The defensive stance of the Nephites combined with the several verses that seem to forbid offensive war have created a generally accepted position on warfare in the Book of Mormon as one that supports defensive and forbids offensive warfare. In modern discussion of the topic various scholars have noted, there is an almost “demonic hatred” of preventive war, and a “reproach without evidence” style to condemning those who supported the Iraq war, or the use of military force in general. Using additional and under studied verses this series examines the Nephite use of preemptive warfare and finds that the practice was both common and justified, had dubious effectiveness, and doesn’t warrant the strident attacks against advocates of the strategy.
This is the first of a seven part series. See part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight.
Helaman chapter 1 starkly illustrates the difficulty of judging the merits of preemptive war. In Helaman 1:7 the Nephites seized Paanchi when he was only “about” to flatter the people in pursuit of the Chief Judgeship. The text doesn’t state exactly how much he had done to warrant arrest and execution, but it does repeat the word “about” and his arrest and execution suggests a serious threat. The attempt of his supporters to save him catalyzed the Gadianton insurgency and the preemptive seizure of Paanchi likely fueled their sense of injustice. This example is one of many that suggest a Nephite tendency to preemptively deal with threats to their power. Given the many invasions and threats they faced, the Nephite decision makers had ample evidence to justify their aggressive preemptive tactics. After all, in the same chapter in which they seized Paanchi, the Nephites lost the capital to an army led by a dissenter, under a king who was the son of a dissenter. The two examples, one a caution and one a justification for preemptive action in Helaman 1 shows readers that the line between possibly unrighteous preventive action to take up arms and destroy and fleeing the capital and being smitten against the wall because of inaction is thinner than many Latter Day Saints believe. Using additional and under studied verses as well as a reassessment of commonly (over)used verses for and against the practice this paper examines the Nephite use of preemptive warfare and finds that the practice was both common and justified, had dubious effectiveness, and doesn’t warrant the strident attacks against advocates of the strategy.
The scriptures on the matter are more plentiful than commonly thought but the terminology is contested and a basic knowledge of the difference will help the discussion here. Preemptive war is defined as the initiation of hostilities to defend against imminent or ongoing attacks. Preventive war in contrast, is seen as an attack against threats that are less imminent and are often seen as a war of choice or even of aggression. The difference between the two, though, is largely dependent on the perceived imminence of the attacks. The less imminent the threat, the more preventive, optional, and unjust the war appears to be. This paper uses the term preemptive war instead of preventive war. I tend to agree with Victor David Hanson’s analysis which states that definition of imminent is often in the eye of the beholder and the difference between the two is contested to the point of becoming moot. (As I’ll discuss below, modern technology and weapons further reduces the difference.) With contested definitions the wars become defined not by clinical accuracy, but by the degree to which the person or nation supported or opposed the war to begin with. Since most of the literature on Book of Mormon warfare discusses preemptive warfare, and the difference between the more justified preemptive war, and the less moral preventive war, is incredibly thin and contested, I will stick with the term preemptive war throughout the paper, though I acknowledge that at least some of the Nephite behavior could better fit the preventive definition.
The Book of Mormon presents these preemptive and possibly preventive wars without editorial comment, and thus it seems like simply another strategy used in defending the Nephite realm. The only editorial comment from Mormon is against the blood lust and spiritual decay of those waging war or describes the ineffectiveness of the strategy in a particular instance, and not against the strategy itself. This is important, as preemptive wars are usually presented as morally necessary, but incredibly rare, and the Bush administration and those who supported that strategy are accused of the less morally permissible preventive war. As Colin Gray and Duance Boyce have noted, there is an almost “demonic hatred” of preventive war, and a “reproach without evidence” style to condemning those who supported the Iraq war, or the use of military force in general. Thus, in addition to studying this practice among the Nephites, this piece acts as an important reexamination of what the book says about preemptive war and suggests the moral outrage against it is misplaced.
 Morgan Deane, “Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon”, Provo FAIR Presentation, August 4th, 2016.
 See 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), 100-103.
 Chris Brown said that the distinction between preventive and preemptive war "is difficult to sustain under twenty-first century conditions.” In Chris Brown, “After ‘Caroline’: NSS 2002, practical judgement, and the politics and ethics of preemption,” in The Ethics of Preventive War, Deen K. Chatterjee ed., (Cambridge University Press: 2013), 28.