance seems more likely for two reasons. First, the only account of war in this period, Words of Mormon 1:14, says the Nephites “drove the Lamanites out of all the land of their inheritance.” Unless “lands of inheritance” include the aborted attack on the Land of Nephi King Benjamin did not actively launch the attack. In allowing the expedition to leave King Benjamin could have removed some troublesome Nephites (Words of Mormon 1:15-16). These people were so troublesome that upon arrival they immediately descended into civil war where they killed their own kin (Mosiah 9:2).

        Given the separation of the settlers and the Nephites, and the difficulty of the settlers to even find the Nephites decades later (Mosiah 8:8), this seems more like King Benjamin letting separatist settlers leave than some sort of state policy of King Benjamin. All the same, King Benjamin still allowed a preemptive attack and there is no recorded displeasure or “thus we see” sermon from Mormon.

        I’m glad more scholars are studying Mosiah 9:1 and noticing its implications for preemptive war. Unfortunately they are reading too much into the description of the bloodthirsty commander, and not enough about the ample context found throughout Zeniff’s narrative and the Book of Mormon. That context tells us that the heart of the person making the strategy is the most important factor in determining its righteousness. Zeniff is a narrator that consistently shows flaws like his own wickedness, poor decisions, and misreading of the people around him. And there is evidence that the righteous King Benjamin, at least allowed this expedition and could have launched it. For all of these reasons, the description of the bloodthirsty commander by Zeniff does not condemn the use of preemptive war.

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Saturday, April 20, 2024

New Journal Article in the Interpreter: The Unwritten Debates in Moroni's Letter


Hello everyone. I'm proud to present my newest article in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter Day Saint Scripture. Moroni in his letter is assumed by most readers to be angry. But he actually showed rather sophisticated rhetorical strategies as he responded to debates among the Nephites. It was a pleasure to write and I hope you find value in reading it. 

This is part of an amazing string of success. One of my critics dismissively asked, "how many works [about LDS scriptures and just war] could have been published in the 'last few decades'?" Well, I still have a couple pieces in the pipeline, but if those are published that will mean I've published or presented nine chapters of my future book. (Not including the book itself.) To be honest, I don't feel like I'm particularly gifted or smart. So if I could publish or present nine pieces in two years based on one manuscript written, I can only imagine how many more could be published if LDS thinkers seriously engaged just war theorists. Perhaps like Brigham Young encouraged, we could seek and embrace truth wherever we find it, even among the professed infidel instead of staying within the intellectual confines of the Mountain West. 

Speaking of publishing, I'll have some exciting news to share about that in a couple months. Stay tuned and thanks for reading! 

If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below or buy one of the books linked in the top left. 

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Silver Bullet: Afghanistan and Blowback


        When discussing American intervention inevitably someone will cry Afghanistan as a warning. In the 1980s the United States supplied arms to various militant groups. The goal was to resist the Soviet invasion in the hopes that it would weaken a US rival at  a relatively minimal cost. Some of these groups then became the ruling Taliban that won their post-Soviet civil war. The ruling Taliban allowed Al Qaeda to train and then launch the 9/11 attacks. Thus creating “Afghanistan” as a single, silver bullet to any American intervention.[1] In fact, “blowback” is such a lazy catch phrase that even in commenting on the Israel Hamas war Connor Boyack,  a supposedly serious libertarian, conflated cycle of violence and blowback into cycle of blowback. (He also added some antisemitism as well.) But this argument fails as a simplistic retelling of history, offers a presentist argument that discounts the contemporary threat of the Soviet Union, and continues to offer a reactive and weak vision of foreign policy.

        History doesn’t move in a straight line. It’s true that some militant groups received arms. At the same time though that action doesn’t lead in a straight line to the 9/11. The various militant groups fought against each other almost as much as they fought the Soviet Union. In fact, the fragmentary leadership and society led to a civil war in Afghanistan for much of the 90s. Only half a decade after that civil war Al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks. There were all sorts of moments that could have changed that outcome, and the US wasn’t closely involved in them for a decade.

        The Soviets could have continued their occupation. Another power like the Northern alliance and the Lion of Panjshir, could have won the civil war. Ironically enough, after the withdraw of Soviet forces that lion complained the US wasn’t more involved. From the linked interview he said: “[The US] forgot Afghanistan and they left Afghanistan alone.” This reminds me of a poor book where the author argued the US was imperialistic for “meddling” in foreign countries, while he also blamed the US for “losing” China to the Communists. In other words, he blamed the US for not meddling. But when your isolationist agenda comes first, and you rely on a simplistic understanding of history, intellectual rigor and honesty take a back seat.

        Returning to other historical paths not taken, Bill Clinton could have seized Osama Bin Laden when he had the chances. (Bill Clinton actually nine chances according to the 9/11 commission.) Any of these variables alone, and definitely all of them together cut the thread of American aid to the mujahadeen leading to 9/11 implied in the blowback arguments. There were so many variables that meandered throughout the decade plus interval between the two that the blowback argument becomes simplistically ahistorical.

        More importantly, this is a presentist argument. Presentism is normally a fallacy from those that complain individuals in the past are racist, sexist, and otherwise fail to conform to current standards. In this case presentism takes the terror attack from a decade later to ignore the threats at the time that made America arm the mujahadeen. It would be much like looking at Soviet strength early in the Cold War and complaining that it was blowback for America’s defeat of Hitler.[2] That thinking ignores the threat the Nazi’s posed and the need to intervene against that threat.

        In that Cold War America faced an evil empire that repressed its own citizens, ruthlessly crushed dissidents abroad, aggressively expanded along its borders and threatened nuclear war. Arming Afghani fighters was a relatively low-cost way to sap the strength of an existential threat. Those using their only bullet ignore the historical context of that threat. They might argue that the US had no moral right or national interest to resist the Soviet Union, but I’m assuming that my readers don’t lack moral confidence in America or show downright hatred for their country that many show today. Because ignoring the Soviet Union of the 1980s for fear of the Taliban assisted terror attack of 9/11, is like saying America shouldn’t fight Hitler because the Soviet Union will be stronger.

        The US should balance the consequences with their goals but can’t be paralyzed by fear which leads to my final point that our foreign policy can’t be paralyzed by fear of what could happen. Its true that actions have consequences, but so does inaction.

        The best example of blowback from inaction that ends up being worse than any blowback from action is in Syria. Back in 2011 the typical crowd wanted to avoid any military action to remove the Syrian dictator and protect civilians. They did so using a false dichotomy between a massive invasion and nothing, when America could have achieved good results with limited invested and danger through a no fly zone. But afraid of a small potential of war through a no-fly zone or missile strikes, we did nothing.

        The result was that America looked weak because our leaders declared red lines that they didn’t enforce, and made bellicose statements that the dictator’s days were “numbered” that became irrelevant. Almost 300,000 civilians have died, 12 million internally displaced, and 5 million people became refugees. Russia made Syria their proxy and tested their combat tactics that were used in Crimea and Ukraine a short time later. The terrorist group ISIS went from jayvee to pro and stormed across much of the region. European nations still grapple with that refugee crisis, including Sweden that had to mobilize the army to fight gangs of immigrant youth. In the US we had rabid debates about what to do with all of those migrants. (Though I think we should have loved them enough to make sure their homes weren’t destroyed in the first place.) 

        Looking at all that, do the isolationist libertarians that use this silver bullet consider all the consequences of inaction? Nope, they scream blowback about the current shiny thing in the news. Ironically enough, it was blowback that started the war in Ukraine, and probably Israel. Putin started marshaling his forces for invasion mere weeks after the botched Afghanistan withdraw. 

        Clearly the United States should carefully consider its actions which include blowback to military intervention and nonintervention. But using the aid to Afghanistan in the 1980s as a direct cause of 9/11 is over simplistic reasoning in support of consistent, knee jerk isolationism. (Or as I discovered researching my next book, their beliefs are called contingent pacifism because they recognize a theoretical right to just war in scripture but don’t find any examples in the world that meet those conditions.) The Afghani silver bullet ignores the historical context of the decisions in the 1980s to argue for isolationism today. Most importantly, that silver bullet shows an inherently weak foreign policy by ignoring the expensive cost of inaction for often vague and exaggerated costs of action.

Thanks for reading. If you found value in this work please consider getting more of it by donating using the paypal button below or by purchasing one of my books linked in the top left. 

[1] This is more rhetorical flourish than clinically accurate. Isolationists libertarians sometimes refer to the CIA coups against Guatemalan and Iranian governments in the 1950s.

[2] Personally, that’s why I preferred Winston Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy where Western allies invaded Eastern Europe from Italy. Despite its higher difficulty level that strategy would have spared millions from Soviet domination.