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.