Friday, January 15, 2016

A Short History of Robbers and Insults

[Crossed posted at Wheat and Tares.]

The Oregon standoff has included the frequent use of the word “terrorism” to describe the Bundys and their associates. Because of my research into revolutionary warfare, I’m not surprised that words like “terrorists” are used as tools to delegitimize political actors.[1]  My research projects have included insurgencies into the Late Roman Empire, samurai warfare in medieval Japan and the Chinese Civil War from 1927-1934.[2] (The latter of which is my proposed dissertation topic at Kings College London.)   In every period I found that the use of the term robber or bandit connoted specific differences in power between the central government and the perceived illegitimacy of new actors and centers of power.  As a result, this led to the use of words that were far more emotional than accurate. 

What was most interesting is that the new powers were often a mix of local officials with private soldiers that gained autonomy in the chaos, invading barbarians (or revolutionaries) that were alternatively courted and opposed by the government and often given official titles, protective groups of war bands, and some old fashioned predatory robbers that fit the traditional idea behind the term.  To cite one example, Mao Zedong actively courted local groups of bandits, and echoing Giddiahni’s letter located in the Book of Mormon (3rd Nephi 3), he even offered their secret societies forgiveness and an oath of friendship in exchange for rejoining the revolution.[3]

Roman elites had private soldiers called bucellarii loyal to them and not the government, because those armed bands operated independently of government control historians often called them robbers.[4]  As de facto power holders the far off Eastern Roman emperor eventually courted these leaders and granted many of them official status, including such war lords as Childeric, Clovis, Alaric, and the Scourge of God Attila the Hun. and he eventually rose to become an official governor of the provenance.   In medieval Japan, local power holders jealously guarded their rights, and often labelled agents of the Shogun as “akuto” or “evil gangs.” Those that were labelled Akuto sometimes formed economic cartels to strengthen their power, and used hired muscle to ensure the cooperation of local farmers, collect taxes, and resist rival akuto. Despite these activities, often their only crime was being an agent of a government not recognized by local court officials![5] 

In short, there is a great deal of confusion between illegal bandits and rival armies and the legitimate use of force directed by government officials. As Susan Mattern said in describing anti Roman insurgencies,  “The difference between a bandit, a tribal chief, a petty king, or the leader of a rebellion could be open to interpretation; many individuals are located in more than one of these categories by the ancient sources.”[6]  Often times, especially in ancient history, but always in contested lawless regions, the only difference between a robber (bandit, or member of an evil gang) and a tax collector was the perceived legitimacy of the actors.  Chiang Kai Shek for example found his strongest tactic during the Fifth Bandit Suppression and Encirclement Campaign was to harness the locals’ ability to shakedown merchants to and from Communist base areas and call it a tax.[7] Despite most of the “robbers” having at least some form of legitimacy they were stigmatized with the dismissive and often inaccurate term. 

These terms are used in such non clinical ways because as historians John Shy and Thomas Collier wrote that:

                Words themselves are weapons…Language is used to isolate and confuse enemies, rally and motivated friends, and enlist the support of  wavering bystanders… Revolutionary soldiers are often called ‘bandits’, in effect denying them the legal status of combatants, and their supporters described as ‘criminals’ or ‘traitors’. Government forces become ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘mercenaries’ the government itself being ‘fascist,’ corrupt,’ or a ‘puppet regime’….In revolutionary war there can be no neutral, apolitical vocabulary.[8]

We see the potency of words today as well.  Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.”[9]  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 avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it. Thus policy makers use the rose-by-any-other-name term “ethnic cleansing” instead.

In conclusion, most people who accuse the Bundys of terrorism do so utterly unware of the long history of using emotionally charged words that obscure more than they clarify.  I certainly disagree with their actions, but I’m even more bothered by the casual use of emotional charged words that do little to accurately describe behavior or prescribe public policy. They instead simply seek to incite public opinion by using emotionally charged words instead of marshalling clear evidence and thoughtfully articulated positions.

[1] For the record, I think their general demeanor, lack of education, radical militant libertarianism, and attempted revolt do plenty to deny them legitimacy. 
[2] Morgan Deane, “Groping in the Dark: Reassessing the Military Leaderhips of Mao Zedong during the Jiangxi Period; 1927-1924, New Research in Military History Conference, London September 25th, 2015.
[3] CCP Kwang-Chang Central Committee, A Few Words to the Brethren of the Big Sword Society, December 22nd, 1933. Chen Cheng Collection, Reel III, no. 16, Hoover Library, Stanford California.
[4] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 6.45; Sevirnius, The Life of St. Sevirniua, 31, 42.
[5] Lorraine Harrington, “Social Control and the Significance of the Akuto.” Court and the Bakufu in Japan: Essays in Kamakura History (Yale Press, 221-250). Ed Jeffrey Mass and William Hauser.
[6] 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).
[7] Notice the use of the term “bandit suppression” in what were essentially campaigns in a civil war.  William Wei. Counterrevoluation in China: Nationalists in Jiangxi during the Soviet Period. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985) 120-130.
[8] John Shy and Thomas W. Collier, “Revolutionary war” in The Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Peter Paret Ed. (Princeton, Princeton University Press 1986) 815-862, (821).
[9] In reality there were a mix of trans national terrorists aggravating local insurgencies, see David Kilcullen,  The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of Big Ones (Oxford University Press: 2011). 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Responding to RT's Review of Traditions of Our Fathers

          I appreciated RT’s lengthy post and review of Brant Gardner’s workTraditions of our Fathers: The Book of Mormon As History, at Faith Promoting Rumor. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, though the previews I’ve seen and the review here suggests that Gardner has used some my work into military history. I’m also not a biblical scholar but my work into military history might inform a few of RT’s points. Unfortunately, upon closer examination and comparison with my research RT shows a stunning lack of knowledge concerning insurgency. At points he indicates a lack of awareness or skill in the tools used by historians, and in some places seems unaware of  Book of Mormon scholarship. (All block quotes from RT's post.)

“The reason the Lamanites suddenly attacked Ammonihah was to obtain sacrificial victims (p. 309-10)? And yet the BoM claims that “every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed” (Alma 16:9).”

          There are actually two slightly different versions of the story. As Grant Hardy described in “Mormon the Editor,” Hardy contends that Mormon emphasized the complete destruction because he was acting as Mormon the prophet.  He sacrificed historical accuracy, (the “others taken captive”), to amplify the spiritual message that disobeying the prophets leads to destruction. But Mormon the historian had to be accurate and included the idea the comment: “And taken others captive into the wilderness” (Alma 16:3).  Thus, the scriptures don’t reject Gardner’s reading as RT suggests. Its also the first instance of a strange literalism that some show when commenting upon the Book of Mormon. At some points critics can offer rather ingenious fantasies about how Joseph Smith might have written the Book of Mormon as fiction and copied maps, but then they hold to a rather obtuse reading of the text to deny other theories. In his post RT spends the bulk of his organized review justifying the only acceptable framework for studying the Book of Mormon as a 19th century one, and concludes anything else is begging the question.  Instead of disputing methodology (and essentially repeating anti Mormon techniques of dismissing evidence by saying it’s a 19th century book at face value then disqualifying anything else), in this instance RT simply had to read the entire account carefully, and perhaps read some of that dreaded FARMS material like Hardy's chapter to show how flimsy his argument really was.

“By contrast [to Biblical type scenes], the historical and political contexts in which secret combinations appear in the BoM are significantly different from one another, ranging from military (Ether 14), to political intrigue (Hel 2), to insurrection (3 Ne 2-3), to infestation (Morm 1:18). For most of BoM history, the name of this secret society is the same, the Gadiantons.”

          I don’t know much about Biblical type scenes but I have studied insurgencies for years. (Well and trained for a counter insurgency even longer.)  At some points they seem like a rural based military conflict. In fact, “infestation” is a rather common term from ancient history to describe them.   And yet other times they seem to act as rival states. The bands of “robbers,” (as they were called by contemporary historians) commanded by local Roman elites often become the basis of power for lords in early medieval period for example.  Sometimes they seem more like local cartels or mafia with selected hits and use of muscle as part of their political intrigue against the central government. The Akuto (translated as evil gangs) of Medieval Japan for example often competed with Shoen (local landlords) for economic control of lands.  These evil gangs participated in a variety of activities ranging economic collusion, use of muscle to collect rent or make selected hits against enemies, law suits, and hit and run tactics against rival forces (government or otherwise.) Mao’s insurgency featured an intense argument over the location (urban or rural) and tactics such as selected assassinations from urban based elements, swift preemptive strikes on cities from rural bases,  or rural based mini states.

          In short, when RT says those scriptures are “significant differences,” I see them as closely related and often overlapping elements of the same type of conflict. Thus it would make sense to group and associated them with the same label. 

“The numbers reported for people who died in battle may be generic round numbers, but that does not justify concluding they are exaggerations equivalent to the colloquial expression, ‘I have seen a movie a thousand times’”

          I have a whole chapter on this coming up in my second book and those who read this blog know I’ve discussed it many times. Hans Delbruck was one of the first modern historians, and criticall examining numbers was one of the first things he did.  Numbering soldiers historically has always been inexaxct.  Eye witness chroniclers often eye balled and guessed about the numbers of soldiers. Contemporary historians often had to rely on innuendo and rumor as well as tendentious sources with motive to distort numbers. Later scribes and historians sometimes deliberately exaggerated to amplify the magnitude of the loss or victory. Other times it wrong numbers could be as simple as scribal errors in translation. On top of that, many unit names doubled as numbers. So Roman Centuries (that don't have 100 soldiers) and Greek Myriads both add to the confusion. Modern historians can also use things like logistical studies and military participation ratio to modify the numbers.   RT talks about a framework for judging information, and within mine I found Gardner’s argument about the colloquial use of numbers very strong and RT’s just as weak.  

“Further, Gardner is surely correct that the claim the groups are all somehow organically linked to one another is historically implausible (p. 327-41). But unfortunately for Gardner, that is exactly what the BoM indicates, that the devil revealed certain oaths and secret alliances to the Jaredites and did so again to the Nephites (Hel 6).”

          Just because Mormon and Nephite historians prescribed a specific cause of the Gadianton Robbers doesn’t make it an accurate depiction of what actually happened. This is another instance of RT’s obtuse literalism when it suits him. It’s fairly standard practice for historians to get origin stories wrong, and try to incorporate them with existing cultural beliefs.  Medieval historians for example often linked the Mongols to apocalyptic Christian themes. There were perfectly natural explanations such as the expanding population of the steppe and a particularly charismatic and militarily skilled leader. But if we accept RT’s literalism we would have to reject far stronger and more historical explanations in favor of either the bias and limited knowledge of an ancient editor, or fictional editor created by Joseph Smith. Instead of creating an elaborate fiction, I think its stronger to believe Mormon’s “mistake” by linking every instance of Gadianton Robbers to Satan is actually a consistent practice among ancient historians. TT and others attacked John Gee attacked after he suggested a lack of rigorous historical training in religious studies programs, yet RT seems to lack some of the basic analytical tools that historians regularly use.

“Gadianton is not a generic label, but a specific label for an organization with a coherent identity and agenda that operated for most of Nephite history”

          In my second quote RT said that the political and historical contexts were significantly different, but now he or she says they are a specific label with specific identity. I would need RT to describe these two different points in greater detail. I’ve read, researched, written, and published about dozens of insurgencies in different geographies and time periods.  I see different facets of the same type of political revolutionary warfare consistently and without exception in history and throughout the Book of Mormon. Again, not to beat a dead horse (or tapir), but when I compare RT’s statements to my research I find his arguments incredibly facile and unconvincing.      

“Finally, the Gadiantons are emphatically not a foreign entity, but rather an organization that grew up within Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite societies.”

         Chapter 2 of my first book discusses this in detail and provides evidence that they represent a separate ethnic group. I show how the term “robber” from history is a stigmatizing term used to delegitimize new power actors. [See here for a more comprehensive explanation.]  In fact, from RT’s description of Gardner’s argument it sure seems like Gardner agrees with me.  The British historian Gildas, late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus among others used the same and similar terms as Nephite historians to describe what they considered social inferiors, ethnic others, and robbers.

          In conclusion, I often enjoy RT’s columns even when I disagree with them. In many cases and for a variety of reasons I demur on commenting. But this post had several glaring errors and omissions that I've directly addressed in my research.  At several other places (see bullet points 23 and 46), he dismisses Gardner’s comparisons to warfare as vague and unconvincing. I haven’t read the book so I can’t say if they are or not. I’m also not a Biblical scholar.  Yet based upon my years of research into military history and its intersection with the Book of Mormon, it is RT’s review and engagement with military matters that strikes me as weak, vague, and unconvincing.  

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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Terrorist or Insurgent?

[I posted this on Facebook, and the blog Peculiar People. I thought it was worth repeating here, especially since the casual use of terrorist is one of my pet peeves.] 
 I would mainly argue with Belanger's definition of terrorism. She doesn't provide one. The definition itself is rather contested, but Bundy and his group don't seem to qualify. The link doesn't provide any known terrorists groups that are supporting Bundy. It simply labels his actions as terrorism, though its probably closer to armed resistance. That is an important difference.
Terrorism has a fairly strict definition, unfortunately in popular usage it has a rather broad definition (as the link to gawker shows). Sometimes that is done purposely to respectively legitimize or delegitimize groups and actions. A chapter in my first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, discussing how the term "robber" was used to delegitimize new power centers. For example, Roman elites had private soldiers loyal to them and not the government, so they were often called robbers by some historians such as Gregory of Tours. As de facto power holders the far off Eastern Roman emperor often granted these leaders official status, including such war lords as the Scourge of God Attila the Hun. So there is a great deal of confusion between illegal bandits and rival armies, that maybe have also committed terrorism, and force used by a recognized government. Often times, especially in ancient history, but always in contested lawless regions, the only difference between a robber and tax collector is the perceived legitimacy of the actors.
Moving back to terrorism then. It is a narrow tactic sometimes used by bandits, insurgents, revolutionaries. Mao's tactics were largely a rural based insurgency that didn't use terrorism (except when they took over a town and made selected executions. Even then, Mao often argued against mass executions. And I'm focusing on the early rural based insurgency before the Long March, not the final victory after World War II.) Che Guevera's use of focalism, that is random acts of violence designed to undermine a regime, was repeated by AQ in Iraq, and would be terrorism. In addition to overlap, its even more complicated because the enemies of Mao or Che would call the insurgents terrorists no matter what they did. And they would avoid the label terrorism no matter how many acts of terrorism they did commit. So as John Shy and Thomas Collier wrote in Makers of Modern Strategy, words themselves become weapons and obscure the matter a great deal. I wouldn't throw that term around so easily as the author does.
So long story short, I'm not sure the Bundys are terrorists. I need more information on that. What I do see are plenty of people throwing around rather loaded and contested terms with abandon,  and with little to no insight (historical or otherwise) beyond their personal politics.  Thanks for the chance to talk about words, their definitions, their place in history, and how we use them.