Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Soldier in Armor Does Not Bow: The Book of Mormon’s Debate with Chinese Theory

Two interesting quotes from the Chinese military writing Wei Liaozi introduces interesting questions about the place of ritual in the army camp. This was a latter work than other and far more famous classics like Sunzi (Sun-Tzu) and represents a possible development in Chinese thought away from what the Kaangxi emperor called, “nonsense about water and fire, lucky omens and advice on the weather, all at random and contradicting each other.”[1]

The first quote is clearly the lessons from a military commander that rejects divine intervention in battle:

Now if there is a fortified city and one attacks it from the east and west but cannot take it, and attacks from the south and north but cannot take it, can it be that all four directions failed to accord with an [auspicious] moment that could be exploited? If you still cannot take it, it is because the walls are high, the moats deep, the weapons are implements fully prepared, the materials and grains accumulated in great quantities, and their valiant soldiers unified in their plans….

The Chu general Kongzi Xin was about to engage Chi in battle. At that time a comet appeared, with its tail over Chi. [According to such beliefs] wherever the tail pointed would be victorious, and they could not be attacked. Kongzi Xin said: ‘What does a comet know? Those who fight according to the comet will certainly be overturned and conquered.’ On the morrow he engaged Chi and greatly defeated them. The Yellow Emperor said: ‘Putting spirits and ghosts first is not as good as first investigating my own knowledge.’ This means that the Heavenly Offices are nothing but human effort.[2]

This was interesting to me for at least several reasons. First, this is something which many modern readers would agree with. After all, a comet doesn’t determine who wins a battle.  Instead the military leaders assess the physical factors like the height of the wall and preparation of the army.   

But the second reason comes from its clash with the Book of Mormon. Mormon very clearly felt that God’s protection made the people powerful.  One of God’s prophets was saved by a rare celestial event in 3 Nephi chapter 1. Helaman 4:23-26 provides a counter argument to Wei Liaozi:

And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve in the spirit of prophecy and in the spirit of revelation; and the judgments of God did stare them in the face. And they saw that they had become weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites, and that the Spirit of the Lord did no more preserve them; yea, it had withdrawn from them because the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples—

Therefore the Lord did cease to preserve them by his miraculous and matchless power, for they had fallen into a state of unbelief and awful wickedness; and they saw that the Lamanites were exceedingly more numerous than they, and except they should cleave unto the Lord their God they must unavoidably perish.
 For behold, they saw that the strength of the Lamanites was as great as their strength, even man for man. And thus had they fallen into this great transgression; yea, thus had they become weak, because of their transgression, in the space of not many years.
According to Mormon the Nephites lost not because the walls were high and the moats deep, but because the Lord’s spirit has ceased to be with them. They were no longer preserved by his miraculous and matchless power. So Wei Liaozi focuses on human effort, while the Book of Mormon clearly shows that human effort is a part of it, but true victory relies upon God’s preserving power.

The second quote is related to the first, and it involves the behavior of armies.  As I described in what could be the common soldiers’ negative opinion of Moroni, despite being a central figure in the war chapters his character is blinded by hagiographic verses such as shaking the foundation of Hell (Alma 48:17) or his being beloved of all the people (Alma 53:3). The average soldier likely wasn’t nearly as righteous as the text suggests. They likely resented the extra labor imposed upon them and found Moroni to be a stern prig. I invite you to read all of those examples and arguments in the link. 

But the next quote suggests there are negative consequences to being too exacting in the application of rites:

When Wu Chi engaged Chin in battle, wherever he encamped the army did not flatten the paths between the fields. Young saplings provided protective covering against the frost and dew. Why did he act like this? Because he did not place himself higher than other men. If you want men to die, you do not require them to perform [perfunctory acts] of respect. If you want men to exhaust their strength, you do not hold them responsible for performing the rites. Thus, in antiquity an officer wearing a helmet and armor did not bow, showing people that he is not troubled by anything.[3]

The Methods of Sima, another military classic, expounds upon this concept exceptionally well:[4]

In the civilian sphere words are cultivated and speech languid. In court one is respectful and courteous and cultivates himself to serve others. Unsummoned, he does not step forth; unquestioned, he does not speak. It is difficult to advance but easy to withdraw.
In the military realm one speaks directly and stands firm. When deployed in formation one focuses on duty and acts decisively. Those earing battle armor do not bow; those in war chariots need not observe the forms of propriety [li]; those manning fortifications do not scurry... Thus the civilian forms of behavior [li] and military standards [fa] are like inside and outside; the civil and martial are like left and right.

There are no specific verses about how he acted in camp or on campaign.  Moroni is a revered figure by readers including me in boot camp. He did attack the central government for their stupor of thought which suggests that he felt at least in this instant his military command outweighed the civilian oversight. This could suggest that he firmly felt he shouldn’t have his strategy dictated by the dilatory actions of those in the capital. 

He seems like a strong military man that didn’t suffer civilian fools (Alma 60), yet also like a spiritual rock that would shake the powers of Hell forever (Alma 48:17). The deciding text for me is in discussion about the Sons of Helaman in Alma 57:21:

[They d]id obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them; and I did remember the words which they said unto me that their mothers had taught them.

The key word here is exactness, and this doesn’t directly apply to Moroni but his complaints against the government and another military force praised for “exactness” suggests Moroni would have enforced various rules in camp, was such a stickler for the rules, and he cared about even the minor infractions and  perfunctory rituals mentioned by Wei Liaozi.  

If this is an open ended question that isn’t answered by specific verses my personal experience makes me believe that a stern leader, impressed by “exactness,” would make an armored soldier bow. I’ve served in the military, and I can say that small things such as making sure your field jacket is all the zipped or completely unzipped (not halfway like an “effing GQ model” as my Sergeant said), or making sure that the caps to your canteens are snapped shut are a big deal in many units under the that these things lead to better discipline and combat performance. A good unit, or at least those with overbearing commanders often mistake trifling exactness with discipline. In fact, Wei Liaozi’s next comment vividly reminded me of my time in service: “To annoy people yet require them to die, to exhaust their strength, from antiquity until today has never been heard of.”

Yet even though Moroni’s behavior contradicted these theories, the editors of the Book of Mormon strongly disagreed and felt his behavior was important and necessary.


The two ideas about perfunctory ritual and divine intervention are connected. After all, if you don’t think that heavenly officers and omens helps an army’s performance in battle, the soldiers and leaders wouldn’t see a practical advantage in stressing the observance of those rituals. The righteous Nephites in the Book of Mormon certainly believed that their spiritual strength mattered in combat. Moroni rallied the people and made them covenant under the Title of Liberty, and articles by Stephen Ricks among others discuss how the Stripling Warriors reflected “outstanding purity.” These both suggest the Nephites considered religious rites rather important, as they could affect the outcome of the battle and the survival of the Nephites.

The importance of ritual during army life and divine intervention in battle matters to every soldier that has faced potential combat, and becomes an important question for governments that send them into combat. The Book of Mormon has a very clear message on the importance of righteousness and the observance of proper behavior by soldiers, and the divine hand that supported the Nephites. It is not in the same exact language, but it enters the conversation and debate on matters that challenged leading thinkers in the ancient world from Thucydides to Wei Liaozi.

Thanks for reading. I work as a freelance author. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below and you can get more articles! Or you can buy one of my excellent books which refines the ideas presented on the blog! 

[1] Jonathan D. Spence. trans and ed. Emperor: A Self Portrait of Kang-hsi. (New York: Alfred A Knopf). 1974. p. 22
[2] Wei Liaozi, trans. by Ralph Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Westivew Press, 1993, 242-243.
[3] Ibid., 257.
[4] Ibid., 132.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Beloved Moroni? The Common Soldier's View

This might sound like an easy question to answer. After all, the book of Alma clearly stated:

Now behold, this Lehi was a man who had been with Moroni in the more part of all his battles; and he was a man alike unto Moroni, and they rejoiced in each other’s safety; yea, they were beloved by each other, and also beloved by all the people of Nephi. alma 53:2 
But there is more to the story than simply taking this passage at face value. My problem with simply accepting this verse was voiced in response to a controversial three part article by Duane Boyce. In part two he used a biased account from the Nephites to explain how the Nephite record keepers weren’t biased.[1]The Book of Mormon is of course something that should be used by those who think it has spiritual value. But that doesn’t mean its historical implications are correct. For the sake of space I won’t defend or explain the methodology I use though you can find explanations in several other places.

Examining the key verses

To put it simply, what if the claim about being beloved is just a rhetorical insertion? After all, there are no accounts of people rushing into the streets to proclaim their love for Moroni and throwing flowers at his feet. There is an account of people ripping their clothes symbolically, donning their armor, and rushing to support a political/military leader to subdue his enemies. That fits with our vision of Moroni as a strong and mighty man, but not with one that makes him seem sympathetic, cuddly, and beloved. (You might compare him to Stannis from Game of Thrones. He was right, just, and mighty, but described as more iron than velvet.)

In Alma 48 is used as a frequent qualification for the man as well: “if all men had been…like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever.” Again, that is a powerful endorsement of spiritual strength from an editor of the same religion and who was so infatuated with Moroni since he named his son after him. This statement reinforces Moroni’s strength in fighting evil and shaking the foundations of hell,but still doesn’t give any specific indications that he was beloved by the people.

Outside of Alma 48:17, Moroni was often described in the text as someone who was angry, pursued counterproductive negotiating strategies, vowed a war of extermination against the Lamanites and a coup against his own government, pursued bloody and direct battle when perhaps other strategies might have worked better, and left a legacy of what could objectively be described as aggression. Parsing the praise of Moroni suggests that he didn’t do anything in particular to gain the favor of his people, and likely did a great deal to alienate them.

Soldiers reacting to religion and work

Generals have their own stereotype of the church lady,Stonewall Jackson for example was known to walk through the military camps and soldiers would quickly hide their playing cards and start a church meeting to avoid Jackson’s displeasure. The very qualities that made him shake the foundations of hell would likely make him extremely annoying, and piously self-righteous to the average soldier that cared about their alcohol ration(Alma 55:11), time with the family (Alma 56:28), or time to patronize the world’s oldest profession ( Alma 39:3).

This gets in to how righteous the army really was. Some elements were likely zealots just as righteous as Moroni, (perhaps the soldier in Alma 44:12-13) but I think many were about the average soldier throughout history. There are no scriptures that really say all of them were a super righteous army, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves which is the whole point of this post. For example, when King David was trying to cover up his affair with Bathsheeba he gave Uriah leave to make a conjugal visit with his wife (2 Samuel 11:6-11.) But Uriah was so righteous that he refused. The thought that David could cover up his crime using this ruse suggests that David also thought most soldiers would have gladly spent a night with their wife than be hard core and super dedicated.

But Moroni was kind of person the kind of leader that ordered his soldiers to make fortifications (Alma 50:10; 53:7) perform nighttime activities such as patrols and extensive guard duty (Alma 53:1, 5, 7),and harvest or distribute food in some way (again, Alma 53:7). These are good military strategies, but taken to taken to an extreme, and speaking from personal experience, all of these activities generally make the soldiers work so much that they wouldn’t have time for soldiering or leave with their families. In fact, on the day of this writing I found a great piece that looked at how the military creates endemic stress that destroys lives and families. Yet families are the very item he used to motivate his soldiers with the Title of Liberty before and during battle. In short, a few verses after it said he was beloved, we can read several reasons the average soldier would grumble about him even when they weren’t in battle:

And it came to pass that he did no more attempt a battle with the Lamanites in that year, but he did employ his men in preparing for war, yea, and in making fortifications to guard against the Lamanites, yea, and also delivering their women and their children from famine and affliction, and providing food for their armies. Alma 53:7
Describing Moroni without using Scriptures

Despite having many verses that suggest Moroni was an uncomfortable man to be around, rosy and laudatory accounts still exist.Notably, these are lacking a specific assessment of verses but, they mold Moroni in the image of their own Gods (D&C 1:16).

The first is from Kendal Anderson. (The whole book is pretty lousy so I won’t belabor that point but you can read my review here.) Anderson asserted that “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).”

But this is stunningly ignorant of the text. As soon as a single chapter after the war ended the Nephites lost their capital to the Lamanites. By Helaman 4, Moroni’s son could only regain half the land. And the Book of Helaman is replete with wicked chief judges, the constant quest for money (Helaman 6:7, 18; 7:5, 21), and Lamanites that were more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:1). This is hardly the golden age of peace and liberty that Anderson claimed. I have a general problem, (get it, general! hehe), with Libertarians’ vision of Moroni because he was an agent of the government that forced men to fight for liberty, which sounds like the opposite of their politics.

David Spencer in Moroni’s Command was better, but still misses the mark:[1]

[Moroni] cared deeply for his men, and was enraged when he thought they were being mistreated by the government. A typ­ical soldier, he hated bureaucracy, especially when it affected his soldiers’ well being and lives…In today’s world, Captain Moroni would be considered a soldier’s soldier.This means a man who leads from the front, shares the deprivations of his men, who puts his mission and men above himself, and who never asks his sub­ordinates to do things he is not willing to do himself.

But the argument is not as solid as it seems. Notably, it lacks any specific verses that described his behavior outside of the beloved scripture that inspired this post.

Cared about His Men

“He cared deeply for his men”…when they were being starved by the government and Moroni thought he could berate them using that example. When Moroni complained to the government it was in response to losing a key city,the leaders thoughtless state, and how the soldiers suffering was a result of their wickedness. Moroni wrote more about his sacred duty to defend his country than soldiers, and suffering of the latter was more of an exhibit condemning the politicians than a plea for their relief. Again, there were no specific mentions of how he suffered (though he did say he suffered Alma 60:3). Spencer says Moroni shared their depredations but can’t point to a specific verse. Despite Alma 60:3 which again sounds more rhetorical than real, there is no indication in the text that Moroni slept in the same tent as his soldiers, ate his food last, or let his men drink first. Unless otherwise mentioned, it is strongly likely Moroni had the best accommodations and food and awe struck readers are filling in the blanks when there is evidence to suggest otherwise.

The general sharing the suffering of the soldiers is so rare but beneficial for morale that it is included in classical Chinese texts. The Wei Liaozi states:[3]

Now when the army is toiling on the march, the general must establish himself [as an example.] In the heat he does not set up an umbrella;in the cold he does not wear heavier clothes. On difficult terrain he must dismount and walk. Only after the army’s well is finished does he drink. Only after the army’s food is cooked does he eat. Only after the army’s ramparts are complete does he rest. He must personally experience the same toil and respite.In this fashion even though the army is in the field for a long time, it will be neither old nor exhausted.

Chinese generals who did this, such as Wuzi/Wu Chi, were noted in historical texts:[4]
In his position as general, Wu Chi’s custom was to wear the same clothes and eat the same food as the mend in the lowest ranks. When sleeping he did not set out a mat, while on the march he did not ride a horse or in a chariot. He personally packed up his leftover rations, and shared all labors and misery with the troops.

Once when one of his soldiers had a blister, he personally sucked out the puss for him. The soldier’s mother heard about it and wept. Someone said to her: Your son is only an ordinary soldier, while the general himself sucked out the pus. What is there to week about? The mother retorted: That isn’t it. In years past Duke Wu sucked his father’s blister. His father went to war without hesitation and subsequently died at the hands of the enemy. Now Duke Wu again sucks my son’s blister, so I don’t know where he will die. For this reason I weep.
The Book of Mormon doesn’t contain the same detail about Moroni. The text can’t include everything, but Moroni is the central figure of the densest sections of the text. There is some evidence that he did night time scouting on his own (Alma 62:20). He allowed the women servant who was beaten by Morianton to enter his camp (Alma 50:31). Yet there is little indication that he voluntary served watch while the sentries were established, ate last,donated his tent to his soldiers, and similar lore that would have developed around him if he truly shared their suffering.

The Mission and Men Above All

The final point from Spencer was that Moroni put “mission and men above himself.” Like the emphasis on preparing for war a breakdown of this phrase has awful connotations for soldiers. There is always a trade off between driving soldiers and taking care of them, but taken to the extreme,caring about the mission above all else means the army might waste away from over exertion. In fact, proper marching without exhausting the army is vital component of victory. As Wuzi (the same one that reportedly sucked the puss out of his soldier’s foot) wrote:[5]

In general the Way to command an army on the march is to not contravene the proper measures of advancing and stopping; not miss the appropriate times for eating and drinking; and not completely exhaust the strength of the men and the horses…If advancing and resting are not measured;if drinking and eating are not timely and appropriate; and if, when the horses are tired and the men weary, they are not allowed to relax in the encampment,then they will be unable to put the commander’s orders into effect. When the commander’s orders are thus disobeyed, when encamped they will be in turmoil,and in battle they will be defeated.

The text presents mixed evidence that Moroni and Nephite leaders in general truly guarded against over working his men in support of the mission. In Alma 52:28-31, the text emphasizes the advantage gained from Moroni’s men being fresh compared to the Lamanites. But Alma 56:50-51 describes a negative Nephite performance and repeats the word weariness twice in consecutive verses. And the operations in Alma 51 produced “much fatigue (v.33).” That mixed evidence combined with the point that he likely over worked his men in non-combat functions suggests that he did not suffer with his men, and put his God appointed mission above his soldiers to the detriment of the latter.


In short, Moroni is praised in the text using rather stark terms as righteous, powerful, and beloved. But taking away the blinders from that hagiography with a closer and critical look suggests there are negative implications in that praise. He was powerful, but he could use anger to try and solve problems that were better served with patience and tact. He worked hard at preparing his people in defense of their families, but gave such a blizzard of commands that soldiers likely had little time to enjoy their families. He left a strategic legacy that did not lead to a golden age of peace, but ill served the Nephites.[6] He led from the front, like every military leader in this age. He protested the mistreatment of his men, at the same time that it served his political and military interests. He says that he suffered with his men, but the text doesn’t any specific examples. He protected his religion, with armed men storming a public space. He was sternly religious at the sharp point of hiss word, and he put his men and mission above himself to the point that he likely worked the latter group into the ground. Given the evidence from the text compared to a single verse from a far removed editor, I don’t think he was beloved.

A critical assessment of the text finds that Mormon the theologian, and possibly the limitations of sources which didn’t include the average soldier’s experience and feelings, overrode the accuracy of the text in describing him as loved. This is controversial, but it’s no less supported by a careful reading of the scriptures. Thanks for reading. I work as a freelance writer. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below so you can get more of it!! 

[1]“A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation? Part Two” Duane Boyce, Interpreter:A Journal of Mormon Scripture 26 (2017): 49-92.

[2]David Spencer, Captain Moroni’s Command:Dynamics of Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Cedar Fort Press, 2015,) 25-27.

[3] Wei Liao-Tzu, Ralph Sawyer Translated, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Westview Press, 1993,) 249.

[4]Sawyer, Seven Military Classics, 193-194.

[5] Ibid., 215.

[6] I discuss this legacy in great detail in From Saints to Sinners: Reassessing the Book of Mormon.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Going Broke in Style

In Toy Story the two favorite toys of the child get in a fight about flying. Buzz Lightyear says he can fly and Woody says he was only “falling with style.” I just got back from a Disneyland vacation with my daughter and it made me wonder how I can do things like that when I’m still struggling with hospital bills. So this post is not about being broke, but like Buzz Lightyear, going broke with style.


Our trip to Disneyland was great. I work as a free-lance writer, and teach college classes from home so my schedule is fairly flexible. That allowed us to go during a time when Disney offered their cheapest tickets. Every few years my credit card company sends me a new offer. I normally throw them away but a couple years ago I signed up and got about 60,000 free points, which help pay for several Christmases (see below.) This time, they sent me a Disney card that offered 250 dollars in free gift cards. (I earned some Disney points and bumped it up by another 25). So my tickets didn’t cost me anything out of pocket. The only thing I’m paying for a hotel and gas to get there which makes this an incredibly affordable trip.

The trick to qualify for these bonuses was to spend a certain amount of money within a certain time period, usually a month or the first 90 days. Because of my hospital bills I easily met that threshold. I had to spend the money anyway on hospital bills, so I figured I might as well get a few hundred dollars of Disney gift cards for my trouble.

Imperial War Museum London

On the same thread where I described my visit to the hospital I mentioned a trip to London. Well a new Las Vegas based carrier started nonstop flights to London. They had introductory rates that were incredible. I and my daughter averaged about 400 dollars a ticket for a transatlantic flight so I went ahead and pulled the trigger. Money was tight but I always try to put at least a few dollars out of every paycheck for opportunities like this. I don’t remember the name of the airline, maybe it was Norwegian air but whatever it’s official name it should be called Nickel and Dime Airline. They charged to pick your seat (we didn’t), 50 pounds for a meal (we carried on a small cooler with lunchables and granola bars), 30 pounds for checked in luggage (we packed light), and we traveled for an extremely good rate. Our trip to London wasn’t determined by the luxury of our flight, but by the wonderful things we could do like going to places like the Tower of London, Temple Church, and Imperial War Museum. I’m trying to do the same for China. I’m saving a ridiculously small amount of money each paycheck, but its seed money for nice trip sometime in the future when I come across a good deal.

Free Movies:

But there are more ordinary ways to the live the high life as well. There was a period in the summer when we went to free or low cost movies for six weeks in a row. We started with a City of North Las Vegas event. My daughter mainly wanted to go so she could play with friends. I enjoyed chilling in the park watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2. The next week was a onetime only event watching Rifftrax live. We had to pay a bit for this, but I knew it was coming and saved up. The next week we finally made it to watch Solo in the dollar theater. It was okay, but nothing amazingly special so I’m glad we waited to watch it for a dollar. Then we had another movie in a (different) park. It was the Last Jedi this time, which I again watched alone (yay family time?) Then the drive in movie theatre has a customer appreciation day. I wanted to watch Mission Impossible again. (I saw it for free the first time using my reward points.) But she won the day and we watched Jurassic World. That movie was so terrible we saw it for free and I still wanted my money back. So that was a whole series of movies for which we mostly paid nothing and my daughter loved it.

We can see first run movies for free as well. Eric Snider has a good summary of the negatives of these experiences as it essentially involves lots of waiting and a rush for seats that make Southwest look calm. But I usually have a stack of reading anyway so as long as I eat an early dinner and show up a couple hours early, I’m at the front of the line and don’t worry about all that. I’m Mormon and a former Marine, my tolerance for boredom and sitting in one spot is extremely high and this doesn’t close. Between the two methods we see so many movies for free that we rarely go to a normal theatre. But when we do I make sure to use my rewards card, so even then we are earning our way to a free movie.

More Free Stuff:

My former sister in law once said that if you are truly a Vegas resident you don’t pay your tickets. I laughed and thought she was kind of ridiculous, but after a few years I tend to agree. The cliché in movies is that there are ways of making you talk, and there are ways of getting free stuff.
Sam Boyd Stadium

Know somebody- My sister in law scored us free tickets to the Bite of Las Vegas, a fun event. We were looking at some smelly incense and cool rocks at the Fashion Show Mall and the since we were local the sales lady gave us tickets to the Renaissance Fair. We paid to get into Pirate Fest (using a military discount), but then we met one of the radio personalities who gave us free tickets to Motor Cross. We were at a free movie night hosted by the city and we won free passes to the Highroller. Supposedly this is the biggest one in the world (and the frat boy d-bag on the video guide reminded us that size matters.) This took away the sting of the London Eye being closed during our visit. I went to a Marvel Themed party at the Zappos headquarters downtown and scored free tickets to Avengers Station down on the strip. Our sister in law scored us free tickets two other times to Motor Cross. That is great because the October race is always the same weekend as my birthday. I used to know somebody who knew somebody who worked at the MGM ticket office. We got free several passes to the Tournament of Kings. At other times my ex worked as a concierge for one of the New York New York, and she got free tickets as part of her job. Usually we went on our own, but one time I joined her and her new husband, and my daughter for Blue Man Group. I definitely deserved parenting points for that one.

Radio- I’ve only won tickets once as I was caller nine for Rick Springfield. I’ve gotten close a few other times. I almost won some Motor Cross tickets. I was caller 6 when I needed to be caller 15 or some such. I almost won some tickets to Metallica as well. But even though I didn’t win there are still plenty of free events. The D in the old downtown has a free concert series. I’ve seen Seether, and recently the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I had to cancel a free Rick Springfield date because of my surgery. If I can’t afford Iron Maiden or Metallica I can usually see their tribute bands for as little as 5 dollars. It’s a decent way to spend the night. There is always a club that offers some no name band for free. Evel Pie recently won best pizza so they offered free pizza and the guy from Karate Kid singing you’re the best around. This show was so awesome I could actually joke with him in the middle of his set since I was five feet away with my free pizza and coke. (Getting a Coke or water is a good opening to flirt with the bartender about being so wild.)

The Lego store does free events every month, and we are members of the club for the chocolate store next door, so we get free samples every month as well. Right next to that is my favorite pizza place. We went to a free event hosted by Las Vegas Journal Review at the Las Vegas National History Museum (and the Glittering Lights at the Motor Speedway the next year) and scored a lifetime of coupons that make the pizza very affordable. So that’s always nice doing three free or discounted things right next to each other at a high end fashion show mall. Speaking of fashion shows, they usually have some kind of runway show as well and their holiday themed ones are quite fun. (Telling them that my daughter loved them is a good way to strike up a conversation afterwards. Models like compliments too!)

The best free events are around May the 4th. It sounds like May the Force Be with you so there are lots of Star Wars related events. The Desert Research Institute and Atomic Testing Museum do a May the Science Be With You where it’s a giant party. My daughter actually made the news two years in a row and we get cool tours of the research centers, live music, some food trucks, lots of swag, and generally a great time. The Lego Store and Toys R Us both offer free building events the same weekend as well. And that is usually the same weekend as free comic book day. So we end up with free legos, free parties, free comic books, and sometimes free motor cross tickets (which is often the same weekend.)

A Monet at the Bellagio Art Gallery

But there are free events all year. I went to the Stratosphere on the 4th of July which was free for locals. Me and my daughter go to the Shark Reef every Friday before Halloween. It’s a state holiday, they turn it into the Haunted Reef, and make it free for kids. (That and parking becomes free for adults that give blood as well.) The Bellagio Art Gallery had free days for locals as well. We really liked their Monet collection. Now that many of the casinos charge for parking we don’t go down there as much but there are still some places that have free parking and free events. St. Marks Square at the Venetian is nice, as is the garden at the Bellagio.

took a line up picture at the Mob Museum and my friend rocked the photo shop. 

The Mob Museum is a great tourist attraction that is usually free at least twice a year. November 15th is Kefauver day. This was a famous senator and two time Vice Presidential candidate that held hearings on the mob in the 1950s, including the court house in Las Vegas which is now the museum. The other free day is Valentine’s Day. They have part of the wall from the St. Valentine ’s Day massacre so you can see the bullet holes and everything and sometimes they have the actual Tommy Guns on loan. It gets a bit busy but the lines aren’t as bad as Disneyland. Plus, the Lego store usually has an adult build on the same day, so I can that for free as well. It being Valentine ’s Day I again check out my favorite pizza place too. So the free or discounted stuff usually has some synergy.I

Food fun-

Speaking of free or discount pizza, we can often eat out for very little money. The McDonalds app multiple times in the same visit lets us eat dinner for 4 dollars. Our other treat is having discounted tacos every Wednesday. When we go to a local fried chicken place called Caines I take advantage of a military discount. Veterans Day weekend always has some free food so I make the rounds. It’s usually just a free entrée so I have to cover a drink and tip, but it’s still a good chance to get food for a much better price than I normally could. Chick Fila has Cow Appreciation Day every year that is really fun and free. And we totally abuse 7-11 on July 11th. There are so many locations in Las Vegas we pretty much make a three mile circuit around the city getting about 3 or 4 free smalls. The end result is that we can eat out without busting our budget.

Christmas time Ninja-

The toughest time of the year is Christmas. If I had a dollar for every person that complained about commercialism and shopping I wouldn’t need to worry about the shopping. All the rhetoric in the world about the reason for the season won’t make your child happy they have no presents. As a general rule I find I can stretch my money pretty far. The best place to buy plush animals is the local Deseret Industries. I can find plush animals that are bigger than my daughter for just a few dollars. In contrast, a small plush costs 8 dollars at the Disney store. (I might skip the animal this year. She rocks the claw machine every time we go somewhere that has one.) Same thing with books and Barnes and Noble; I always buy used books at DI. The dollar store provides good stocking stuffers. But you can’t do Christmas on a 5 dollar budget which is where the ninja part comes in.

I don’t use my credit card for deficit purchases. I essentially pay bills with it using money I already have. Then I pay off the balance and collect the points. I have about 60 dollars’ worth of points saved up this year, which is actually one of my lower years. I also seem to collect Amazon gift cards. I drive for uber and they give me gift cards for completing their surveys. I use the Walmart Savings Catcher in which Walmart refunds me the money I could have saved by shopping at other stores. Finally I use the rebate app Ibotta to collect more money. Between all of those items I have 130 dollars of free money saved up.

It might seem like a great deal of work for too little gain for some people, but the time investment is really not that much. It takes me literally seconds to scan a receipt, and the math to make sure I have the money to pay off the bills I just put on my credit card is something I do everything month anyway. Just like using a rewards card at the movies, it’s a way to maximize spending that I am doing anyway.

That might not sound like a ton of money for some people but it’s just me and my daughter. Buying gifts for me is something I could do every day so for Christmas I usually buy something special that I wouldn’t normally purchase. In past years this has included items like a Game of Thrones banner or the Big Trouble in Little China Board Game. It’s pretty nice walking around Walmart on Black Friday knowing that my first 20-80 dollars is basically a shopping spree and that is before you get to the two dollar dvd’s and other Black Friday deals. (I usually don’t have my daughter that day so it’s nice to get out of the house and spend some free money.)


I’ve been doing pretty good as a free-lance author and historian, but medical bills and car problems have made the last year particularly difficult. Whatever my income I try to live a full life I’m not afraid to pull the trigger on a trip to London or China if I find a good deal, but I also strive to do free and every day things around town. After my divorce I didn’t want to fight for custody of my daughter just so she could be bored at my house half the time. When the money isn’t flowing as much as I’d like I can still go broke in style.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Ruin of the Book of Mormon

I should start out with a sort of apology. I’m sure many of you are reading this post because the title implied that somebody is ruining the Book of Mormon and you hoped for some drama. But this is a continuing series of notes, ideas and interactions that come as I read various histories so I’m sorry. This being a Mormon themed blog I tend to focus on interactions with the Book of Mormon as well, though it also touches upon my research in other areas. Because these are essentially my notes and not a formal essay the topics bounce around a little bit. Though they do provide a good example of the utility in reading and rereading primary texts, comparisons and contrasts, and assessment of information needed to make substantive points about the Book of Mormon.

10: that Britain might not totally be enveloped in the dark shades of night, he, of his own free gift, kindled up among us bright luminaries of holy martyrs, whose places of burial and of martyrdom, had they not for our manifold crimes been interfered with and destroyed by the barbarians, would have still kindled in the minds of the beholders no small fire of divine charity. Such were St. Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Carlisle…

I like the mention of items that are famous to him but have no record in history. This hints at a richer world and recalls the limits of historical writing and archaeological writing. It also recalls intriguing hints in the Book of Mormon such as this in Mosiah:

he caused a great tower to be built on the hill north of the land Shilom, which had been a resort for the children of Nephi at the time they fled out of the land;

This location must have been famous to at least the people of Zeniff if not Mormon who edited this section. But it’s not mentioned anywhere else in the Book of Mormon, especially when the event happened. It’s a detail that pops out of the text, was maybe nothing more than a recorded legend, and which hints at far more which seems little different than Gildas name dropping famous martyrs for which we have no record.

21: So that the words of the prophet, addressed to the people of old, might well be applied to our own countrymen: “Children without a law, have ye left God and provoked to anger the holy one of Israel?” (A version of Isaiah 1:4-5)

I like how Gildas is placing his people in the midst of Isaiah’s story. This is a new idea that I’ve been researching more. I have Joseph Spencer’s Another Testament on my reading list. I’ve thought when King Noah’s priests ask Abinadi about Isaiah they aren’t ignorant of the meaning of the scriptures, they are asserting the role of their colonies as fulfillment of that prophecy, and Abinadi as a false prophet against their king and kingdom. Abinadi turns it around and makes it an incredible messianic prophecy but placing yourself in the prophecies of Isaiah is repeated here by Gildas.

23: A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in their ships of war, with their sails wafted by the wind and with omens and prophecies favourable, for it was foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same. They first landed on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky king, and there fixed their sharp talons, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but alas! more truly against it. Their mother-land, finding her first brood thus successful, sends forth a larger company of her wolfish offspring, which sailing over, join themselves to their bastard-born comrades.

This is a great ethnocentric depiction of Saxons. I thought that text was evocative, interesting to read, and displayed a rather common practice of describing others in literature. I have multiple chapters and publications on the Gadianton Robbers and I find that the description of them is often just as exaggerated as Gildas here against the Saxons.

These last couple examples are the most meaty where we discuss more about the language used against others, the tactics of robbers and invaders, and a possible reference to King Arthur.

25-26 Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country. But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers were returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says,—”With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven,” that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory [at the Battle of Badon Hill.]

The “hive of bees” actually compares to several other texts about the way that insurgents often fight. I recorded many of them in my book and have a particular interesting example from Mao-Zedong. As I wrote for a chapter in a forth coming book on insurgency:

Late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) military writings published in 1843 (Haiguo Tuzhi ) and published in the mid-1880s (Yangfang Shuolue ) discussed [specific strategies relying on China’s vast interior]. The late 19th century also saw two other works (Bingjing Leibian and Pinghai Xinchou) which contained the same ideas. All of them concluded that in the event of war China should avoid the West’s area of strengths such as naval warfare and ability to bypass coastal defenses. Instead Chinese forces should draw them into a land battle and use China’s vast interior to exhaust them before swarming like ‘bees and ants’.[1] In On Guerrilla Warfare, Mao used almost the exact words and stressed the need for the regular army to work with guerrillas to become ‘knats biting a giant’.[2]

In the chapter I used this material to show that the Communist strategy of “lure into the deep” was not an original idea from Mao Zedong. In this case it has application in discussing the identity of Ambrosius Aurelianus and how he fought. There is a good deal of debate about his identity (see below), but I tend to think that Ambrose came from a prominent local family with a history government service. In roughly the same time period and same conditions of invasion and break down of government in China we find a similar collapse of power and the resulting struggle among predatory and protective contenders.

To protect themselves and their communities against the [predatory bands of robbers], 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. He eventually established himself as governor of [the province]. [3]

So what this means is that in times, such the period around the Battle of Badon Hill, hills became more important. Local leaders often privately recruited armies under various degrees of legitimacy, which is why some historians called those forces robbers. They fought in a way that is clear identified as “hives of bees”, or “swarms of knats,” and used language to delegitimize their opponents. On top of that, for what it’s worth, the British historian Nennius from several centuries later said Ambrosius was the son of a consul, but it also gives him magical powers and talks about dragons so you can take that with a grain of salt. (chapters 40-42)

The other point involves the identity of Ambrosius. Much like the interpretation of the Entrada Stele, the furious debate about his identity hinges on a few words such as “being born in the purple” to the point that any confident assertion melts upon closer examination of the scant evidence. This has obvious application for critics of Book of Mormon historicity who seem to be experts in everything from philology to epigraphy to deny the Book of Mormon without showing any indications that they understand the rather sparse details that urge humility and caution more than bold declarations.

The agreed upon factors are relatively few, but based on the passage he was likely high born and a Christian. But anything past that gets complicated. Based on who wore purple the parents of Ambrosius could have been a minor member of an imperial line, a distant relative, or held the rank of Consul. The latter of course is what I think is closest based on my knowledge of military history and what the text describes. Church officials wore purple so he could have been a Bishop. Various studies into his name, such as the –anus ending suggests a possible adoption into the Aurelia family. He could have been related to St. Ambrosius, a prefect of Gaul called Ambrosius, and based a particular quirk of the Latin words in his description, he might have been born years before the Battle of Badon Hill in which he is described. In short, I find there is much more to learn about how Ambrosius may have fought and raised his forces than there is about his specific identity.

26: For as well the remembrance of such terrible desolation of the island, as also of the unexpected recovery of the same, remained in the minds of those who were eyewitnesses of the wonderful events of both, and in regard thereof, kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations. But when these had departed out of this world, and a new race succeeded, who were ignorant of this troublesome time, and had only experience of the present prosperity, all the laws of truth and justice were so shaken and subverted, that not so much as a vestige or remembrance of these virtues remained among the above-named orders of men, except among a very few who, compared with the great multitude which were daily rushing headlong down to hell,

This sounds a good deal like the Pride Cycle from the Book of Mormon. There are two ways to look at this. There are plenty of people who think this was copied in some way. One of my favorite sites is Book of Mormon studies archived by Mormon Think, where the sites a long list of comparisons that prove the book is copied. It tend to think those theories are kind of silly as a Jeff Lindsey parody showed. Something resembling a pride cycle is a standard part of history because it accurately describes human nature. People, politicians and armies get complacent during times of peace and prosperity and tend to forget the bad times. To cite a rather minor example, Las Vegas was called “ground zero” of the housing crisis, but currently has the hottest housing market in the country (and I’m getting several cold calls a week asking me to sell my home. I would if I didn’t have to then find new accommodations in this over priced market.)

So thats it. Based on my research I found the language used to describe the Battle of Badon Hill suggested there were far more things going on and we can reconstruct some it. The commentary from Gildas is also evocative and informative about Saxon invaders, human nature in times of peace and invasion and illuminates the text of the Book of Mormon.

Thanks for reading. What insights have you gained from the text? What texts would you like to see next in this series?

[1] Jin Yuguo, Zhongguo zhanshu shi [History of Chinese Tactics]. (Beijing: Jiefangjun

Chubanshe, 2002), 293-295. As cited by Russell, “Zhu De’s Early Career,” 142.

[2] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, 54.

[3] Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare, 161-162.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Very Mean and Nasty Apologetic Post

My discussion of the debate between Stephen Smoot and Heartlander Johnathan Neville prompted a discussion of another topic in the comments that I want to expound upon here. The myth of the traditional apologetic style has been around for a long time. I’ve never seen examples of this style. What I have seen is the usual inter group dynamics on both sides of the debate that can be found in politics, sports, military units, and even debates about television. Labeling one side of the debate as mean when both are similar in behavior also shows an astounding double standard.

First the double standard: Years ago William Hamblin was very upset with the new direction of the Maxwell Institute and made some criticisms of Ben Park. The watch dogs of FARMS attack dogs erupted with disdain and jeering for more of the “traditional style” and mean apologetics that was damaging to a junior scholar and tried to make him lose his job.

Yet I found a similar example with the situation reversed. A short time later David Bokovoy sided with the MI people supposedly under attack. In his defense he specifically called out Stephen Smoot among others in harsh terms. Instead of saying it was unwise, mean, or nasty for a senior scholar to call out a junior scholar, and the potential damage it could do to his career, the same people that criticized Hamblin praised Bokovoy for speaking truth to power and unmasking the evil apologists. Both individuals were criticizing someone’s behavior, but when it was done by the supposedly superior new direction folks it was brave and praise worthy but when done by Peterson, Hamblin or Smoot, it was mean and nasty.

The myth of the mean Dan Peterson and old school apologists has grown into an article of faith in some circles. I’m not defending every interaction he or they’ve ever had, or every article they have ever written or published, but I believe this myth of an arching style is unfairly attached to them. Proponents of the attack style might point to Ralph Hancock’s words when he defended “sharpness of tone,” “irony,” and “measured indignation” (Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, p. 98.) I’m not denying those styles exist, but I am saying that for whatever behavior you criticize about FARMS you can find the same or similar behavior on the other side.

The Interpreter writes negative reviews of books as does the new direction Maxwell Institute. Both sides have rolled their eyes at the other and disagree about methods. I have personal correspondence that includes petty behavior from the supposedly superior new direction folks. I’ve been asked gotcha questions at conferences by new direction folks and it went without comment. When Hamblin and Gee asked a difficult question, it became another example of the mean FARMS people. In one nasty incident, a new direction individual literally got in the face of an old school apologist at a conference and told him to go to hell.

The behavior seen on both sides is a result of group and inters group dynamics that include several factors. It is common to view “the other” as a monolith group that is different, mean, stupid, and then view every interaction through that filter. This has especial value in political discussions and I’m sure the readers of this post are ready to jump in the comments with their examples of mopologists. The discussion among groups of like minded individuals often uses a short hand and simplistic view of opponent’s beliefs and mocks them. Sometimes people who are normally kind and decent get stuck in the mire of online debates, having a bad day, and in many cases the individuals are behaving less than their better selves. When these less than stellar behaviors are coupled with inter-group dynamics the behaviors are more easily seen in the other side and furthers divides the two. This happens even though their behavior in incredibly similar. Historian Richard Hofstader pointed out this ironic fact in his classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, pointed out how opposition groups often become what they oppose. “The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy.” But the FARMS people are mean and nasty and we poop rainbows.

This post isn’t an attempt to categorize every interaction and the entire groups and sub groups of scholars, critics, and interested individuals. As churchistrue can testify, trying to categorize people can get messy very quickly. Personally I have no problems with either side. I’ve submitted to both the new direction Maxwell Institute and Interpreter, and I’ve published several pieces with the latter. I’m very proud to publish with an organization that still cares about the AR and not just the MS part of FARMS. And that’s why I think it was created, not so it can continue to be “mean” and “nasty.” I can’t speak for every publication of course, and there was one piece by Duane Boyce that had a multitude of serious issues, but even that doesn’t reflect or prove the myth of mean and nasty apologists. (Ironically enough, I really likedhis book so even his case isn’t simple.)

In conclusion, I think the behavior of various groups within, outside, and about Mormonism are closer in behavior than many think. I think that because of incredibly specific examples of behavior I’ve seen from both sides, but also because of what I’ve seen around the internet in debates about every subject, and because of what I’ve gathered about group dynamics. This post isn’t an invitation to discuss that one time (or many) an apologist was mean to you, or to express your disdain for Dan Peterson, but to offer a thoughtful reconsideration of common ideas.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Notes on a Curious Verse- Alma 47:33

Verse 33 presented one of the most intriguing items after Amalickiah gained complete control of the army:

Therefore, when the queen had received [word of the king’s death] she sent unto Amalickiah, desiring him that he would spare the people of the city; and she also desired him that he should come in unto her; and she also desired him that he should bring witnesses with him to testify concerning the death of the king.

This presents all sorts of ideas and implications. If the queen requested that he spare the people of the city it suggests that the Lamanite army could have sacked it. Anciently, plunder acted as one of the few reliable ways for an army to get paid, and often acted as a bonus for the success of a campaign. It was the chief motivation for many soldiers, and in many cases their only pay day. In brutal pre modern societies plundering was also the ticket to a better life. Some of the rebels around the capital were likely made up of different ethnicities than the elites in Nephi. The previous king of the Lamanties ruled seven cities (Alma 23:9-12), but his converted people only gathered in two of them (likely the two ruled by the kings converted by Ammon and Aaron), while being attacked from others.[1] Then the former group left entirely to join the Nephites. The Amulonite faction was neutered immediately after the departure of the Anti-Nephi Lehis (Alma 25:6-13 and Alma 28:1-3). And the Amalekites and Zormaites elites were defeated in Alma 43 and 44. Thus whoever was king at the time (the text never says), must have been in a weak position or brokered power arrangement with other factions. There is a good chance in fact, that the queen to whom Amalickiah is negotiating was a part of a marriage alliance upon which the king’s power rested. 

Like the faceoff between Amalickiah and Lehonti’s army, perhaps the queen still had military force and the inclination to oppose Amalickiah. But then the queen requested, or possibly ordered, that Amalickiah bring witnesses of the king’s murder. And the next verse says that the witnesses “satisfied” the queen. Hearing testimony suggests some sort of legal procedure. It’s possible that this served as part of the ritual surrounding a coronation the text skipped over, or more theatre to cover the naked ambition of two joint rulers, and likely a combination of both. Historically, the unexpected death of a sovereign often resulted in a mad scramble for power. The queen could easily use her position, and networks of elites to control the capital and remain in power. Amalickiah, in contrast, could use the army as a platform to control the countryside and seize the capital by force. With rival bases of political power, a desire to “spare the people of the city” likely represented a coded political message to end the still simmering power struggle. The queen remained in power; and with Amalickiah she had a partner just as powerful, if not more so, than her late husband. Amalickiah gained by keeping control of the army and possessing a stronger claim to the throne.

This is all good reasoning (if I can say so,) but I found additional evidence in a particularly vivid story.  As historical background for the purported author of the Methods of Sima Chinese historians recorded this:

[After taking command and hearing news of the enemy’s withdraw] thereupon he pursued and attacked the [enemy], subsequently retaking all the territory within the borders of the old fief, returning with the soldiers.   Before he reached the state capital he disbanded the units, released them from military constraints, swore a covenant, and thereafter entered the city. Duke Ching (547-490BC) and the high officials greeted him in the suburbs, rewarding the troops and completing the rites, only afterward returning to rest.[2]

The footnote explains that removal of military constraints consists of the loyalty required of soldiers to their commander. This has obvious implications and recalls Caesar crossing the Rubicon as the most famous example of a military commander using the army for political purposes. I also noted how there was both a ceremony, implied ritual, and rites which recalls the ceremony hinted at in Alma 47. Moreover, this ceremony conforms to the text of the Sima itself.  Several places show how a commander should not be brought back to the city to interfere with the court:

In antiquity the form and spirit governing civilian affairs would not be found in the military realm; those appropriate to the military realm would not be found in the civilian sphere [or the court]…Methods of Sima, 2.2

In antiquity the form and spirit governing civilian affairs would not be found in the military realm; those appropriate to the military realm would not be found in the civilian sphere. If the form and spirit [appropriate to the] military realm enter the civilian sphere, the Virtue of the people will decline. When the form and spirit [appropriate to the] civilian sphere enter the military realm, then the Virtue of the people will weaken. Methods of Sima, 2.9

Correspondingly, there are multiple examples of how the military commander should not face interference in the field from officials in the court with often out of date and faulty information. Here is one of the more evocative examples from the Six Secret Teachings of Tai Kong:

After the General has received his mandate, he bows and responds to the ruler: ‘I have heard that a country cannot follow the commands of another state’s government, while an army [in the field] cannot follow central government control. Someone of two minds cannot properly serve his ruler; someone in doubt cannot respond to the enemy. I have already received my mandate and taken sole control of the awesome power of the fu and yueh axes. I do not dare return alive. I would like to request that you condescend to grant complete and sole command to me. If you do not permit it, I dare not accept the post of general.’ The king then grants it, and the general formally takes his leave and departs. Six Secret Teachings of Tai Kong, 3.21

So there was a body of thought in ancient times that commented on the danger of military leaders using their soldiers to seize the court, and how military commanders in the field should not face interference from political leaders during their campaigns. To offer an example using modern terminology, that would be like Abraham Lincoln trying to micromanage the Battle of Gettysburg. Finally, there is a recorded instance of a successful general coming back to the capital and the court, and performing a ceremony with rites that would disband the army and spare the city any conflict between the civilian and martial leaders. 

As readers unpack the details surrounding this text and use additional examples from history they can tease out additional details that show there is much more to the story. Thanks for reading! I work as a freelance author so if you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below. 


[1] A special thanks Ryan Tanner for his brilliant insights, upon which a good part of this section rests.
[2] Ralph Sawyer trans, Shi Chi, in Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993) 114. All subsequent quotes from military theorists are from Sawyer’s translation.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Book Review Saints: Volume One

George Orwell to rockers Rage Against the Machine have commented on the power of history and the wars over its interpretation. As a professor of history I constantly try to give my students the power to see the difference between a solid narrative and one that is manipulated. Saints: The Standard of Truth (1815-1846) is the first volume of a much needed update to previous attempts at church history and does a magnificent job of juggling many hard tasks.

The book starts with the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia which affected the weather of the indigent Smith family and necessitated their move to upstate New York. In 500 plus pages anchored by first person narratives and stirring vignettes that often focus on concern for loved ones, the book moves through the most tempestuous and still contentious years of church history. The first hurdle overcome is that the book discusses complex issues such as 19th century American folk religion, seer stones, census data, danites, plural marriage and legal proceedings, and keeps the prose at an accessible level. The ease of reading I would compare to Harry Potter which is a good thing. I’ve read many volumes that have too many ten dollars words in a one dollar sentence that bogs down the text.

The flow is helped immensely by interesting vignettes. From Thomas Marsh obtaining sample pages of the Book of Mormon from the printer, the introduction of the Book of Mormon to Brigham Young’s family and the reaction of the Hales to their son in law’s money digging, the historians and writers picked evocative examples that contextualize the historical events and often controversial issues being discussed. But the text isn’t mind reading or offering faith promoting rumors because these narratives and vignettes are well grounded in extensive primary and solid secondary sources.

The account of the first vision provides an excellent example of this. This is a story that (members formerly known as) Mormons could quote from Joseph Smith history even decades after they completed their missions. But in this volume the account draws on sources ranging from an interview with Smith done by the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, an Orson Hyde tract written in German, an Orson Pratt tract, and the journal of Levi Richards on top of copies of primary sources in the Joseph Smith papers (chapter 2 foot notes 2,4,8,9,11.) I read each footnote and their sourcing is incredible and impeccable and there are reproductions of them in the Joseph Smith Papers and online. The extensive research results in a narrative that provides little known details, such as Joseph praying at the location where he left an axe in a tree stump. It also weaves in answers to repeated criticisms such as different first vision accounts, divining rods and peep stones. Again, it does all of this in a concise, readable, and engrossing manner. (Please note, before September 4th I’m limited in discussing material in the book that is already made available. As a result I’m only using examples from the first few chapters.)

This volume shows the power of history in using an intimate knowledge of primary sources, and judicious use of secondary sources like Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. The limits of the discipline and often fragmentary sources can be frustrating. This volume does an excellent job at looking back, lightening a window into the past, and providing a solid example for future volumes of church history and how members can talk about it today. It addresses often repeated criticisms. But they talk about it in matter of fact language and in the middle of excellent contextualization which will make the sensationalist presentism of critics seem even weaker. It also looks to the future, by addressing supposedly controversial issues in a matter of fact way in the middle of their historical context; it will strengthen member’s faith and provide room for them to address tougher issues the church faces today.

The truth claims of the church remain a matter for thoughtful reflection and prayer. Critics will still find room to offer cynical rebuttals, though the excellent research and availability of sources will leave many of them impotent. Many members of the church correctly feel they don’t need a testimony of history, just a testimony of the church. Just like members of the church feel the need for geographic and cultural commentary on the New Testament, the history of the early church matters and interested readers will find this illuminating and a masterful, must read history that represents the best the discipline has to offer in pursuit of knowledge.

Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance writer. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button at the bottom of the page. Thanks again. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

China's Peace Disease

Rare Nationalist Propaganda, 1938

[This is more of a policy piece I developed as part of a site devoted to experienced driven commentary. It also includes material for a future book I’m writing introducing Modern Chinese Problems and Strategy.]

Hardware is fairly easy to assess. The speed of missiles, the range of sensors, and the amount of Aegis destroyers are all fairly certain quantities. But how they are used is not. Wars are not simply a math contest and generals are not mathematicians. Strategy, training and surprise matter just as much, if not more than the systems themselves. This is where the RAND report and so many analysts falter. They provide a chilling picture of material imbalance and possible scenarios such as China’s invasion of Taiwan in 2020. But they don’t account for the training and professionalism of the US military. For example, American pilots have been flying missions as part of the war on terror for almost 20 years. While the planes may need spare parts, the average fighter pilot has thousands of hours of combat experience.

China fought its last active war in 1979. There are few if any officers and military members that have experience operating in war time conditions. The last joint naval and land operation occurred in 1955. That means the senior leadership in China’s military has little combat experience. And none of their NCOs and junior officers has seen any combat. The Chinese do have an increasing number of sophisticated missiles, ships, and weapons, but there is little indication of how they will perform complex operations in wartime conditions. Training exercises are important, and China has many of them, but there is little that can replace the skills gained from war time experience. Chinese fighter pilots for example, often go through very basic training exercises and have trouble showing initiative. War time conditions include a great deal of stress, confusion, unexpected events and a limited time in which to make decisions. An untested military using untested technology means their missile threat may be one of the many militaries around the world that look and sound good on paper as they promise the “mother of all battles” only to melt away when the conflict starts. Assuming Chinese forces skillfully use their new missiles, these are a high use and rapidly depleted weapon. In this case it means China would have a strong first punch but little staying power once the missiles run out.

This peace disease is exacerbated by personnel problems. China has had a one child policy that affects their modernization of their military and interacts with general trends. The one child policy results in what Chinese analysts often call the “little emperor” syndrome. These are the only children of parents who are often spoiled to the point that the military lifestyle is rather jarring to them. Almost 70% of recruits are only children and this increases to 80% in some front line combat units. On top of that, the general effect of modernization, such as an increasingly urban and sedentary lifestyle means that recruits, on average, are taller, weigh more, and just can’t fit into tight military equipment built for a different average from 20 or 30 years ago. The pollution for which China is known for limits potential recruits even further. Many of potential recruits have severe lung issues that limit their ability to run and leads to an increase in respiratory diseases. The increasingly technical demands from these fancy weapons systems require recruits with more technical ability and aptitude. Average test scores have risen which suggests China is finding better recruits. But due to the above problems with modern and urban living, they often recruit rural candidates as well that have little exposure to complex technical systems and little ability to master them.

The solution to this has been to relax recruitment standards and hope that China can train them up to military standards. But many recruits don’t stay in very long. Many military assignments are in remote inhospitable locations far from home. Mid-career soldiers often have limited professional development opportunities and their skills aren’t as readily transferable to civilian sectors. Soldiers often receive low pay and benefits which makes retention difficult, and incentivizes a recurring problem with corruption.

On top of having trouble retaining recruits and seasoned mid career personnel, the culture of the military often prohibits independent and local decision making. They often refer decision making to higher units. Their training exercises are often a way for unit commanders to look good for higher ups. There is severe pressure for Red Units to win, resulting in exercises that fail to identify weaknesses. As alluded to above, there is legitimate worry that their fighter pilots are “dumb.”

The end result of all this severely undermines the click bait fearmongering that is popular among many academics. A closer look suggests that Chinese recruits are often physically and psychologically unprepared for combat and the advanced Chinese weapon systems. They have limited training opportunities and retention among the most skilled. They have a training system that often limits junior officers and promotes a culture of delayed decision making that could prove catastrophic in combat. Chinese officials are aware of the problem and doing more to rectify the situation. But only success in combat can truly dispel the dangers and drawbacks that come from these trends.

This kind of in depth analysis isn’t nearly as attractive click bait compared to fearful hot takes about supersonic weapons, drone swarms, and obsolete carriers. But it is very important to move beyond headlines and the short attention span of social media. Chinese analysts like Zhao Hui have pushed back on this narrative. After calling the arguments “untenable, unscientific, rustic, inhibit self-confidence, and may lead to misguided policy …” he provided two examples. In the Gulf War in 1991 Iraq had just fought an eight yearlong conflict with Iran, and the United States had not fought a major engagement since their withdraw from Vietnam 16 years earlier. Yet the lack of combat experience didn’t stop the United States from winning in overwhelming fashion.

The other example comes from World War I. The British had been involved in a long string of colonial wars, including the Boer War. Yet in the first (and almost decisive) phase of the war the British conducted a “continuous retreat” against victorious German forces. The United States in particular should be concerned because their experience comes from counter insurgency brush wars in contrast to a likely heavy weight match with China. Just like the British, their experience might be in the wrong area leaving them over stretched and unprepared for conventional combat.

Zhao provides several good points that I don’t think completely prove his case. It is possible for an untested military to beat a more experienced one. Those armies each had particular advantages in strategy, culture, and training that proved more decisive than the length of time since their last conflict. For example, the German army in World War I had an incredibly high standard of training, their General Staff College was the best in the world other nations tried to copy, and they had a venerable history and culture of excellence. As the Chinese philosopher Sunzi might have said, the German military was like the release of a torrent of water flowing down a mountain, the swoop of a deadly falcon catching its prey, or the release bolt from a crossbow. The German’s lack of recent military experience was a far less measure of their competence than their training, strategy, and élan.

Likewise, the Iraqis fought Iran for almost a decade. But those battles were largely stalemates along a static and somewhat geographically constrained front. The US in contrast had overwhelming air power, faced the Iraqis across a different front, led a large coalition and was fighting a war of liberation in contrast to Iraqi soldiers that were fighting for a dictator. Again, like the Germans, the combat experience was one factor among many that didn’t affect performance in that case.

It’s true the United States is fighting an insurgency and long war on terror. The military faces legitimate dangers of imperial over stretch as their hardware has deteriorated and many soldiers have faced multiple deployments. But the military is upgrading its equipment. The pilots in particular have received advanced and invaluable training that gives them the edge over Chinese pilots despite fighting brush wars for decades. More importantly, while there are examples of inexperienced forces beating ones that have more experience; China has many other problems that raise significant concerns. The Chinese military remains untested, they have trouble recruiting and retaining high caliber soldiers, they have new equipment that hasn’t been integrated into the military in combat conditions, and they don’t have the élan and institutional experience of the United States and German militaries that can compensate for peace disease. America might be overstretched, but unlike China’s peace disease, the institutional experience and quality of the American soldier can compensate while it is doubtful for China.

The major problem with those examples was that victory resulted from a variety of factors more than experience that included military culture, training, and equipment. There are two relevant examples from Chinese history which shows these additional factors.

The first comes from the Song Dynasty. Ruling in the same time frame as the European Middle Ages, the Song fought several wars with the Kitan Liao empire. The Chinese treaty with the Kitan produced long periods of peace interspersed with wars. The Song dynasty performed horrible at the start of these wars. The generals were accustomed to rather pleasant peace time requirements, and the soldiers were untrained. But the baptism of combat quickly produced a trained group of officers and soldiers that rose to the occasion and produced results for the empire. (Or as Mao said, their experience was “paid in blood.”) But they again went through a long period of peace and the same pattern repeated itself when the next war broke out 30 years later. This was a good example of peace disease, as the military performed well in combat with good leaders, culture, and advanced medieval weaponry, including extensive gunpowder weapons hundreds of years before Europeans adopted it. They simply lacked rigorous peace time training.

The next example comes from a military with lots of experience. The Nationalist army under Chiang Kai-Shek unified the country in 1926 and ruled during what is called the Nanjing Decade. This period has the dubious distinction of being before their fight with the Japanese, before World War II eclipsed that struggle, and before the Communists won the Civil War in 1949. As a result, they are often viewed from the lens of defeat in 1949 instead of their victories in the 1920s. New scholarship shows that the Nationalist army had strong espirit de corps and bold aggressive tactics that carried them to victory against the warlords. But they faced defeat, not because of imperial over stretch or because of their lack of peace disease but due to several important factors.

Against the Communists, the Nationalists fought forces that were just as motivated as they were. The extremely rough terrain of Jiangxi province, where Mao based his rebellion, was particularly unsuited to aggressive maneuver. In fact, the aggressive independent maneuver that secured victory against the warlords resulted in devastating ambushes and defeat against the Communists. Against the Japanese, they were simply overwhelmed by a superior military machine with more advanced equipment. The Chinese nationalists fought well, but the Japanese had more and better artillery, which was properly distributed to its front line units. They had support from tactical air forces and naval batteries which pummeled the Chinese units. Chiang Kai-Shek’s units, though experienced, didn’t have the same staying power and offensive punch that the Japanese did and they suffered accordingly.

Peace disease is a very important factor but it is one among many. The current Chinese army has a multitude of problems which suggest they will not be able to perform like the Germans in World War I, Japanese in World War II, and America in the Gulf War. Based on historical precedents they will likely pay for the needed combat experience by the blood their soldiers in the early phase of any conflict despite click bait fear mongering.

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