Saturday, April 18, 2015

How do you solve a problem like Iraq: The Fall of Ramadi in Alma 59

My book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents, argued that the Book of Mormon is a text that should be taken seriously by policy makers and even generals. The current events in Iraq and pending fall of Ramadi recall the capture of Nephihah in Alma 59, and provide additional insight into Nephite society and courses of action we might take. 

As I write this ISIS is driving towards the pivotal city of Ramadi.  They have captured nearby cities and threaten its supply route to Baghdad.  This is the capital of Anbar province, and the home of the Sunni Awakening that turned against Al Qaeda, allied with the U.S. during the surge, and essentially won the war in Iraq. The Institute for the Study of War says that “the fall of Ramadi would deal a major strategic and psychological blow to the Anbaris and to the government of PM Abadi. It would also undermine the relationships between Anbaris and Baghdad, as Iraqi Sunni leaders in Anbar have been calling for an increase in aid to the province as a whole and to Ramadi in particular.”[1]  The known brutality of ISIS, their genocide, sexual slavery, and destruction of monuments is tragic enough. Many Americans have the sense that we allowed this to happen by leaving and failing to view ISIS as more than a jayvee team. Moreover, the provincial government has been begging for more troops and help. 

How does this relate to the Book of Mormon?

Nephihah was a pivotal city that was close to the borders town of Moroni, along the route to Bountiful, and protecting the route to Zarahemla. After if we read starting in Alma 59:9- 

And now as Moroni had supposed that there should be men sent to the city of Nephihah, to the assistance of the people to maintain that city, and knowing that it was easier to keep the city from falling into the hands of the Lamanites than to retake it from them, he supposed that they would easily maintain that city….And now, when Moroni saw that the city of Nephihah was lost he was exceedingly sorrowful, and began to doubt, because of the wickedness of the people, whether they should not fall into the hands of their brethren…[His leaders] doubted and marveled also because of the wickedness of the people, and this because of the success of the Lamanites over them.

Ethnic Tension

The obvious comparison is that Moroni pleaded for reinforcements, didn’t receive them, and the fall of the city dealt a powerful blow to their spirits. There are more comparisons and possible insights. U.S. forces that remained would have acted as honest broker between the various factions in Iraq.  As strange as this sounds considering the pontificating about the hated Western imperialists, Sunni leaders in Anbar province had more trust in American soldiers than the government.   With soldiers in the country, and with future arms contracts for advanced weapons like fighter jets (now cancelled), which required a long relationship filled with shipments of spare parts, the military would have leverage to force the Shia government to be more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Most importantly, our training advisers would have prevented the government from politicizing leadership posts within the army. Removing capable Sunni leaders (many of whom cut their teeth in Saddam’s army) crippled their effectiveness and led to their disgraceful retreat last summer.
The Book of Mormon doesn’t explicit mention others or describes domestic ethnic tension. In my book I describe how ancient historians often used loaded terms to describe ethnic others.  The late Roman historian Gildas called robbers a “hive of bees” and their influence an “infestation.”[2] Another Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, called them “serpents that come out of their holes in spring” to attack with “wicked” and “most cruel” fury.[3] While Giddianhi described the robbers’ war as one for their rights, Ammianus described robbers as “swarthy and dark complexioned” who are “bitter exactors of their rights.”[4] This is compared to Mormon, who calls the Lamanites “lazy” (Mosiah 9:12), and Nephi, who describes those that do not believe as “dark” and “loathsome” (1 Nephi 12:23). The governor of the Nephites dismissed Giddianhi’s quest for his rights as the threatening of a “mere” robber (3 Nephi 3:12). This suggests that perhaps the people of Nephihah had the same smooth relationships with Zarahemla as Baghdad does with Ramadi.


Critics and even many members tend to view the Nephites as a Roman like empire that lasted a thousand years.  During most of Nephite history a better comparison would have been the rump states left over in Europe after Rome fell, or the city states of ancient Greece.  As late as the time of Alma the Elder he personally led the Nephites in battle just outside of the city of Zarahemla.  Those in Ammonihah rejected Nephite political authority, “the most capital parts of the land” rebelled in the Amlicite war, Morianton tried to seize land, and the unspecified strong holds and cities forced to raise the Title of Liberty (Alma 51:20) rejected Nephite authority and eventually allied with the Lamanites. The Nephites seemed ascendant after the war chapters, but as quickly as Helaman 1 they lost their capital.  In Helaman 4 Moronihah could only recover half the land.  The prophet Nephi left the land (and the record) for six years (compare Helaman 6:6 to 7:1)! When he came back the people had to plead to him through intermediaries (Helaman 11:8, suggesting he was still partially removed from the people.)  The Nephites retreated to their central territories to defeat the Gadianton in Robbers (3 Nephi 3-4).  In their final battle against the Lamanites Mormon says they number “as the sands of the sea” but only muster 30,000 soldiers for their war of survival (Mormon 2:42).[5] 

The point is outside of a short period of time during and after the great war, they were rather weak and didn’t not command large territories and huge populations.  The Nephites were not a large monolithic empire and faced various ethnic rivalries and political tension, perhaps similar to Iraq and seen in the failure to support Nephihah, which made cooperation difficult and fracturing into smaller entities more likely. 

What to do about it?

Looking at some similarities is nice, but what course of action might the Book of Mormon suggest?  After the fall of Nephihah, Moroni wrote a rather intense letter where he correctly diagnosed the treasonous reasons for the lethargic supply and mobilization by Zarahemla judges. His threatened coup turned out to be a counter revolution in conjunction with Pahoran. 

This is seemingly where the comparisons break down. Many Iraqis are sick of the government and tolerate the rule of ISIS.  The Kurds continue to rule autonomously and seek independence.   The current attacks in Ramadi are close urban operations that limit air strikes. The PM said that if unchecked ISIS could become unstoppable.[6] But not too many are flocking to his defense, and the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs basically shrugged at its loss.  Pahoran blamed the coup on “great flattery [that] led away the hearts of many” (Alma 61:4). 

Judging from the lack of support for action in Iraq, the reader might appropriately examine if the government under Pahoran and Moroni squandered public support for the war through misrule.  Moroni held men in prison for years without trial in Alma 51:19; 62:9. There is evidence that he killed dissenters (Alma 51:19), he threatened a coup and a genocide in separate letters (Alma 60:25-27; Alma 54:12-13), along with calling his opponent a child of Hell (Alma 60:18; 54:11), and he possibly militarized a vote against the King Men (after all, he and his supporters put on armor and gathered in a loud shouting body before the vote, Alma 46:21).  The war had to be funded from somewhere, and the 4,000 dissidents hewed down (Alma 51:19), and others imprisoned or executed provided plenty of revenue for the state, but likely left many kin seething with resentment.

The Nephite example suggests that military force won on the battlefield for Moroni and inspires many, (including me as a young recruit in Marine Corps Boot Camp) but it remains a short term solution because their underlying ethnic tension, political fragmentation, and heavy handed policies didn’t change. As I focused in my second book, in many cases forceful action created more enemies.     

The situation in Iraq is complex and difficult. The American public doesn’t want to send ground troops.  ISIS spans both Iraq and Syria and any action against them might assist Iranian agents in Iraq or help Basher Al Assad keep power.  Military operations cost money and degrade the military’s readiness for future conflicts. But many argue America has an interest in fighting genocidal barbarians forcing many into sexual slavery, who steadily advance and export terrorism. Much like the Nephites that cut bait and consolidated their central territories during the Gadianton threat, and Mormon’s strong defense of the narrow neck of land suggest that the least worst American option is to consolidate their position by supporting the Kurds as a bulwark against ISIS expansion, continue bombing, and work to train the Iraqi army so they can roll back ISIS.  This limits American commitment but provides a low risk high reward way to protect American interests in a vital region, without a burdensome American commitment. 

This was rather heavy on analysis, what do you think of the situation?

[2] Marcellinus, Res Gestae, 1.25-26. Of course, swarms could also refer to the difficulty and pain in prosecuting a successful counter-insurgency campaign. 
[3] Ibid., 19.8.1-2; 28.2.10.
[4]  Ibid., 22.16.23.
[5] Interestingly, if you look at the military participation ratio a society that was about 200,000 people, or about the total of dead at Cumorah, could produce an army of 30,000.  See “A Nephite Ten Thouand” in my upcoming book for more. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

My First Footnote

Regular readers already know how much I write and think about warfare in the Book of Mormon.  I'm very pleased with the many readers I have and the positive feedback I've received. I also hope to be part of a larger conversation. It is great to have a critically acclaimed book on the market for example, but its not that fun feeling like the Arrested Development of books. Something that is critically acclaimed with fewer readers than expected is bit disappointing.  As a result of that and a few other factors, I've been awaiting my first footnote. This is where somebody quotes my research as part of theirs.

I'm proud to announce I've been included a Square Two article entitled: Preparing Their Lands and Their Arms Against the Time of Battle: A Neo Consevative Interpretation of the Book of Mormon.  The article discusses four main features of Neo Conservatives, and explains how the Book of Mormon readily lends itself to such a reading. My chapter from the Greg Kofford volume, and last chapter of my book, which defend preemptive war using the Book of Mormon are used by the authors as evidence of support for "muscular" foreign policy. They also include several quotes where I discussed Moroni's preemptive attack on Amalickiah as he fled.  

I've never been called a neocon before, but I don't mind being labelled as somebody who believes the Book of Mormon supports the use of force.  I am upset they use the word neocon, its a label that is widely used a pejorative and I believe it is an emotionally charged word that obscures more than it clarifies. (Keep in mind that is the exact argument I make about the use of the word "robber" in the text.)  Though its funny,  I actually have an idea for a new paper called; "The Other Neocons: Neo Confucianism in the Book of Mormon." I might show a preview in the future, but it would discuss foreign policy differences in the Nephite court through the prism of the Southern Song court.    

Its feels good to finally be a part of the larger conversation. I'm not simply speaking to an audience of blog readers, though I've enjoyed it immensely in the past 5 years, but I'm speaking to a wider academic audience as well and I'm glad I could further that conversation. Thanks for reading and I hope to be in more footnotes in the future!!