Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Naval Warfare in the Book of Mormon

This may seem an odd post since there is no explicit mention of warfare upon the waterways in the Book of Mormon. But there are ships, rivers, oceans, and armies fighting, which means warfare extended to that arena.

The logical place to start is with the few mentions of sea going vessels in the Book of Mormon. The original settlers arrived across the ocean in a boat. Although that ship's construction was on par with other miracles like Moses crossing the Red Sea, (1 Nephi 17) so it is unlikely the Nephites built more once they arrived. According to Sorenson they probably moved into the highlands away from the coast.(Ancient American Setting, 138-140) A small tribal confederation in the highlands would have little need, or means for a navy, or even much maritime trade. (If I was an expert in 6th Century Mesoamerican economics I could insert some cool figures here, but I am basing my views on general knowledge I have on Nephite society, and in knowledge I have of other ancient civilizations)

The next mention of ships is in Alma 63 where the "exceedingly curious" person named Hagoth uses his skill in shipbuilding to expand Nephite trade and settling. This represents a new period of expansion in Nephite trade and society. There are other examples from ancient societies that mix trade, colonization, and warfare. William Hamblin in Warfare in the Ancient Near East describes how Egyptian rulers often combined trade and military missions. In fact, a receipt of goods was often a sign of superior military strength, and after receiving goods the stronger power would leave a garrison to establish political control and ensure favorable terms with their "trading" partner. I have also talked about the likely hood of the colonizers being former army veterans, thus the overseas expansion of the Nephites, enabled by Hagoth's shipbuilding, was at least under protection of the Nephite soldiers (part of the "Corporate Sponsorship" that Sorenson described in Nephite trading missions, 211) and could have been more overt military ventures- like using military force to ensure favorable trading status and/or to exert military control.

In discussing these tenuously supported ideas, we should keep in mind that "a hundreth part" of what happened in Nephite society is included in the record. (Helaman 3:14) Thus there should be a a little understanding in trying to figure out the other 99 parts.

Part of those unstated factors are the logistical and strategic concerns from the river Sidon. The river could be crossed (on foot it seems-Alma 43:35) above Zarahemla, but was deep enough to float bodies out to sea beneath Zarahemla. This suggests an ebb and flow to the river, and that the river is deeper down stream from Zarahemla. Rivers were almost always logistic highways due to the ease of transporting large amounts of supplies compared to using land routes. Both ancient Egypt (in Ancient Warfare in the Near East) and ancient China ("Dou Jiande's Dilema..." by David Graff in Chinese Ways of Warfare) used rivers for troop and supply transport, as well as many other societies. (See John Lynn Ed. "Feeding Mars") The Egyptian example was from the early Bronze age and the Nile had many areas with impassible rapids, so even societies with primitive technology and with unfriendly terrain could see and use the advantage offered by waterways.

In strategic matters, if we accept Sorenson's map 12 on page 240 then the important city of Sidon and maybe even the military city of Moroni were on the river, and the river marked a boundary with the Lamanite center of influence. The Southern Song and Chen Dynasty in China can testify to the importance of using a river for defense since they were both conquered by Northern Empires using the Yangtze as a highway for conquest.(General Grant did the same thing in Tennesse during the American Civil War as well) Plus, the famous Battle of Red Cliffs and Fei River represented the ability of a weak opponent to turn back a strong one by defending pivotal river crossings.(The Battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War is another example of defending against river crossing by a stronger power, amazing how good military principles transcend time and place huh?) This is another piece of evidence that bolsters the case for Moroni placing a military garrison on the river: he sought to deny the enemy a chance to cross the river. It could also answer the charge of some critics who contend that Mesoamerican (and hence Nephite) societies were not advanced enough to equip, transport, and supply armies across large distances in the first century B.C.. Using the river Sidon as a highway for transport and supply would ease logistical burdens for much of their possessions on the "East Sea". It would make an ability to project power in that direction far easier. And explain why on the west sea the Nephites had to establish military colonies (that I argue for in a paper based on Alma 56:28). And further explains the fatalistic thoughts that occurred when Nephihah was captured: in Alma 59:11 Moroni wonders if the war could be won if his government so easily abandons a pivotal city.

Thus it is impossible to think that the Nephites did not use the river to transport soldiers (perhaps the reason Moroni had time to redeploy from Jershon to Zarahemla faster than the Lamanite force). The Nephites already used it to depose of dead bodies (Alma 44:22). And I have an unpublished paper that discusses logistical concerns, with the river Sidon being important to that.

Conclusion: I have discussed external evidence from ancient societies that could help shed light on naval warfare in the Book of Mormon. And I have shown that the Book of Mormon contains sufficient evidence to discuss overseas trading missions, and possible military ventures. The direction of Nephite political power could at least partially result from the benefits of the river Sidon. And many strategic decisions make more sense as well if we accept the benefits that the river Sidon offered. Like many other topics I discuss here, these are preliminary comments and research that demand comment, discussion and further research. Thanks for reading and I hope you can contribute to those stated goals.


Mormon Heretic said...

I found your analysis very interesting! Thanks!

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks for commenting. Please spread the word.