Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The War of Words

I wrote the following as part of my free lance position at Opslens. Frequent readers of this blog will notice how many of my points builds upon what I've wrote. For those that deal with radical libertarians and others the first part about the word "war monger" is especially needed. Because its not as though I've ever been called a warmonger, the term has been used with reckless abandon, and those kind of people like to compare their opponents to Nazis, or Gadianton Robbers as a way to avoid substantive cross examination of their positions.]
In the battle of competing ideas sometimes words can be the first casualty. The abuse of the word establishment was so rampant during the election that I joked I should have started a restaurant with that name so I could get free advertising.  All joking aside, misapplying words as pejoratives can muddle the debate, obscure real threats, or become a tool of hysteria. 

Many of these words aren’t necessarily used with ill intent, but as a way to illicit an emotional response and compensate for poor arguments. For example, anti-war advocates like to use the word war monger to insult people or positions they don’t like without having to engage the relative merits of the proposed action. In trying to ask them for a definition I have never received a clear definition except one who supports war. But plenty of Americans generally oppose war while recognizing that terrorists, dictators, mad men, and those that want to use weapons of mass destruction should be stopped. That desire doesn’t warrant the insulting term war monger. Their misuse of warmonger means that anti-war advocates don’t have to answer for the inaction they propose which allows genocides to occur.

Moreover, there are policies and positions that sometimes run the risk of war that actually support peace.  America for example, continues to support Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea which are attacked as war mongering and “picking a fight” with China. But supporting freedom of the seas prevents a violent free for all in the region where disputes over territory would be settled by those most willing and able to use force.  This applies to Syria as well. Hillary Clinton proposed a no fly zone which was roundelay attacked by Trump and isolationists.  It’s true that a no fly zone carries the risk of war, but it has many benefits with great humanitarian value. A no fly zone or safe area will help the millions of displaced persons and increasing numbers of persecuted minority groups, some of which have been turned into sex slaves. It would prevent the use of chemical weapons and other war crimes by the Assad regime, and it has a great chance to weaken ISIS and other radical groups. But instead of engaging the merits of a no fly zone, Freedom of Seas Operations, possible NATO operations, and so many other items, critics would rather launch rhetorical bombs that shut down discussion. 

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter

One of the biggest misuses of words in the modern world, and one of the biggest threats America faces is that of terrorism.  It’s very popular to repeat the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. This argument was used often during the war in Iraq to denigrate American military intervention abroad and simultaneously bolster the insurgents fighting America.  In the sense that words themselves are weapons, this is entirely true.  Various revolutionary groups, terrorists, and the governments that oppose them can use the terms to either bolster their position or undermine their opponents. Yet, despite the manipulation of words, and despite some of the disputes over the definition of terrorism, it’s still entirely possible to tell the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.  Behaviors like donning a uniform, discrimination between military and nonmilitary targets, discernment against or deliberate targeting of civilians, and declarations of war from recognized heads of state, makes it very easy to distinguish between George Washington and Abu Al Baghdadi. There is some overlap between insurgents and terrorism, but it’s not nearly as indistinguishable as the purveyors of the cliché would lead you to believe. 

This means we should be very careful in the words we use in discussing policy. Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.”   (In truth it was a complex mixture of both.) Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage.  In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, each side for and against it, avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it. In all of these debates the very words used and choosing one that stigmatized tried to shape the contours of the debate in a duplicitous way.


This is most important when it comes to matters of jihad. The strict definition of the word is rather innocuous. It means to assume a burden or struggle against unrighteousness. This is little different than the Christian phrase to take up your cross.  But many terrorists are called some variation of radical jihadists. This leads to a superficial debate where one side argues that war mongers are unfairly targeting peaceful religionists. On the other side foreign policy hawks accuse their opponents of trying to deny the existence of a radical threat. The reality is a bit more complicated. There a hundreds of millions of Muslims around the word that peacefully struggle against unrighteousness.  But if even only 1% of Muslims are radical that means thousands of potential attackers. The difficulty comes when the radicals deliberately claim the peaceful definition for themselves knowing that many in the media would like to call those warning against militant groups racists or islamophobic.  The discussion then gets shut down between the various sides using contested and sometimes manipulated definitions.  

These few examples could be expanded to included words like establishment, liberal, neocon, and even moderate. While they might sound nice and authoritative many of these words are used as personal insults or to obscures sound assessments.  Terrorists and jihadists call themselves freedom fighters or peaceful to avoid arousing a vigorous response from their targets.  The media call foreign policy hawks racists or warmongers to stigmatize their position. Yet the threats remain. Hopefully those that want to formulate substantive policy can use words for their clinical precision and not their value as a pejorative. 

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Those Who Say Wrong Things Righteously

Greetings! I hope you are having a good holiday.  This is a brief update and collection of links about what I've been writing and studying, as well as a brief note about how I choose my topics.

I have a position writing military and national security commentary with Opslens.  I discuss items ranging from the US military budget, the history of Taiwan and why their phone call to Trump was such a big deal, the confirmation of General Mattis (because I just happened to do an award winning paper on the previous confirmation hearing of a Secretary of Defense that needed a waiver), drones, and the futility of a hash tag against Boko Harram.  Its been fun and rewarding to write about what I love and not have to write click bait trash for ranker, or what bordered on fake news (and was definitely click bait trash) for a Donald Trump news site.

I've sometimes wondered how I could write so much and meet my deadlines.  But I remembered something that Jonah Goldberg wrote: According to legend, when George Will signed up to become a syndicated columnist in the 1970s, he asked his friend William F. Buckley, Jr. — the founder of National Review and a columnist himself — “How will I ever write two columns a week?” Buckley responded (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh it will be easy. At least two things a week will annoy you, and you’ll write about them.” Buckley was right. Annoyance is an inspiration, aggravation a muse. That which gets your blood up, also gets the ink — or these, days, pixels — flowing. Show me an author without passion for what he holds to be the truth and I will show you either a boring writer or someone who misses a lot of deadlines, or both. Nothing writes itself, and what gets the writer to push that boulder uphill is more often than not irritation with those saying wrong things righteously.

I have plenty that I could write about, but when I hit a road block I think of somebody who "said wrong things righteously."  Sometimes I worry this tends to bring out my worst tendencies. Like most people, I have my faults and I was keenly aware of them, even before my ex wife reminded me! lol. For me, applying Buckley's advice to respond to those who annoy me reminds me of scripture! Ether 12:27 reminds us that as we realize our weak things we can bring them to Christ and he will make them strong. Instead of indulging in my weaker tendencies like getting in a flame war, writing comments that will probably be deleted, stewing about it in the shower, holding a grudge, or generally putting way too much emotional energy into worthless pursuits. I channel that negative energy into a dogged determination that sustains my research and propels my writing. The final results are thoughtful and substantive pieces that respond to the original annoyance, but are published in venues that advances my career and promotes civil discussion.  (With the added benefit of boycotting the people and sites that bug me in the first place.)

I've written several op eds which were responses to arguments that annoyed me. I have a regular free lance gig that is quite enjoyable where I get to explore and explain the topics that are dear to me and respond to ideas that aren't.  I have several journal articles and books, including a contract with Westholme Press, that explain my arguments in far more substantive ways than a deleted post ever could. And I do it in a way that is both enjoyable and advances my career. Thanks for letting me explain a bit of my approach, and thanks for reading!

[I work as a freelance writer and military historian. If you found value in this post please consider making a one time donation or subscribing using the buttons below. Thank you.] 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Take up arms and destroy or be smitten against the wall: Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon

            I'm working on several exciting projects.  My paper on the Nephite experience in battle is about to be published with The Interpreter. I signed a contract to produce a book on decisive battles in Chinese history, and I'm working on a new paper on preemptive war.  Of course I've written about this before, but I've noticed several more verses where it was mentioned. As I considered the matter I found several more, and given my additional research and though on the topic I thought it was worth organzing into a paper that I think will make an extremely meaningful contribution to the subject. I still have to make the bibliography, and tinker with a few things here and there, but overall I think its ready to submit to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.  This is the section that summarizes the verses I analyze:

            The verses will be analyzed in more detail below and only summarized briefly here. In the Book of Omni the Nephites fled the Land of Nephi. A few verses later and within a short space of time, and then in greater detail in Zeniff’s record, the Nephites sent scouts to spy on the Lamanites, that they might “come upon and destroy them” (Mosiah 9:1).  The Nephites had already committed to launch a sneak attack, and they were looking for the best location. Zeniff changed his mind after seeing what was good in the Lamanites, but with the benefit of hindsight he also admitted his decisions were overzealous and naïve. The entire account suggests a need to reassess his description of the other Nephite commander as blood thirsty and austere, and that the offensive strategy had merits. 

             Shortly later Ammon recorded, using almost the same words as Zeniff, that the Nephites wanted to “take up arms” and destroy the Lamanites instead of send missionaries to them (Alma 26:25).  This fabulous success of his missionary work is commonly cited as repudiation of the supposedly war mongering tendencies.[1] But various unexamined items that undermine this interpretation include the martial skills used by Ammon, the need for the new Lamanite king to legitimize his rule, the innocent victims in the city of Noah, and the soldiers who died retrieving them suggest unexamined consequences of Ammon’s actions and an under appreciation of Nephite offensive plans.  Defenders of preemptive war and national security practitioners most commonly cite Moroni’s preemptive attack in support of preemptive war.[2] Though there are strong elements in Moroni’s past that support such behavior and even stronger negative consequences of this policy that remain unexamined. While the text says that Moroni was making plans to secure the Nephites, a careful look at his behavior suggests that Moroni’s aggressive tactics contributed significantly to the start of the last phase of the war. The arguments from the people speaking in towers for example (Alma 48:1), would have been much more effective as only slightly more sinister variations of what actually happened or was about to happen. This includes items such as the possible militarization of the vote (Alma 46:21), and the seizure of lands during what was nominally a time of peace, though it might be termed a lull in one long war (Alma 50:7).  Amalickiah would have presented the proposed action to the Lamanite king in the starkest terms. Then it when it actually happened and a flood of Lamanite refugees were entering Lamanite lands, Amalickiah’s position would have been strengthened a great deal.

            The next examples are recorded in Helaman 1.  As discussed above, the same chapter contains both the dangers against and motivation for using preemptive war.  The Nephites faced a serious challenge to leadership and executed somebody for being “about” flatter the people.  But a few verses later the Lamanites, with both political and military positions filled by dissenters, the Lamanites capture Zarahemla and smite the Nephite chief judge against the wall. These verses provide an example of how the distinction between unrighteous and aggressive preventive wars and increasingly justified preemptive wars is incredibly thin, and becomes thinner with the rise of modern technology.

The next two verses are the most cited against offensive warfare.[3] The chief captain Gidgiddoni said “the Lord forbid” in response to offensive action (3 Nephi 3:21). And Mormon was supposedly so disgusted with the Nephites desire for offensive warfare that he resigned his command (Mormon 3:11).  Yet, Gidgiddoni’s command is likely a strategic observation more than command from the Lord. He likely witnessed disastrous Nephite attempts to root out the robbers before (Helaman 11:25-28), and he used offensive actions as part of an overall defensive posture to maneuver and “cut off” the robbers (3 Nephi 4: 24, 26). Mormon moreover, attacked the Nephites bloodlust, vengeance and false oaths and not their strategic decisions (Mormon 3:9-10, 14).  Viewing the Nephites outside of the lens of Mormon’s spiritual denunciations a person sees that the Nephite soldiers actually performed with great skill and élan.  A few verses after their disastrous offensive they actually ended up at the same place as they started.  Faced with endemic warfare against a stronger enemy, absent the Nephite’s blood lust, this was actually their most justified preemptive action. Of course, none of this excuses their rape and cannibalism, but it does suggest we can assess the effectiveness of their strategy apart from their apostasy.

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[1] Joshua Madsen, “A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Richard Bushman eds, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015.) 24. “The mission of Ammon and his brothers to the Lamanites, specifically in defiance of Nephite cultural stereotypes, ultimately demonstrates that acts of love and service can break through false cultural narratives, unite kingdoms, and converts thousand to Christianity where violence could not…In the end, Nephite just wars did not bring peace, whereas those like Ammon who rejected their culture’s political narratives and hatred did.” 
[2] Mark Henshaw, Valerie Hudson et. Al. “War and the Gospel: Perspectives from Latter day Saint National Security Practitioners,” Square Two, v.2 no.2 (Summer 2009.)
[3] Jeffrey Johanson, “Wars of Preemption Wars of Revenge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol.35, no.3 (Fall 202), 244-247. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N03_244.pdf

Sunday, November 6, 2016

My Research on Preemptive War in Cambridge University Press

I'm working on what I hope will be a new journal article on preemptive war. It is coming along nicely and I hope to post a preview here soon. I came across a rather great book called, The Ethics of Preventive War. Its a collected volume from Cambridge University Press. I was rather excited to come across this book because its a frank, calm, and rational discussion about the topic, which is rather lacking. In fact, during my research I found a quote that talks about the "demonic hatred" that many have for the practice. (As a frequent object of that hatred I can relate.)   But here is an author, Chris Brown, who discusses the topic using language very similar to mine: 

[W]hat is different today is the combination of speed and destructiveness; in the Caroline case a decision had to be taken very quickly by the man on the spot, but although the volunteers carried by the Caroline would have been a nuisance had they landed on the Canadian side of the river, they did not pose an existential threat to large numbers of civilians, or to the colony or...to Britain itself. The stakes today are potentially a great deal higher. 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 people and could easily have killed more; the use of some form of WMD could push the death toll much higher, and there is no reason to think that potential terrorists would be loath to cause such mayhem. The central point is that although "instant, overwhelming....[leaving] no time for deliberation" sound like absolute criteria they are in fact, and must be, relative terms- a second was, in practice, a meaningless unit of time in 1839, but in 2007, the average laptop can carry out a billion or more "instructions per second." (34)

Although the new world in which we have to live is not quite as different from the old as it might, at first sight, seem to be, nonetheless there are organizations (state and non-state) in the world whose ideological foundations make them difficult to deter, and whose potential capacity to deliver serious damage to the infrastructure of industrial societies and to their populations make them difficult to ignore. It does seem plausible that some kind of rethinking of the notion of preemption is required... (36)

I wrote the following back in 2009. In fact, this was one of the ideas I wanted to explore, which made me start the blog in the first place.   It turned out to be the basis for my first presentation in the Mormon world and became part of a publication of which I'm rather proud.  Notice how I use follow the author's point about how technology and the threat of terrorists armed with WMDs to meet the justification for preemptive war:

Today battlefields stretch over many miles. The personal weapon of an infantrymen, the M-16, has an effective range of roughly a third of a mile. Jet fighters, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles can launch from one location and strike 6,000 miles away. And Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles can truly live up to their name and strike from continents away.

World wide airline and naval travel easily transport dangerous people and material. The Nephites must have been surprised at how narrow their strip of wilderness could be at times, our protection is just as thin if we do not set proper guards (Hel 1:18) or be "up and doing" in defense of our liberty(Alma 60:24).

During the Cold War we could nominally count on the international order to restrain the actions of our enemy. But even this existence led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Krushchev threatening to "swat America's ass" with the weapons he inserted there. Now we face regimes that explicitly reject that world order, support terrorism as an arm of foreign policy, and seek the most devastating weapons known to man.

The threat is just as real and apparent as the Lamanites marching on Zarahemla. Yet if we wait for the launch of nuclear missiles, or a terrorist attack using the same, we will be lamenting the desolation of Ammonihah instead. Arguing for a neo isolationist foreign policy based on The Book of Mormon ignores the strategic realities that both nations faced as a result of geography and technology. The nature of modern technology, the connection of rogue regimes with terrorist organizations, the precedent re enforced by 9/11, and the shrinking world of globalization demand that pursue an "offensive defensive" like the Nephites of old.

Thanks for reading! Who do you think said it better?  

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Monday, October 31, 2016

A Sober Mind and a Response to Utah Mormons Can Support Trump

I’ve been writing a new future journal article on preemptive war and said that at the very least Moroni should be excused and rescued from the petty political debates of Latter Day Saints that rely upon a very selective and shallow reading of the scriptures that doesn’t properly examine the context of Moroni’s actions.   His actions are far more nuanced than the uninspiring proof texting he receives on so many dogmatic blogs and facebook posts. 

Dr. Wayne Walker discussed why Utah Mormons Can Support Trump. The post is one of many that uses rather shallow analysis and reading from the Book of Mormon and I thought it would be a good test case to compare what a substantive analysis looks like compared to one that is shoving the scriptures into a supporting a political candidate. [All quotes based on his article unless otherwise noted.]

“In Book of Mormon days, some of the Nephite military leaders were chosen because of their size and muscular power in battle.”

Several Book of Mormon leaders were based on size, but so were dissenters such as Coriantumr, who was a “large and mighty man” (Helaman 1:15). Other leaders possessed “austere and bloodthirsty” qualities (Mosiah 9:2). Mormon was chosen for his size, but the people choosing were apostate Nephites ripe for destruction.[1]  His qualification as prophet was based on his “sober” mind that was “quick to observe” (Mormon 1:2, 15).  Not to mention his lineage as a “pure descendant” likely helped his claim to leadership (3 Nephi 5:20). The custom of the Nephites was actually to choose a leader that had the spirit of prophecy (3 Nephi 3:21). In short then, being large of statue was an equivocal standard among others such as lineage that dissenters and apostates liked as much as the righteous, and the latter group had a custom of choosing prophets as military leaders.   

In reading Moroni’s epistle to Ammoron a reader can notice the former’s strength. He had strong words, compelling ideas, and he must have had a rhetorical effect on the reader. But even though Moroni showed powerful words there were limits to the effect. The intent of the letter was to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Moroni was so bad that even though he wanted something from Ammoron he called him a child of hell and threatened genocide (Alma 54: 7, 12.) Then Moroni refused to exchange prisoners and had to instead embark on a daring and risky night mission (Alma 55:2, 16).  The mission was successful, but seemed to be needlessly complicated and risky because of Moroni’s counterproductive, “strong”, negotiating.

In summary, Trump isn’t physically strong and doesn’t possess rhetorical strength beyond shouting bumper stickers. Even if he did, it is a very limited strategy that will not produce the needed results.  Instead, it sounds dangerously close as though the author is justifying a strong man, or some kind of dictator like figure that can ram through whatever solutions he sees fit.  Given the gridlock we see, that is tempting, but a very dangerous road.

 “In this regard, the elite of American politics today are playing the same role as the king-men in the Book of Mormon.”

The author doesn’t present any evidence of this. He lists some names, a few of which I have read for over ten years, and I don’t see any evidence of their being king men. In fact, Trump’s nomination would point to the exact opposite.  Like Laman and Lemuel who were within close contact of Nephi for years but never managed to even try and kill him,[2] the Republican elites must be the worst conspiracy ever, as they obviously didn’t like Trump but nominated him anyway. To quote my old college professor, so many people dislike Trump there is no need for a conspiracy, all they people have to do is vote to get rid of him!  Moreover, its quite ridiculous for a man that lives in a giant gold plated tower whose dry cleaning bill is larger than many of his supporters yearly income is not a part of the elite.  This is a very shallow interpretation that seems to imply the author wants to execute those with whom he disagrees. He even started this section by saying:

“Those dissenters who became angry enemies who would not make the covenant were immediately put to death by Captain Moroni. Why? Those individuals were seen as a real threat to the Nephite government and the country’s freedom”

This sounds nice in theory. We like freedom and we want to fight for it. But who gets to decide who is a threat?  For example, those residents and hunters living near a remote Oregon compound might have felt threatened by an armed militia seizing a compound, even if they called themselves “free man.” The Greeks claimed to be fighting for freedom, but the helots of Sparta and slaves of Athens might have considered the Persian invaders as the ones fighting for (their) freedom.   According to the author’s logic, the armed militia led by the Bundy’s was a threat that should have been executed. Indeed,  Moroni executed the king men to strengthen the central government (Alma 51:20-22). The rebels in this case were Amalikciah and his followers.  

We can take the use of government power even further.  The people of Ammon gave a “large portion” (Alma 43:14) of their substance to the Nephites, so it is not unrealistic to suggest that other groups of people also had a “large portion” taken from them, and that they were less than thrilled with the confiscatory measures of the government. The government would naturally find rival elites with surplus goods and conspicuous consumption of them (Alma 30:27) very attractive ways to fund the war effort.  Alma 46:4 said that many of these dissidents were the lower judges who professed nobility.  From the point of view of the Nephite rulers then, they have a chance to strengthen their own position as elites in society by harming their internal rivals while at the same time funding a war against their external enemies (Alma 46:4). Keep in mind that many of these nobles were imprisoned and killed during the great war. Their lands would have been confiscated by officials and then redistributed as a reward for support or to further strengthen the elites holding power. To summarize, if we accept the idea that Nephite elites might have acted in their own self-interest, and might have caused their own problems, the text suggests that they strengthened their own position, rewarded followers, harmed their rivals, and defeated external enemies, and did all of this in the name of the common people, their wives, their families and their liberty!![3] There is a certain irony in raising a standard of freedom, but then forcing people at sword point to support that freedom (Alma 51:20).

“Moreover, Trump clearly won the vast majority of voters in the Republican primary.   The Book of Mormon is clear that there is something powerful about the voice of the majority.”

I would dispute the fact that Trump had the vast majority of votes. The author may be referring to the fact that Trump accumulated more votes than any other candidate in history, but since the population is higher than ever before that is a useless statistic. This nomination process went on longer than any other in modern history because he had such comparatively little support among Republicans to the point that there was discussion of a convention fight. 

Having a majority rule doesn’t mean the rest of the people must abandon their freedom.  Again, I cite the irony of Moroni forcing people to support freedom. You can call it free, but the government obviously exercised compulsive power over its subjects.  I would ask the author if he is so willing to concede to the majority if Hillary wins.  The foundations of American democracy, the freedom to vote for what you think is right, and the responsibility to avoid trampling the rights of minorities are enshrined in the Constitution, explained by Madison in the Federalist papers, and not waived because of a shallow reading from the BoM. 

“Unless those “dissenters” repent, the wrong candidate”

Its not a sin to support Hillary Clinton. I personally think she is a deeply flawed candidate, but I recognize the freedom of others to make decisions that I think are foolish. If the author were to really follow the Book of Mormon he would indefinitely detain political prisoners before executing them (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:4).

“Today, as in Book of Mormon days, building walls to keep the undocumented and often criminal enemy out is seen as effective”

Building walls was a military tactic used during a war. The Nephites actually did very little to control immigration in the way the author is suggesting. Helaman 3:3, 6:6 and 3 Nephi 7:13 all refer to unchecked immigration, and I could show more examples where Nephites and Lamanites crossed borders without walls. One man, Samuel the Lamanite, used the walls to preach, not to impede his movement.   The analogy is wholly inappropriate.  

“How much independent policy thinking will someone like that be able to bring to the office? Not much. So in other words, Evan is another politician imbued with spirit and money of the elitists, the modern day “king-men.””

Another shallow comparison used to denigrate. As I discussed at the recent FAIR conference: [The discussion of robbers in history led] to the use of words that were far more emotional than accurate. We see the potency of words today as well. Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.” (In truth it was a complex mixture of both.) Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage. In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, each side for and against it, avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it.
Most people who accused the Bundys of terrorism do so utterly unware of the long history of using words as weapons. I certainly disagree with their actions, but I was even more bothered by the casual use of emotional charged words based upon political inclinations more than clinical definitions…I hope we can use terms that are clinically precise and avoid needless bomb throwing when discussing sensitive issues, like actual bomb throwing.

Speaking of being clinically precise, I believe McMullin is one of the only serious candidates in this race. For example, I’ve written about his reasonable and excellent China policy for the Salt Lake Tribune.[4] I don’t see much from the author connecting him to being elitist, except for name dropping people on the same ideological spectrum as him.  As I said before the last time I was accused of being a country club elitist, the only country club I’ve ever entered was that time I was a dish washer in college.

“It is time for Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney and the Deseret News editors to swallow their pride”

 It would actually be easier for many people to vote for Trump. Never Trump people are called all sorts of names, including king men elitists in this post. But the members of the Never Trump have to follow their conscience, and they can’t vote for a man with serious moral flaws.  Calling people elite might work for those with lots of anger towards elites and would rather think with their hearts, but it doesn’t mean you’ve thoroughly analyzed and assessed a person’s position.  


A strong stigma can be created based on a narrow interpretation of a couple of verses, and an almost demonic dislike for a position bred from a dogmatic devotion to political planks more than a substantive and nuanced interpretation of the scriptures.  Given the lives at stake it’s important the Latter Day Saints have all the tools for judging political candidates. That comes from intensive study and a nuanced interpretation of verses that challenge and broaden our understanding. 

[Thank you for reading. I work as a freelance writer. If you find value in this work please consider donating using the small pay pal buttons below.)
[1] h/t Mark Wright on facebook.
[2] See Grant Hardy’s argument about them in Understanding the Book of Mormon.
[3] From my new book, “Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon” forthcoming. For a review of my methodology please see the bottom half of this post; http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2016/10/put-on-your-korihor-caps-why.html
[4] I meant to do a post announcing this, so surprise! It feels good to get published, and it was extra good to publish something that was deleted on another site by an overzealous moderator.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Put on your Korihor Caps: Why Reassessing the Book of Mormon (even its Villains), is Righteous!

The Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, recently published an article by Duance Boyce. His article called “Reclaiming Jacob” is a rebuttal to Adam Miller’s arguments about Jacob. In essence, Miller reassessed the verses to show how Jacob debated doctrine about Christ instead of being Christlike, and talked about love and not showing it. There is some suggestion that Jacob was hard to find, and did not minister to the fallen Sherem.  The latter is shown to care about the law and be similar to Laman and Lemuel in trying to protect received Jewish tradition against what might have seemed like corrupting visions from Jacob.  There is a great deal more to his original argument and the rebuttal. I’m writing a rebuttal to Boyce, but overall I highly recommend you read it.

I’m commenting because some of the Facebook chatter has been incredibly disconcerting. The first comment suggested that Miller was moving beyond reassessing to “manufacturing fault out of thin air.” The next comment was almost word for word what I expected people to say in response to my work. The person said that “Miller not only suggests we've all misread Jacob 7, but that is was mis-written in the first place. This is not even a remotely faithful perspective and it makes me wonder if Miller might see shades of himself in the Sherem of Jacob 7.”  

Declaring a line of inquiry unfaithful and calling him Sherem is incredibly dogmatic and insulting.  The tone then became one of derision and mockery, with the final critic also judging Miller’s spiritual state for making his arguments.[1] (He doesn't want to "ascribe any bad intentions," he just compares Miller to Jacob's learned targets who forgot God[2 Nephi 9:28].) Since I have a whole book that essentially uses the same methodology as Miller, I felt personally attacked by this thread and disturbed by the casual and jocular way they questioned somebody's faith and approach. Instead of spending my birthday receiving insults, I decided to let it rest, but then realized I should comment now if I'm to be of any value in the discussion. Luckily, I have a whole manuscript that uses and shows the value of this methodology.  In the introduction I make the case as to why this methodology is appropriate and why a nuanced reassessment of both heroes and villains in the text CAN help us understand the scriptures, place them in history, and bring new insight that can help us apply the scriptures and lead better lives. Here are the most relevant passages:

Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon:

Reading the text with modern and western eyes, and reading based upon the assumptions we’ve grown up with, will influence the way we understand the scriptures a great deal.  If the Book of Mormon is a historical account of real people, then their decisions should reveal the same bias, weaknesses, blind spots, and disputes as other historical events, and upon closer examination, we do see that. 

President of the American Historical Association James Grossman pointed out that “learning history means engaging with aspects of the past that are troubling, as well as those that are heroic… critics are unhappy, perhaps, that a once comforting story has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling.”[2]

The Book of Mormon is an inspiring book of scripture that has converted millions.  Yet with a critical revisionist eye we might see behaviors of the Nephites that are more complex, unsettling, provocative, and ultimately compelling.  It helps us reassess and revaluate past ideas and event in the light of new interpretations or data. 

This kind of history can, and should, be used to illuminate Mormon history and the Book of Mormon as well. Dallin H Oaks said:

We’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything unfavorable, and we’re coming into a ‘warts and all’ kind of history.  Perhaps our writing of history is behind the times, but I believe that there is a purpose in all things- there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they are now. [3]

In addition to modern precedent, the ancient historians within the Book of Mormon criticized their people fairly often. Lehi’s preaching angered the people of Jerusalem to such an extent that they sought to kill him (1 Nephi 1:20). Nephi faced the same treatment from his brothers (1 Nephi 7:16).  Alma recorded how the pride of church members became a ”great stumbling block” to those that weren’t in the church (Alma 4:19).  The Nephites became so wicked that Samuel the Lamanite preached to them (Helaman 13-15), and the Book of Mormon recorded how the people set Nephi’s execution date (3 Nephi 1.)  My book simply attempts to tease out additional and often unstated details within the text to reveal an even greater understanding of it.    

Another useful way to view revisionist study is by considering the three levels of history introduced by Davis Bitton and others.[4] The first level is “A” level history. This is a fairly simplistic but useful category of history. All the major characters wear white hats as virtuous and noble members of the church (or founders of the Republic). Occasionally members might make mistakes but leaders seldom, if ever do.[5] Nothing is suppressed but the history has an appealing simplicity with no controversies to complicate matters. I sometimes call this Disneyland level history because of its pleasant nature and ability to be communicated in simple terms.   “B” level history is the exact opposite of the first level.  All of the good guys turn into bad guys, their motives are invariably sinister, and everything is meant to seem chaotic but ultimately the major players and events are just as simplistic as “A” level history.  This is the history most often produced by vociferous opponents of the church. The problem with level “B” is that there are many facts and ideas in this level which are true, but might trouble a member who has never heard them before or hears them out of context.  This is the level in which members are lost if they don’t move to level “C.” This last level is when members understand their leaders are most often sincere and good people working in sometimes tragic and mistaken fashion through a fallen world.  With a proper incorporation of their faults it doesn’t diminish leaders but brings an additional appreciation of them.  The “C” level brings an appreciation of the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants where the Lord says that he gives commandments to his servants “in their weakness” and that “inasmuch as [my servants] err it might be made known” (D&C1:24-25). It brings additional understanding to the statement that the Lord is collectively pleased with His church but not with the individuals in it (D&C 1:30).  This level brings an appreciation of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young struggling through mortal life and leadership and helps us understand that history is complicated.  It also helps us appreciate the decisions they made, and like any history, gives us additional tools to assess and respond to problems that we currently face. Above all, it enriches the scriptures for us by providing a vastly deeper and meaningful context for the events beyond having super heroes on one side and comic book arch-villains on the other. 

This level brings an appreciation to the many complaints of Mormon (Title Page, Ether 12:25-26) and Nephi (1 Nephi 19:6) that complained of their weaknesses. Even though the verses mentioned above are well known in the church, few people have examined the “C” level history of the Book of Mormon.  Members of the church feel the text is faith promoting and spiritually transformative in their lives. I share that appreciation of the text.  Critics of the church rarely feel the need to analyze the history presented within the text itself, outside of stale criticisms of supposedly disqualifying anachronisms.  Many Mormon scholars themselves are increasingly moving away from viewing the text as historical, but wish to study the text’s 19th century milieu or use it to advance social justice or peace studies.[6] Those can be valuable, but a historical study that rethinks and reassesses our understanding of the historical events described in the Book of Mormon will help bring an additional understanding and appreciation for the complexity of the events and people described in the text.  And it is the aim of this book to provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of those leaders within Book of Mormon. Just as the mature faith of members are beginning to develop for the flawed, loved, complex, sometimes grossly mistaken, but still inspired 19th century leaders. 

As a result of moving to “C” level history I’ve had to challenge my assumptions about the text. The best example of this methodology comes from the FARMS volume, Rediscovering the Book of Mormon. Literature scholar Grant Hardy discussed Mormon’s role as editor and how that affected Mormon’s conduct as a historian.[7] Mormon as a historian wrote that the Lamanites attacked the city of Ammonihah in Alma 16. It reported that the Lamanites destroyed the city, kidnapped its inhabitants, and after many battles and kidnapping some people from the city of Noah the Nephites defeated them.  The readers never know what happened to the innocent bystanders kidnapped from the city of Noah.  As Hardy argued, using the “C” level history that accounts for the bias of writers, that Nephite history didn’t support the narrative that good people are saved and bad people suffer. As a result the information about the kidnapped residents of Noah wasn’t included in the story.  When Mormon discussed the region again most of the history was left out except for the spiritual cause of that region’s destruction (Alma 49:9.)

Readers can see Mormon’s spiritual purpose (which form a bias) in Hardy’s example; and ancient writers had more biases as well.   They wrote ethno centric accounts that often reported the prejudices of other people. In secular histories, Herodotus recorded that the Persians seemed weak and effeminate for example. Writer’s like Enos also displayed a tendency to denigrate others when he described the Lamanites as “wild, ferocious and blood thirsty” people full of “filthiness” (Enos 1:20.) Other writers showed different bias. Julius Caesar wrote military histories like the Gallic Wars for popular consumption and adulation. As a result he often praised individual Centurions for their bravery in battle, but side stepped his own poor strategic choices that necessitated battle in the first place.  Historians like Thuycides wrote to explore the role of justice, power, and virtue in political and military actions.  Chinese dynastic chroniclers wrote the history of the previous dynasty and particularly how the bad last emperor forfeited the right to rule.  Many Medieval European historians focused on ecclesiastical history and the role of God in directing man’s destiny and the rise of the church. While many Latter Day Saints would identify with that, the Venerable Bede and others often wrote from a Roman centered viewpoint and were hardly fair towards the indigenous tribes they encountered. (Though ironically, the paucity of written sources from these cultures means that the historians owe the bulk of their information about minority cultures to the ethno centric accounts of their imperialistic visitors.)

In any case, the role of the historian as dispassionate, rational, objective observer of history is a rather late phenomenon that doesn’t reflect how Mormon wrote his record.  If we read the account as though Mormon were objective, or a member of the modern church, we miss crucial details in the text.  The bias that an author has reflects in his writing like finger prints.  When we see these fingerprints, we might reasonably ask what bias is reflected, and how recognizing that bias would modify our understanding of the text. 

[My] book is the product of that searching.   It provides counter arguments that offer alternative explanations and even provide some defenses for typical villains like Amalickiah and Giddianhi, and I question the motives of many Nephite leaders such as Gideon, Moroni, and Lachoneus.  This is a radical reinterpretation of the text which might make it sometimes seem like I’m shooting Bambi’s mother.  But these arguments are designed to bring us to that “C” level of history, where the good guys do not ride in on white horses, the bad guys on black horses, and instead every person acts with the complexity, ambiguity, and self interest that we would expect from history, and which might get glossed over in pursuit of the text’s spiritual purpose, or Sunday school lessons and personal readings that fly by too quickly.  These leaders, like the 19th century church leaders, tried to arrive at the best solutions, but often failed, acted out of self-interest, or created unintended side effects. Their failures can in many cases help them become better people, even as they help us gain an appreciation for fully fleshed out and imperfect people.

[Thanks for reading. If you found value in this work please consider making a donation using one of the pay pal buttons at the bottom of the page.] 

[1] Here are the comments in full:
Matthew Roper: What evidence is there in the text for Jacob's unrighteous behavior? And if Welch is correct, Sherem's accusations would have been a capital offense if proven. A healthy skepticism of sources noting possible bias is one thing. Manufacturing fault out of thin air is another.
Michael Davidson: This is an effective rebuttal. In very simple terms, Miller not only suggests we've all misread Jacob 7, but that is was mis-written in the first place. This is not even a remotely faithful perspective and it makes me wonder if Miller might see shades of himself in the Sherem of Jacob 7.
Gregory L Smith: Well, when you can create what should have been written out of thin air and starshine, of COURSE everyone else has "misread" it.
Tracy Hall Jr.: Would this be a good place to publicize my Kickstarter campaign to rehabilitate Korihor? :)
Andrew Sargent: I've yet to read Miller and not come away feeling that much "looking beyond the mark, and stumbling because of it" has taken place with him.
I won't ascribe to him bad intentions, only a reminder it seems that ironically another warning from Jacob is applicable, namely that we need to be careful as we become learned, to not think we are wise, and therefore can insert our thoughts and ideas and set aside what God has already given us.
[2] James R. Grossman, “The History Wars,” New York Times, September 1st, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/02/opinion/the-new-history-wars.html (Accessed September 2nd, 2014.)
[3] Dallin H. Oaks, “Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from the PBS Documentary”, (July 20th, 2007) http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/elder-oaks-interview-transcript-from-pbs-documentary (Accessed August 31st, 2014.)
[4] Davis Bitton, “I don’t have a testimony of the history of the church” 2004 FAIR Conference  Sandy Utah.  Daniel Peterson, “Reflecting on Gospel Scholarship with Abu Al Walid and Abu Hamid, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Sripture 3 (2013) v-xxxii. 
[5] Peterson, Reflecting on Gospel Scholarship, xxvii-xxviii.
[6] Grant Hardy, “The Book of Mormon and Social Justice,” Meridian Magazine (March 21st, 2011) http://www.ldsmag.com/1/article/7677 (Accessed August 31st, 2014.) Joshua Madsen, A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon (Greg Kofford Books, forthcoming.)
[7] Grant Hardy, “Mormon As Editor” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon John Sorenson, Melving Thorne eds. (Salt Lake City: FARMS, 1991)15-28.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

More Aggressive than China and Russia?

[This is a response I posted over at the Millennial Star. I know I'm really busy, and you must be wondering why I can't leave it alone, but I thought this was a good chance to get a four for one post. First, I get to post my research there. Frankly, those guys could use some experience with facts and research. Second, I also get to do another blog post here. I write so much in a given day I often just don't have the time for one more item.  Third, I get to tell you about some of the secular research I'm doing.  Fourth, taking a great deal of information and creating a coherent and convincing argument out of it is a very important skill. It never hurts to get one more chance to practice it.  Thanks for reading. I hope you vote for the best person that you think represents your interests. Its a comment post on a blog so please forgive any typos.] 

I recently started a couple of new positions. I cover the East Asian and Pacific military matters for Strategy and Tactics magazine.  It’s been a nice side gig to my teaching and it’s much more fun to talk about the type 53 Frigate than explaining the syllabus over and over again. I also started a research internship at the Hudson Institute. This one focuses on Russia, not my specialty in China, but its been really interesting. I bring this up because I regularly produce policy type article and read a million bits of information a week regarding these powers.  When you said that McMullin is more aggressive than China and Russia I was very glad I wasn’t drinking anything or I would have done a spit take.  I went back to my saved articles and research I’ve written and these are a brief summary of the last few months of behavior for China and Russia:

China thumbed its nose at the world court ruling regarding against them Scarborough shoal in the Spartly Islands.  As a response they’ve placed even more weapons systems and missiles on the island even though it was ruled as part of the Phillipine’s exclusive economic zone.

They’ve developed the YJ12 carrier killing missile. These are missiles specifically designed to as part of their A2 AD strategy as they hope to overwhelm the Aegis defenses surrounding carriers.

In the last 60 years the Chinese have fought offensive wars against every one of their neighbors, on their opponent’s territory.  Immediately after winning the Chinese civil war Mao launched a sneak attack in Korea. (Granted McArthur was nearing Chinese territory but you’ll notice a pattern shortly.)  A few years later Mao seized islands owned by Taiwan. Further operations were curtailed by the timely intervention of American forces in the Taiwan Strait.  They preemptively attacked India to readjust the border in 1962. And they preemptively seized islands in the Assuri river skirmish with Russia in 1969. Its not without notice that China and Russia recently practiced an island seizing exercise near Vietnam. This is where they fought their last offensive war in 1979, and a preemptive seizure of territory is one of the Chinese hallmarks since 1949. Its pure Chinese propaganda and insecurity dating back thousands of years to state they are in the sights of greedy foreigners. 
Immediately after losing the court case they used their new advanced weapons systems in the East China Sea. Near the disputed Senkaku islands they practiced locating and sinking a ship as an obvious message to Japan, which approved of the ruling.  Japan has had to launch their fighter planes over 200 times this year in response to Chinese provocation.  Japanese fisherman, operating legally in international waters or in their EEZ, have been harassed by Chinese naval vessels.

They’ve illegally built up islands and placed advanced radar systems, anti-air batteries, shipping docks that can handle blue water ships, submarine bases, and large runways that can support their advanced fighters (which are being built using stolen technology from the F 22 and F 35.)  Keep in mind they are doing this in the Spratlys and other islands in the South China Sea that are vigorously disputed. (Its true that other nations have done so as well, but not to the extent that China has and definitely not with the same degree of militarization.)

When the US operates Freedom of seas operations they harass our naval forces and follow them at an unsafe distance. Because the islands are disputed, the US performs these operations to reaffirm the importance of international law. These are incredibly important operations because they prevent the de facto recognition of this territory as China’s.  If international law is disregarded it will be a free for all in this region where disputes are settled by force. If China aggressively controls this territory they can easily cut off a great deal of vital shipping in the region. You mentioned them as trading partners, but its incredibly difficult to trade when captains are worried about being seized in what should be international waters.

That’s why McMullin says he will stand for the rights to sail in international waters.  He is not “picking a fight with China,” (though these Freedom of the Seas operations do have some danger),  but simply reasserting basic rights of international law that the China is actively threatening. China has threatened every one of its neighbor, aggressively maneuvers near them, and actively builds bases in disputed territory that can project force.  Your argument seems based on general disdain for the American military power and some foreign policy positions, as well as libertarian articles of faith, not based on a sound knowledge of the region. As somebody who regularly studies the region McMullin is only proposing appropriate steps to stop Chinese aggression through the assertion of international law.

Moving on to Russia:
Russia has started shipping advanced military equipment to India. They are also holding joint exercises with Pakistan. They have shipped attack helicopters to that state. (Symbolically enough Pakistan is using those helicopters to replace the American Cobras they have.)  Russia has refused to implement the Minsk accords. This is a peace plan to help end the conflict in Ukraine.  They use paramilitary tactics to undermine the nation states on their border. They have attack hospitals and relief convoys in Syria. Modernization in Russian military has resulted in new forms of warfare and rapidly changing environment cyber, electronic warfare, and anti-access/area-denial capabilities. They’ve annexed territory from their neighbors. They cut off gas shipments to their neighbors.  Much of Eastern Europe (many of which are close allies), now lie within range of their missiles systems. The consensus view of the Warsaw NATO summit is that Russia is now a competitive threat. In fact, Russia is using China as a chief trading partner and there is a significant concern of their forming a new anti-Western axis.

Russia uses Chinese companies to avoid US sanctions, which is likely why McMullin is trying to strengthen them. Russia is actively increasingly its influence through various soft and hard power methods and they are incredibly assertive in gaining hegemony in the region. They don’t hesitate to use a combination of military, paramilitary, and cyber military forces to undermine and frankly conquer their neighbors.  We have treaty obligations that have been the foundation of safety and security in Europe since World War II.  You can make an argument about the wisdom of these treaties compared to the wish of the Founding Fathers, (and that’s one of several reasons why libertarians remind me of isolationists), but that argument is 60 years too late. We have these obligations, and McMullin is stating that we will make a modest commitment to our allies by treaty, as suggested by the recent summit, in the face of blatant Russian aggression.

This post is already pretty long, and there are many more points I could point out. (For example, China manipulates their finances so they don’t appear to spend as much money on the military.)  McMullin isn’t an immoral war monger because he wants to reassert international law and support America’s treaty obligations. I’m writing in for McMullin.   

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Gadianton Robbers in the Syrian Civil War

War on the Rocks is a great website that posts nuanced policy papers and military analysis. They recently published an article about Syria describing the decay of Bashar Al Assad’s regime.  This post briefly highlights how that article’s main points underscore what I’ve been arguing about the Gadianton Insurgency.  The current disintegration of the regime in the real world highlights and supports my subtle and nuanced reading of the Book of Mormon.  

Thesis Statement: Robbers Both a Cause and Collapse

As I wrote in my first book, “The various historical uses of the term robber when applied to the Book of Mormon suggest that the Gadianton Robbers contributed to and resulted from the weakening control of the central government over its territories and armed forces.”[1] 

War on the Rocks:  Today, where briefing maps now show solid red across Syria’s western governorates, they ought to distinguish dozens and perhaps even hundreds of small fiefdoms only nominally loyal to Assad. Indeed, in much of the country, loyalist security forces function like a grand racketeering scheme: simultaneously a cause and consequence of state collapse at the local level.

The State’s Reliance on Bandits:

I wrote on my blog here about a really cool letter I written by the Communists insurgents in China to a secret society. In assessing its significant I offered these words:  

Thus the line between bandits, militia of a hated rival, private bodyguards, deputized law enforcement officers, or insurgents, became incredibly blurred….On the local level that meant there were competing groups vying for power. Labels are very powerful, and labels like bandit were used to stigmatize. Yet early Communist forces had large components of bandits, including the entire forces of the two largest bandit groups nearest the Jinggangshan mountain base.  So when Chiang Kai-Shek labelled his campaign as bandit suppression and encirclement, it reflected an overt political attack on Communists, but it also reflected the way a political military fight can blur the boundaries with and reflect lawless banditry.

Both ancient historian Susan Mattern and Sinologist Stephen Averill talked about the way that bandits could be adopted into government forces or created as allies.[2] Mao Zedong incorporated bandits into his army but then warned against “banditry” within Communist forces.[3]  Indeed, even the United States saw this during the Anbar Awakening. We managed to convince many of the most ardent Sunni supporters of the insurgency to join our side. This is because they knew how to fight the insurgents. We worked with the Iraqi government to legitimize them as militia.   

War on the Rocks: The real story of the Tiger Forces is…instructive to those trying to understand the regime. During the early days of the uprising against Assad, Hassan coordinated the suppression of protests in Hama, an effort that relied on a collection of ordinary thugs, air force officers, and area tribal leaders… in due time, this early network of enforcers would evolve into the so-called Tiger Forces. While the unit has since developed a more stable core of permanent quasi-soldiers, Tiger loyalists today still hail from a vast web of militias, criminals, and smugglers stretching across Syria’s central and arguably most strategic province of Hama.

Weak Government Incorporates them:

I discussed many great things in my FAIR presentation it included the point that a weak government tried to co-opt and control local bandit leaders in order to bolster their power. This is related to the above concept about the very blurry line between bandit force and legitimate government militia or army:[4] 

Historically, the chaos that resulted from political weakness resulted in actors that can be divided into three camps. The first group is the predatory bandits that fit the typical image associated with robbers. Yet the second two, local elites that assume power, and former officials that take advantage of the power vacuum, can assist in our understanding of Nephite society.

The Roman sources called many groups ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority. [Even the great warlords such as Childeric, Clovis, and Alaric..held official offices in the Roman Empire.] Historian David Graff adds a similar point from Chinese history:

To protect themselves and their communities against the [predators], local elites organized their kinsmen and neighbors into militia forces. Many also followed the time honored response to trouble times and relocated to forts built on hilltops or in other easily defensible locations. One leader of protective forces was Lu Zushang…. He was the son of a [dynasty] general, and his family was wealthy and locally influential. Though still a teenager Lu recruited ‘stalwart warriors’ and pursued the bandits, with the result that they no longer dared to enter his district. [The remaining weakened government] eventually established him as governor of [the province].

War on the Rocks:  Apparently too weak to coerce and too broke to bribe those who fight under its banner, Assad has made efforts to tie his subordinates closer to his Damascus by political means instead. This April’s parliamentary “elections” further indicated the structural transformation of the regime from a centralized state to a loose hodgepodge of warlord. A number of long-serving Ba’athist rubberstamp bureaucrats and local dignitaries, pillars of the regime’s traditional rentier system, lost their seats in favor of upstart smugglers, militia leaders, and tribal chiefs.

Self-interested Soldiers:

In my new book (still forthcoming), I wrote about the decline of soldiers and how they likely became a parasitic cast, which would only fuel unrest and an insurgency against the government:[5]

The prophets in the book of Helaman continually lambasted the need to “get gain” (Helaman 6:8, 17) as the chief sin of Gadianton robbers, and the major prophetic discourses of Nephi and Samuel the Lamanite attack the materialism of Nephite society (Helaman 7:5, 21, 26; 13: 19-23, 32-36).  In describing the impotence of Moronihah’s army, Mormon said this about Nephite society, which might apply even more to the increasingly self-interested soldiers:

And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked, and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek, making a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions, and deserting away into the land of Nephi, among the Lamanites (Helaman 4:12).

…Considering the cost of equipping for war, and how plundering was the best pay day in the ancient world the soldiers would be rich, or at least the elites that used force to enrich themselves would be “exceeding[ly] rich.” They would also find that  “desert[ing] unto the Lamanites” with their war like policies (Mormon 8:8) promised a more lucrative environment. And it could easily refer to the soldiers of fortune and large bands of soldiers who thought the same. Moreover, the victims of this aggrandizement from out of control soldiers, or armies of elites would see it as “oppression, “smiting their...brethren upon the cheek,” stealing food from the hungry (remember the connection between famine and war in Helaman 11:1-5), could easily refer to the abuse of power by the military against civilians. 

In fact, the second half of Helaman 4:12 explicitly referred to murder, stealing, plunder, and great contentions.  Nephite military forces were led by prophets during times of righteous leadership (3 Nephi 3:19) so “denying the spirit of prophecy” could refer to rejecting righteous military leaders.   On top of this, in the next chapter when the prophets Nephi and Lehi were preaching, they were seized by an army and thrown in prison (Helaman 5:21).  Yet the Nephite record doesn’t mention a current war, which suggests the army was doing something else. This could be private aggrandizement, a war against “others” only hinted at by the text, or general plunder by a free booting company. Whatever their activity, it strengthens the suggestion that Helaman 4: 12 referred to a rapacious and predatory military that is not controlled by a righteous central government.

War on the Rocks:  Rather than attempt to capture resource monopolies, certain armed groups have taken to making a profit by exploiting the suffering population directly… Despite guarantees by the government, local loyalist militias tasked with manning the checkpoints in the area have recently begun levying a tax of 100 Syrian Pounds per kilogram on all incoming food products. Even a conservative estimate would put the monthly revenue of such a levy into the millions of U.S. dollars. This is enough to feed and supply the thousands of fighters manning the cordon, as well as their families. The watchdog group “Siege Watch” has put the number of civilians encircled by regime forces at an additional 850,000 across Syria. In these stricken areas, the cost of living has multiplied, with the difference syphoned off by those manning the bottlenecks. Put differently, with Damascus nowhere near able to finance and feed the families of loyalist militiamen, the encircling and taxation of civilians has an economic necessity for the regime to keep many of its most important frontline troops supplied and happy.


I’m becoming more and more convinced that regardless of the time period, geography, and culture, there are a set of specific principles that govern the course of an insurgency and the composition of their army.  It is incredibly rewarding to see the arguments I’ve made about the Book of Mormon referenced in secular academic literature. The Book of Mormon clearly shows the Gadianton Robbers as an insurgency that features nuanced relationships and power brokering between the government, local leaders, the people, and military groups.  The government weakness was a cause of and results from the robbers, they alternatively relied upon and tried to co-opt them.  The soldiers enriched themselves upon the population and justified their looting as taxes. 

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[1] Morgan Deane, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Ebookit, 2014), 37.
[2] Susan Mattern, “Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Victor Davis Hanson eds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 169 (163-184). Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: The Jinggangshan Base Area 1927-1929. (New York, Rowan and Littlefield, 2007), 57.
[3] Mao Zedong, “Problems of War and Strategy, Part 4”, Selected Military Writings of Mao Zedong, (Bejing: Foreign Language Press, 1971,) 112.
[4] Morgan Deane, “ Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon”, FAIR Mormon Conference, Provo, Utah. August 2016.
[5] Morgan Deane, Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon, (Forthcoming.), 149-151.