Friday, January 25, 2019

Mormon Debates Lord Shang on Compassion, Widows, and War

I’m continuing my reading of classical Chinese military theory beyond Sun-Tzu. I have always been fascinated by the details included in Moroni 9, and now I read something that seems to represent the military leaders that Mormon condemned for starving widows.  

In Moroni 9:16 it reads:

And again, my son, there are many widows and their daughters who remain in Sherrizah; and that part of the provisions which the Lamanites did not carry away, behold, the army of Zenephi has carried away, and left them to wander whithersoever they can for food; and many old women do faint by the way and die.

All of Moroni 9 in fact reveals a great deal about Mormon’s priorities and feelings. He cared deeply about his people, and the only details of battle he gave were those which described the loss of righteous men, the horrible treatment of prisoners by forces on both sides, and the suffering of widows. While he was a commander capable of earning the respect of his people and was given leadership at a young age, his discussion topics show that he cared more about the welfare of his people. Given the horrors he witnessed and constant fighting it is amazing he held to a belief and hope in Christ. While strategizing is good, it is better that we remember the struggle that Mormon and Moroni truly cared about, was the salvation of their brethren.

His focus on spiritually righteous soldiers in general and the horrible treatment of widows recalls a key passage from Lord Shang. He is rather controversial and I would say brutal figure from Chinese history. He served as minister for the state of Qin which went on to unify China in its Warring States Period. Some of his key policies included heavily punishing light infractions without exception, increasing the farming output of the state, making military accomplishment the only means of attaining merit and reward, and increasing the organization and power of the central state by pruning the power of hereditary families.

He is not without critics even within Chinese history. Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher often called the Aristotle of ancient China said in many different ways that armies driven by fear and motivated by rewards for the number of enemy killed against the soldiers that serve a benevolent ruler are like those that try to break rocks by throwing eggs at them, or stir boiling water with their finger.[1] Armies like that he claimed are no better than hired day laborers or brigands.[2] Guanzi, a minister from hundreds of years earlier had much more concern for the welfare of the average farmer, and all of his advice to rulers and authoritarians was often advanced in order to defend the security of the people.[3]

Lord Shang interacts with Mormon by advising that the army be split into three. He says the first army should be stout and fit young men that do the bulk of the fighting. The second group should be capable women who perform vital logistic functions such as transporting what can be transported out of reach of the enemy, and defending city walls. The latter point is incredibly similar to typical combat functions I found in women historical in another post. The third group was the old and feeble. These individuals should rather fodder for animals and plants that have medicinal or nutritional value. So far this sounds like fairly solid and useful advice, but then he describes why the groups should be separated and it directly relates to the lament in Moroni 9:16:

If the able bodied men mingle with the army of the able bodied women, they will attach great value to the safety of the women and wicked people will have opportunities for intrigue, with the result that the state will perish. Taking pleasure in women’s company, the men will be afraid of disturbing reports and so not even the brave will fight.[4] If the able bodied men and women intermingle with the army of the old and feeble, then the old will arouse the compassion of the able bodied, and the feeble the pity of the strong. Compassion and pity in the heart cause brave people to be more anxious and fearful people not to fight.[5]

Lord Shang clearly argues that feeling compassion and pity for the feeble, old, and perhaps starving, is a sign of weakness that will erode the soldiers’ ability to fight.  Mormon in contrast feared that the Nephite’s failure to repent would lead to their destruction (Mormon 9:3) and want them instead to conquer the enemy of all righteousness (Mormon 9:6). If Lord Shang was in Mormon’s position he would have cautioned the people to avoid tender feelings for the old women that faint and die, and impose harsh punishments for those who do. Luckily he wasn’t there, and we have Mormon’s account which lamented that the actions of Nephites were “without order and without mercy” (Mormon 9:18) because they didn’t help.

Clearly the question of battlefield ethics has challenged thinkers for generations and people in the Book of Mormon grappled with it as well. Warfare is expensive, and modern societies had a difficult time supplying and paying for their army. In Helaman it’s only hinted that the army fed and enriched itself at the expense of the people, but it is explicitly stated here. As morally repugnant as it might seem, arguments exist that defend prioritizing the army’s right to food. They have the arms so in many cases might makes right, and they could just take it regardless of the moral arguments involved. Fighting consumes more calories than being fought over. Verse 17 said that anybody who encountered the Lamanite army of Aaron “fell victim to their awful brutality.” The army of Zenephi that took the food from the widows might have told the widows that being a little hungry is better than being captured, dying, or being forced to eat your relatives. Since the army was the only thing standing between the defenseless widows and the evil Lamanite army, the army of Zenephi could easily claim a greater need for the food.

This is an interesting battlefield logic that could be applied to a variety of situations. For example, American military leaders justified bombing German armies instead of train tracks that led to concentration camps because helping the military defeat the Germans would save the highest number of lives. But that decision consigned many Jews to death in late 1944 and early 1945. Many people argue that essentially the ends justify the means. While others in contrast argue that how you win the war matters as much as winning. And winning through immoral tactics in essence gains you the whole world while losing your soul. Thus it is incredibly important for us to see that Mormon contrasts so significantly with Shang. The former doesn’t offer a single justification for taking food from widows, the latter clearly teaches that the soldiers should feel pity and be distracted from battle.[6] Mormon most certainly believed then that the manner in which you fight the war in just as important as winning the war, if not more important. This has key applications as a democracy committed to freedom has to wrestle with proper tactics in fighting terrorism. 

Thanks for reading, what do you think? I work as a free lance writer so if you found value in this work please support it by donating using the paypal button below. 


[1] Basic Writings of Xunzi, Burton Watson trans., Columbia University Press, 1963. Page 57: Against the soldiers of a benevolent man, deceptions are of no use; they are effective only against a ruler who is rash and arrogant, whose people are worn out [by harsh Legalistic policies], they are effective only against a state in which the ruler and his subjects…are torn apart and at odds…Therefore a tyrant like Chieh may practice deception upon another Chieh, and depending upon how cleverly he proceeds, may happily achieve a certain success. But for a Chieh to try to practice deception against a sage like Yao would be like trying to break a rock by throwing eggs at it, or trying to stir boiling water with your bare finger. He will be like a man consumed by fire and drowned in water.

And 58-59: Obviously [those warlike states] must employ their own people [in their armies]. But if their own people favor the benevolent ruler, look up to him as to a father or mother, and rejoice in him as in the fragrance of iris or orchid, and on the contrary regard their own superiors as so many wielders of branding irons and tattoo knives [the implements of punishment in a legalist state], as their foes and enemies, then human nature being what it is, even if the people should be as cruel and violent as the tyrant Chieh or robber Chih, how could they be willing to fight for the sake of men they hate and do hard to one they love?

[2] Ibid., 61: He who by [battlefield] skill comes back with the head of an enemy is rewarded with eight ounces of gold levied from the men who accomplished no such deed, but outside of this there are no regular battle rewards. If one is faced with an enemy who is weak and small in numbers, such methods may achieve a certain temporary success, but if the enemy is numerous and strong, one’s own forces will quickly disintegrate. They will scatter like birds in flight, and it will only be a matter of days before the state is overthrown. This method of employing soldiers will doom a state to destruction; no way leads to greater weakness. It is in fact hardly different from going to the market place and hiring day laborers to do one’s fighting.

63-64: Those who attract men to military service and recruit soldiers, rely upon deception [such as Sunzi and Wuzi], and teach men to covet military achievements and profit- their soldiers will sometimes win, sometimes lose, but do neither consistently…As times such men will contract their sphere of influence, at times they will expand it; at times they will survive, at times they will go under, like rivals struggling for supremacy. Military operations of this kind are like the raids of robber bands…

[3] Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China, W. Allyn Rickett trans., Princeton University Press, 1985. 130: If the riffraff settle down while people of substance scatter, the land will remain uncultivated. If it remains uncultivated, the six domestic animals will not be raised. If they are not raised, the state will be impoverished, and its needs will not be sufficiently supplied. If the state is impoverished and its needs not sufficiently supplied, its armed forces will be weak and its knights dispirited. Weak and dispirited, they will neither be victorious in attack nor firm in defense. If they are neither victorious in attack nor firm in defense, then indeed the state will not be safe.

230: If the roads are filled with the corpses of displaced persons, defenses will certainly not be secure. Now if orders are not reliably carried out, prohibitions obeyed, battles won, and defenses secure, danger and destruction will follow.

394: If one attacks a city or lays siege to a town so its  occupants are forced to exchange their sons for food and crack their bones for cooking, such an attack is merely to uproot oneself…If one gains control over the masses but does not win their hearts, it is the same as if one were acting alone.

[4] Modern analysts make similar arguments in regards to having women fill combat positions.

[5]The Book of Lord Shang: A Classic of the Chinese School of Law, J.J.L. Duyvendak trans., (University of Chicago Press, 1928), 251.

[6] Indeed, Lord Shang believed that when “the people are made weak and the army is doubly strengthened,”p. 198.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Stupid People Contend with Things After They Become Obvious: Preemptive War and the Book of Mormon

Greetings!  I’m hard at work on a new project that examines classical Chinese theory beyond Sun-Tzu. As a result I’m reading all sorts of interesting things. I’ll post about that project at a future date, but for now I wanted to post from an author that actually made the same arguments I did in favor of preemptive war.

Little is known about Master Shi, and like most classical texts there are significant questions about its construction and authorship.[1] But Master Shi was a minister living around 330 BC in the middle of the Warring States Period when there was a robust debate between varying schools of thought. He is also one of the first syncretist, which means he consciously borrowed from different schools of thought to make a new text on political, military, and social matters. For example, the stress on timely swift action is borrowed from the Diplomatic school, and virtue is a key word that relates to Confucian moralism.

The two ideas I found repeated are that its easy to solve a problem before they become big, and there is little thanks in doing so. I will quote the Shizi first and then material from my recent article on preemptive war. There is a bit of irony here as Shizi later quotes a passage from Mozi which condemns offensive warfare, but he provides an argument earlier in his text that perfectly defends it.

Even a tree so big that it shields the sky was, at its beginning, only as thick as the base of a tree sprout: easy to get rid of. But once it has fully manifested itself, a hundred people using hatchets and axes are unable to fell it!
When flames first arise, they are easily extinguished. But once it has gotten to the point where the Yunmeng and the Mengzhu swamp lands are aflame, then even with the help of the whole world ladling out the waters of the Jiang and Han rivers, one will still be unable to save the situation!
The "beginnings of misfortunes" are like flames and tree sprouts: easy to stop. But then they are neglected and become great matters, then even worthies like Kong Zi [Confucius] and Mozi will be unable to save the situation!
When a house burns and someone saves it, then we know their virtue. But the elderly who daub chimney cracks to guard against fire, thereby living their whole lives without the misfortune of stray flames causing a fire: their virtue remains unknown!
When they enter a jail or prison to relive one who has suffered difficulty [by bailing him out], then his relatives are held to be acting virtuously toward him. But those who would teach him with goodness, propriety, parental love, and sibling concern so that his whole life will be without such difficulty: no one considers this to be virtue!
Misfortunes also have chimneys and if worthies were to travel the world to aid in daubing them, then the world would have no military suffering, yet none would know their virtue. There it is sad: ‘Sagely people rectify things when they are yet spirituous [or forming]; stupid people contend with things after they have become obvious.’[2]

The next quote is from my article on preemptive war. I have already previewed the scriptures I use to make this concluding argument. Here I put the Nephite discussion of preemptive war in a historical context and explain why it is seen as a good thing to attack sooner instead of later and before problems become more expensive to fight, and mention why it’s hard to get credit for it.

It remains tough to justify preemption based on what could happen, or latent evil that hasn’t yet manifested itself. Yet destruction of Ammonihah, captives of Noah, and resulting battles make a convincing case study that shows the disasters that await when preemptive warfare is dismissed...[3]
The chief historical reason for a preemptive attack is the attacker’s belief that preemption now is better than facing worse consequences later.  The Japanese war machine in World War II only had a few months of oil left because of American embargoes. They felt that a surprise attack on America would stun them long enough for Japan to seize their prosperity sphere, especially the oil fields in Java. A preemptive attack immediately for them was better than waiting. The Germans in World War I faced enemies on every side, but they believed they could quickly defeat France and then be ready for Russia by the time their slower, Eastern foe had fully mobilized. They needed a quick strike through a neutral country to do so.[4] Epaminondas and the 3rd century Thebans faced yearly invasions from Sparta. He thought they should launch a surprise attack to permanently remove the devastating attacks on their homeland, weaken Sparta, and alter the balance of power.[5]  
The Nephites were always talked as though they were vastly outnumbered by the Lamanites (Mosiah 25:2-3; Alma 51:11; Mormon 2:3). A surprise attack could throw their enemy off balance, capture territory that would make the Nephite realm stronger, prevent an imbalance of power arising from defecting dissenters, preemptively stop a gathering attack, root out endemic banditry before the government fell, or simply fight at a place of their time and choosing instead of unpropitious battle being forced upon them. The Book of Mormon shows us that preemptive war was a justly held strategy, commonly employed, with as much effectiveness as other strategies but with potential pitfalls. In a world where a surprise nuclear attack is likely and the numbers of dead in a preemptive strike by terrorists could number millions, the attractiveness of preemptive war is even more enticing…

Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance author so if you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button at the bottom of the page. Its always exciting to find that the Book of Mormon is engaging the same ideas wrestled with by ancient societies, and its pleasing to get confirmation, in stunning fashion, of ideas that I’ve already stated. Who do you think said it better?


[1] The texts of this age usually involve debates between one of three categories: Wholly authentic, some kind of core piece that was added to in later centuries by followers, or a forgery. The central category is usually the most held position with modern translators trying to date the text using various clues similar to the Documentary Hypothesis in Biblical studies.
[2] Shizi: China’s First Syncretist, Paul Fischer trans., (Columbia University Press, 2012,) 67-68.
[3] Morgan Deane, Offensive Warfare in the Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 38.
[4]See Matt Flynn, First Strike: Preemptive Wars in Modern History (New York: Routledge Press, 2008), for more.   
[5] Victor David Hanson, “Epaminondas the Theban and the Doctrine of Preemptive War,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy Victor David Hanson ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 93-118.