Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Book Review: War: A Book of Mormon Perspective

As a military historian with an interest in the Book of Mormon I enjoy staying aware of current research in the field. I recently read the book, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective: How the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon Warn Against Wars of Aggression and the Warfare State. Unfortunately, the torturous title isn’t the only problem as Kendal Anderson’s book suffers from weak scholarly arguments, lack of research, and shallow research into the Book of Mormon. Moreover, Anderson’s work suffered from clichés,[1] sloppy typos, vague descriptions of historical events, lack of proper academic tone,[2] anti-intellectualism,[3] and slight engagement with scholarship.  This review will examine 4 brief examples from the many possible which underscore these serious flaws.

Civil War

                Anderson’s weaknesses are shown through several areas, and this was one of the most prominent. As part of his over reliance on marginal scholars he argued that the only just wars are the Revolutionary War and the South’s failed attempt to secede.  This was Anderson’s attempt to describe a form of defensive or just war combined with a thin veneer of cherry picked scriptures and simplistic analysis.

                Anderson failed to consider the moral cost of the South’s victory. The immoral practice would not have been abolished by the anarchist capitalism positions of ridiculous libertarians.  Anderson faces the same problem is his criticism of World War II.  As I pointed out in my criticisms of J. Reuben Clark, Anderson’s decisions would have left millions in slavery and millions more killed in genocide.  That is hardly just, and doesn’t take into account clear verses in the Book of Mormon that support a variety of military action.[4]

                The author also turned into a Southern apologist for slavery and states’ rights.  This is a trope brought out by those that deny the Civil War was fought over slavery, but proponents of the discredited “lost cause” school of thought don’t realize that the only right of states in question was the right to practice slavery. Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said in his Corner Stone Speech said that the “corner stone” of their new country was the fundamental truth that blacks were inferior to whites and slavery guaranteed. The state secession conventions echoed this sentiment as well.  Anderson seemed so narrowly focused on the principle of coercion in the North’s fight against the South that he failed to realize the cost of inaction and the moral power of the Northern position; he also echoes those that supported and defended slavery.  Of course government conduct during war is often contemptible, but there is an importance difference between the moral cause of the war and immoral conduct during the war.  This difference failed to appear in Anderson’s contribution to the libertarian echo chamber.[5] 

                Another debate is the role that Lincoln played during the war. I often ask my students the ways in which Lincoln was a dictator.[6] But I ask those questions to illustrate the seeming contradiction that Lincoln had to bend the constitution in order to save it.  Again, this is part of the debate that real academics and serious student have as they grapple with questions that contain no easy answers and seeming contradictions within history.  It also supports the idea of a constant tension between security and freedom, and how the pendulum often swings between the two.  Libertarians dogmatically focused on a radical ideology fail to have this kind of comprehensive and nuanced awareness of the wider debate. After all, Anderson admitted that he didn’t care for school or pay attention, nor did he like reading obscure texts (8).   

Lost (About) China

                Again relying upon a handful of fringe and conspiratorial scholars, Anderson revealed a woeful ignorance of Chinese history and American foreign policy. Anderson stated that the Chinese Civil War started in 1931.  But only the Nationalist counter insurgency campaign started in 1931. The Communist insurgency really started with the failed uprising at Nanchang in 1927. Anderson also said they were in the “northwest” (149) but that didn’t happen until after the Long March of 1934.
Even worse than factual errors, Anderson presented a very tendentious history of the region.  For example, he presented Chiang-Kai Shek as a democratic reformer. Unfortunately, Chiang wasn’t nearly as good at reforming as he sounded.  Chiang’s strongest military forces were shattered during the Battle of Shanghai (1937) and he had to rely heavily upon warlord troops for the rest of the war.  Reforms were very difficult to implement due to this reliance, and of course a total war of survival against a vastly superior Japanese army.  The Communists, moreover, followed 3 Main Rules and 8 Points of Discipline that deliberately set them apart from the Nationalists and won the favor of peasants. They were much more adept at guerrilla warfare and highlighting their successes which further enhanced their prestige with the masses.[7]  After World War II the U.S. believed in a largely hands off policy that tried to broker a united front between the Nationalists and Communists similar to the 1920s and early period of the war with Japan from 1937 until the New Fourth Army incident of 1941.  In contrast to Anderson’s attacks that simply parroted other scholars, instead of “meddling”(150)the U.S. was too interested in peace, and as result they didn’t do enough immediately after World War II.
Thus Anderson is woefully ignorant of the history in this region. He relied upon a narrow group of scholars from the dated and tendentious Naked Communist of Cleon Skousen to the admittedly conspiratorial Jack Monett (134).   Its also a bit odd how Anderson argued in the rest of his book that America was immoral for intervening in world affairs, such as having bases in 130 countries (38), except in his (ignorant) view of China, where America should have picked sides in a 20 year long civil war to support Chiang Kai-Shek. 

Paranoid Style

                As an undergraduate I was a Marshall Scholar who had the opportunity to examine the archives at the George C. Marshall foundation at the Virginia Military Institute.  My award winning paper examined the confirmation of Marshall as Secretary of Defense during 1950. I bring this up because the fiercest critics of Marshall were isolationist Republicans such as William Jenner and Joseph McCarthy. During an epic rant on the senate floor Jenner invoked a long list of conspiracy theories ranging from FDR’s recognition of the Soviet Union, to the betrayal at Yalta, the loss of China, and finally the 1950 invasion of South Korea.
During my research I noticed that those like Jenner used what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style of American politics to attack Marshall and the loss of China as part of some wide spread conspiracy to aid Communism. Hofstadter used this theory to discuss right wing isolationists and how “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that they used to argue.[8] 

This summary of the paranoid style was somewhat discursive but its important because I wanted to show how perfectly it describes Anderson’s approach. He admitted to using conspiratorial authors. He used heated exaggerations throughout the book but especially the chapter on World War II.  He echoed the arguments of radical right wing politicians that accused Democrats of secretly aiding communism from FDR’s recognition of the Soviet Union, to the betrayal at Yalta, loss of China, and dereliction of duty that led to the invasion of South Korea. Not every historian is expected to know every facet of every time period.  But Anderson shows such a stunning ignorance of history that he ended up mirroring the paranoid style of McCarthyites, sometimes almost word for word, without a trace of self-awareness.

Book of Mormon

                Anderson showed little awareness for items in the Book of Mormon, which is most grievous considering the title of his book.  Half his book was devoted to reprinting the works of various libertarians in very long appendices; the substance of his book relied far too heavily on shallow and paranoid summaries of history.  When he did get around to discussing the Book of Mormon, he confessed to only studying for “several months”(9) and his analysis was both superficial and scant. To cite a few examples, he claimed its unethical to perform seek and destroy missions (11), but didn’t notice the Book of Mormon says the Nephites “searched and destroyed’ without negative editorial comment (Helaman 11:28). He attacked Lincoln for his indefinite detention of prisoners (32),(as he typically did so using a block quote from a questionable scholar), yet failed to notice Moroni did the same (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:4).[9] He argued that the Nephite system of judges was “not unlike our constitutional system” (45). This statement is made in ignorance of the excellent article from Richard Bushman who explained, among other items, that early Americans would have balked at monarchal qualities such as life long tenure of chief judges and the seemingly hereditary nature of the position.[10]

Anderson asserted that “the fruits of the Nephite war of defense against the Lamanites were peace, liberty, freedom of religion, the mass conversion of Lamanite POWs, and the restoration of Nephite lands and property (144).” This is stunningly ignorant of the text. As soon as a single chapter after the war ended the Nephites lost their capital to the Lamanites. By Helaman 4, Moroni’s son could only regain half the land. And the Book of Helaman is replete with wicked chief judges, the constant quest for money (Helaman 6:7, 18; 7:5, 21), and Lamanites that were more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:1). This is hardly the golden age of peace and liberty that Anderson claimed.  My new book shows how the reforms of Moroni such as heavier armor and more fortifications changed Nephite strategy and tactics for the worse, allowed the robbers to flourish, likely required rapacious taxation, and probably fueled the insurgency.

                Everybody has different opinions about warfare but the strongest opinions are based upon diligent study, careful reading of primary sources, solid analysis, and rational arguments.  I chose these four topics because they respectively represent research done for my Master’s thesis, Marshall award, research grant, and critically acclaimed book.   In contrast, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective does not even show an awareness of many crucial sources, let alone a thorough study and sound assessment of them.  Anderson showed a dilettantish approach as he relied upon a small group of fringe scholars and tried to squeeze the round Book of Mormon into the square hole of libertarianism.[11]  I cannot recommend this book except to provide examples of how to have an appearance of scholarship while denying the power thereof. 

Anderson justified quitting college in part because he didn’t want to read “obscure texts.” Some texts are obscure because we are still learning and haven’t come across them yet; or because we are simply too lazy to obtain, read, and reflect upon them.  Others are obscure because they are justifiably relegated by the larger academic community to the dusty margins of book shelves occupied by inconsequential, fringe pseudo scholars.  Anderson’s book will remain obscure for the second reason.


[1] See pg. 13 for Satayana’s cliché about repeating history if you don’t remember it. On pg. 25 he cites the cliché about the winners writing history. pg. 75 contains the clichéd Ad Hiterlum fallacy. See pg. 83 where he used Lord Acton’s cliché about absolute power corrupting absolutely, misspelling Acton’s name in the process.  And on pg. 157 he cites Ben Franklin's cliché  that those who give up liberty for security deserve neither.     
[2] See for example, pgs. 41-42, 163, and 166.
[3] See pg. 8 where he “shirked college study” because it was riddled with “pap” (8), also see pg. 69.
[4] See Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015) and my forthcoming review for Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture for an example of a serious and comprehensive discussion of LDS scriptures on war.  
[5] He gives lip service to the distinction but his only comments concerning misconduct in war served to condemn all war outside of the two approved by libertarians.  He never mentioned the idea that wars can be just even if unjust actions occur during them. For example, in graduate school I read arguments regarding the “first war of war” that arose because the widespread and common practice of frontier warfare during the colonial era which deliberately targeted civilians and destroyed villages.
[7] See for example, Yang Kuisong, “Nationalist and Communist Guerrilla Warfare in North China,” in The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, Hans Van De Ven eds, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 308-327.
[8] Hofstadter, Richard (November 1964). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine.
[9] He somewhat acknowledged this later in his book, but still said that Moroni did not exercise “the slightest degree of unrighteous dominion” (174).
[10] Richard L. Bushman, “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 189–212.
[11] He acknowledged in the first paragraph that he spent a long time trying to “reconcile my Mormon theology with secular libertarianism”(8). An honest and fearless researcher will spend years allowing the text to challenge and even change his beliefs as they try to move past their superficial understanding of it. Not spend months trying to see his favored philosophy within the text.     

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