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. content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N03_244.pdf

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