Sunday, August 22, 2010

Insight from Chinese "Robbers"

In reading about Chinese history from the 1st Century A.D. I came across an interesting passage:[1]

Almost from the beginning everything seemed to conspire against [the ruler] Wang Mang, even nature. Aberrations in the weather produced a series of poor harvests; perennial dough settled on the Shensi basin, in which the capital was located; and what was worse, a series of breaks in the Yellow River dikes culminated in A.D. 11 in a vast inundation of the eastern part of the northern plain, with the result that the Yellow River changed its course...Uncounted thousands of people were drowned or made homeless refugees. Famine became endemic, state welfare schemes proved inadequate, and food prices skyrocketed. Vagrants swarmed over China and in desperation formed robber bands. By A.D. 18 a great rebellious group called the Red Eyebrows had formed, and by A.D. 22 several Liu-family claimants [to the throne] were in the field. In A.D. 23 rebels broke into the imperial palace and murdered Wang Mang.

This highlights several important points:

It adds insights into the choices facing the Nephite people. Due to their wickedness the Nephites were cursed with famine (Helaman 11:4). The Nephites could repent of their sins and turn to God, or turn to a worldly solution such as forming robber bands. Even though many Nephites did repent, the Gadianton robbers swelled in size (Helaman 11:25).

This not only has historical precedent from Chinese history cited above, but it has spiritual importance as well. Many addicts seeking recover face a critical choice. They can cope with their fears and negative emotions through worldly measures such as drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Or they can turn to God for their answers through the Atonement and His Power accessed through activities such as the 12 Step program.

The passage from Chinese history also recalls the eventual cataclysmic battle recorded in 3 Nephi 4. The end of Helaman 11 to 3 Nephi 4 is 9 chapters of spiritual material that barely mentions societal developments. Yet these 20 years follow the same course of the rebellions against Wang Mang. In both cases famine and natural disaster prompted a rise of robbers. Robbers from both cases retreated to wild and uninhabited areas.[2] The disasters prompted a question in the legitimacy of the governments (3 Nephi 3:10). And resulted in an existential threat to the government. In Wang Mangs case the "robbers" were successful. But the Nephites were inspired to repent and were saved.

This again reinforces the spiritual purpose of the text. Turning to worldly solutions, like a powerful band of robbers proves futile.[3] But turning to God saves you. This reinforces the nature of The Book of Mormon ss a text that describes historical events that are intended to convey specific moral messages. It also represents the added insights we receive from comparing the text of The Book of Mormon to other episodes in history. Thanks for reading.

1. Charles O. Hucker. China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture (Standford: Standford University Press, 1975) 128-129.
2. Compare David Graff. Medieval Chinese Warfare: 300-900 (New York: Routledge Press, 2002) 161. And 3 Nephi 4:1.
3. This is in reference to the account in The Book of Mormon, not the successfull removal of Wang Mang.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Some Perspectives On Preparing For War

The term “preparing for war” is often included in the descriptions of Nephite warfare. This post briefly describes the different uses of the term.

-Arming. We see this explicitly in Alma 2:12. It’s also implied in both Helaman 1 and Alma 16:3. In both cases the Nephites did not have time to equip an army.

-Gathering. The Nephites also did not have time to gather their soldiers. In Helaman 1:24 we read that the Lamanites marched with such speed “giving [the Nephites] no time to assemble themselves together save it were in small bodies; and in this manner [the Lamanites] did fall upon them and cut them down to the earth.” Combining both arming and gathering, we see the Lamanites gathering to “the place of arms” in Alma 47:5. Sorenson suggests this is a hill zone of obsidian near Kaminaljuyu where the Lamanites could hammer out the details before starting their campaign.[1]

-Building. This refers to the fortifications that the Nephites built in Alma 52:6-7; 49:9 and 50:1. In the future I plan on examining the phrase “places of resort”.

-Regulations. In Alma 51:22 we read that Moroni prepared the people by making regulations. This refers to many of the King Men and their cities that refused to support the war. I suggest this refers to a quota of men and supplies required of subject or allied city states in support of the Nephite cause. This is also typical of Mesoamerican warfare, where the central power would supply their soldiers by marching through subject cities during their campaign.[2]

-Logistics. This is related to the regulations, but also refers to Alma 53:7 where the army itself was deployed to “deliver the people from famine”. In a pre modern society the bulk of the army would consist of farmers tied to the land. Thus the army would be hard pressed to fight during their harvest.

-Training. Helaman 4:4 the Lamanites spent “all that year” preparing for war. While the bulk of this time could refer to the gathering of food required for the campaign I feel it also refers to training.[3] Premodern armies largely consisted of fulltime farmers conscripted for short term service. Thus they needed training and at least one ancient society had a rotation system where frontier soldiers would serve in the capital for short periods of time.[4] This would inculcate loyalty to the central government, weaken the ability of local commanders to form private armies, and increase the proficiency and √©lan of local militias. This “diligent” (Alma 51:9) system could be fruitfully applied warfare in The Book of Mormon.

-Making covenants. Spiritual preparation is connected to physical preparation in Alma 48:7-8. Mesoamerican warfare often consisted of cosmological drama, where the battles are only the second act following dedicatory rituals (seen in the Title of Liberty episode of Alma 46), and post battle desecration rituals.[5] While marching armies and arming soldiers are visible, I think the covenant making and public drama of warfare allowed Limhi to observe the Lamanite preparations for war in Mosiah 20:8.

-“As if”. In Alma 52:6-7 we read that the Nephites were “round about as if making preparations for war”. It seems separate from the actual preparations of fortifying and seems to imply a sort of psychological warfare. The writings of Frontinus and Sunzi (Sun-Tzu) attest to importance of mental preparation and tactical ruses in premodern warfare. This includes Sunzi’s famous dictum that “warfare is the way of deception”. [6]

Thus we see there are a number of ways we can understand preparation. They are normally specified in the text, but they also hint at many more ideas. In every case they are consistent with the norms of ancient warfare and in covenants making, they specifically mimic current concepts of ritual in Mesoamerican war making. Thanks for reading.

1. John Sorenson. An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon (Provo, Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1985) 252.
2. Ross Hassig. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Control (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).
3. For an example of the extensive preparations required, see David Graff. Medieval Chinese Warfare: 300-900 (New York: Routledge Press, 2002) 146-147.
4. Ibid., 190-191.
5. Payson Sheets. “Warfare in Ancient Mesoamerica: A Summary View” in Ancient Mesoamerican Warfare M Kathryn Brown and Travis Stanton Eds. (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 295.
6. Ralph Sawyer Trans. “The Art of War” in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (New York: Westview Press, 1993) 158.