Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Approaching the War Chapters Part Two

The Conduct of the War

This is the second part that examines how I would approach the war chapters.  You can find the first part here. A long summary of the battles has already been done in several places.[1]  I’ll refer you to those accounts but will not repeat them here. The major goal of this project is to help you appreciate finer details that help you notice the forest among the trees. This means that I try to connect the war chapters to larger ideas, and what happened before and after.  This section in particular will ask some questions about the conduct of actors throughout the war chapters. 

Righteous Leadership?

The first question is the most controversial, was Moroni a righteous leader?  The scriptures clearly say that if all men were like the Moroni that very powers of Hell would be shaken (Alma 48:17.) This tends to inculcate Moroni from any criticism, let alone serious ones.  Yet even the best people and best laws have unintended side effects.  Many critics like to equate Smith’s statement that the BoM is the “most correct” book with perfect.  Yet the same defense of this statement can be applied to Moroni.  Shaking the foundation of hell doesn’t mean that Moroni was perfect. Moreover, it is rather dangerous to automatically think that every tactic or strategy in the war would work perfectly well cut and pasted into today’s conflicts. (See part three about how to apply ancient scriptures to modern conflicts.) Moreover, the modern strategist Edward Luttwak said that sometimes victory can be as dangerous as defeat.  With defeat the current policy makers are repudiated and reform parties strengthened. But with victory every policy and strategy is automatically enshrined even if it had nothing to do with victory, and might have been counterproductive.[2] 

Moroni’s Title of Liberty is a very inspiring story. It helped this author get through the tough days of Marine Corp Boot camp and remains stirring today. But whose liberty was Moroni referring to, and is it the same kind of liberty as modern day Americans envision?[3]  It is possible that the liberty being defended was that of a special class of elites in Nephite society with Moroni, Pahoran, and other leaders represented.  As an example of this elite status, consider that that when Moroni cleared the Lamanites out of the East Wilderness the new cities founded were named after the Chief Captian (Moroni), another general (Lehi), the former crown prince (Aaron), the retiring chief judge (Nephihah), and the leader of an ethnic group (Morianton.)  This new land likely increased their wealth and power a great deal,[4] and suggests that other officials (such as the lower judges, Alma 46:4) chafed at the difference.  This is admittedly speculative, but suggests a basis for why so many people might not have enjoyed or appreciated Moroni and the Nephite’s concept of liberty.[5] 
Moroni also indefinitely detained political enemies (Alma 51:9; 62:4), forced prisoners to test for poison (Alma 55:31-32), refused the prisoner exchange he requested (Alma 54:2; 55:2), and threatened extermination and genocide (Alma 54:12.)  If one compares Moroni’s letter with Giddianhi’s in fact, Moroni is the one that seems like a dangerous and aggressive individual and the Gadianton Robber sounds reasonable and conciliatory. (Of course, Giddianhi’s tone may have concealed his true intentions.)  

This period also witnessed an increase on decisive and bloody encounters between armies for which Moroni might bear responsibility.  Alma 28 listed an incredibly battle but doesn’t include many details. Alma 43 is the first section that included rather detailed attempts to attack the enemy at the front and rear at the same time (that I call the Moroni doctrine),[6] the need for heavy armor, and the importance of fortifications. These changes and behaviors made made battles in the open even more important and sought after, as well as more bloody.[7]

These quick questions admittedly bypass much of Moroni’s good points. Many people from Jana Reiss to Joshua Madsen complain about the military stud muffin and action hero portrait of Moroni.[8] Those complaints, while annoying, arise at least in part because of the effusive and uncritical acceptance of Moroni’s behavior. Moroni’s actions in the most detailed war and his glorious victory are considered by many to be a golden age.[9] (Though in fairness, the text itself does state there was never a happier time in their history, Alma 50:23.)  Yet he is used rather extensively and uncritically. He is the hero of many strident right wing actors in the US, including the prophet Ezra Taft Benson.  He is also the hero of many antigovernment forces including the most recent ones in the Oregon standoff. As a result of this uncritical acceptance and use in radical political behavior, its important to examine Moroni’s actions more critically. 

What kind of General:

The manner of Moroni’s combat is extremely important. What strategy could (or should) Moroni have used to reduce casualties? We get excited over victory, but Sunzi says the pinnacle of excellence is subjugating the enemy without fighting.[10] Moroni's emphasis on heavier armor made them lethal in battle. His new fortifications multiplied the power of his force. This sounds great, until a person realizes that heavy armor and the need to prevent an enemy from retreating to his fortifications causes a greater emphasis on chasing down an enemy in the field, and forcing them to fight face to face. Moroni's innovations then, could have caused a tendency to seek decisive battle, and make those battles far bloodier. As we might ask of the Confederate Robert E Lee, is bleeding a nation dry in pursuit of a climactic battlefield victory, really best for the nation? Is it Christ like? The bloody tallies of Moroni, even if he was victorious, suggest that perhaps even his victorious policies were not necessarily immoral but also not the best policy. The Law of Moses is often called the lower law, compared to the higher law of Christianity. Based on Moroni’s actions, there is a strong argument that Moroni pursued a lower law victory.

The Dangers of Victory:

After the 7 Years War in 1763 the British stood triumphant over much of North America. But their victory actually caused more problems than it solved. In terms of financing the war, trying to prevent conflict with both Catholics in French Canada and Indians in the Ohio River Valley, the British ended up with more problems from their victory. So we must look at what changed during the war. There are four factors there were vital in Nephite victory, increased use of heavy armor, reliance upon fortifications, preemptive warfare, and the seizing of territory in the east wilderness. Again, moving past a study of every minute campaign we might look at how these innovations affected Nephite society. Things like heavy armor and fortifications require more money. More money means more taxes, and rapacious taxation easily fuels an insurgency. The "getting gain" in the Book of Helaman, and the unrighteousness of Nephite society could refer to unscrupulous tax collectors. Military gains bring added security but usually require military expenditures to keep. On top of that, soldiers can easily develop a sense of corporate identity and strike out violently (such as almost killing the prophet, or slaying each other with the sword, Helaman 10:16-18)) when their interests are threatened. This resulted in a weird feedback look where the military is needed to hold the cities, and those cities are taxed to the hilt to fund the military. This can lead to civil unrest and insurgency, which needs more soldiers, which requires more taxation.

Again, as Luttwak pointed out, the strange logic of war is that sometimes victory can be the worst thing for a nation. Because in victory every unexamined assumption, regardless of its contribution to victory, becomes enshrined as untouchable doctrine, and needed reforms become harder to implement. While defeat, in contrast, brings truth that much faster and discredits opponents of reform.


This ends the study of part two. The war chapters are a dense narrative filled with exciting details. Its important to consider them as a whole, and how they might impact the rest of the Book of Mormon.  Moroni is indeed a dominant individual within the text, yet we should also critically assess his actions.  The next section will help examine ancient and modern cultural attitudes, the destructive power of ancient and modern weapons, and a case study to illustrate how we might judiciously apply the war chapters in our life.

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[1] Sorenson, Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. 239-264. Nibley, Hugh.  An Approach to the Book of Mormon. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988). 
[2] Luttwak, Edward. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. New York: Belknap University of Harvard University Press, 1987), 20.
[3] I’ve read something which suggests this refers to the rights of elites within society to enjoy taxes. 
[4] David Webster, “Warfare and the Evolution of the State,” American Antiquity 40 no1. (1975) 464:470.
[5] See “Undissected War,” from Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon. (Forthcoming.)
[6] Chapter 3, “They Fought on Both Hands with Exceeding Fury,” Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Ebookit, 2014.)
[7] See “Undissected War,” from Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon. (Forthcoming.)
[8] Jana Riess, Dear Mormon Militia Men: Stop the Insanity, Flunking Sainthoot, Jan 4th, 2016. ( Accessed May 15th 2016). Joshua Madsen, "A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon." War and Peace In Our Times: Mormon Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 13-28.
[9] One particularly shallow example comes from the pugnacious libertarian Kendal Anderson who said: 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). Kendal Anderson, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective: How the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon Warn Against Wars of Aggression and the Warfare State (Self Published, 2014.)
[10] Sunzi, Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993), 161.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Best Book of Mormon Movie?

[Some comments I made in response to a great video posted on Mormon Dialogue and Discussion. I posted the video in question below and I quite like it.]

I talk about this a bit in the introduction to my first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

Warfare is generally dismissed out of hand in liberal and academic circles, and this has filtered out through society. My daughter for example told me she isn't allowed to play cops and robbers because that involves guns. I pointed out that cops are here to save and protect us, so its no the gun that is the problem, but how a person uses it, and the desires of their heart that matters. I don't worry when my daughter wants to play cops and robbers because its a good way to teach basic versions of the positive and negative qualities associated with war. Warfare teaches concepts like honor, justice, duty, courage, and sacrifice, especially when you are reading about them in scriptures, service academies or other peace time venues. Of course there are negatives about war that include sexual violence, child soldiers, blood lust, and rage. The BoM contains both of these examples, so as Nehor said above, the BoM is an extremely complex book on the subject and its difficult to simply say its one or the other. Though I think that even if you can point to justifications for war, I think that even victory is ultimately futile as I wrote here and expanded in my second book: Futile Victory

About the video in question, I thought it was kind of cute. In its essential form, warfare, particularly in the scriptures, is a morality tale. The tale they are reenacting is one of the clearest examples of just war presented in the scriptures. Unlike most big ideas, it also has a clear and compelling story to go along with it. I wouldn't mind seeing these types of things between conference sessions. As a reenactment of a story that sets a clear example of just war, it only glorifies violence to the extent that the viewer dislikes the "military stud muffin" (as Jana Reiss put it) that is Captain Moroni. In some circles Moroni is just the Mormon GI Joe that sets a horrible example of militant behavior. I think its a bit more nuanced than that. I spend a good deal of time in my second book (Reassessing the Book of Mormon) looking at some of the events before the great war that might have justified his actions, but also some of the things that happened after the war that suggest the negative consequences of them. I also look at how his actions likely played into Amalickiah's hands and strengthened his ability to wage war against the Nephites. For example, Moroni expelled settlers from the East Wilderness in chapter 50. If Amalickiah was warning about the Nephite menace, and the need for Lamanites to preemptively attack them, this attack by Moroni couldn't have been a better example of that danger. This action did strengthen the Nephite realm, but it was incredibly provocative and also strengthened Amalickiah's rationale for attacking the Nephites. This kind of analysis is sorely lacking in our discussion of warfare. I've been astounded in fact at the number of otherwise intelligent people that simply haven't studied these matters in depth or refuse to consider alternative positions.

Anyways, thanks for sharing the video and letting me comment.