Monday, December 23, 2019

Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon: Part V Helaman Chapter 1

This is part of an ongoing series. See part one, part two, part three, part four, part six, part seven, part eight.

This chapter is one of the most interesting as it contains examples that support and undermine preemptive war. The record indicates that Paanchi was seized as he was “about to flatter” the people (Helaman 1:7-8). It’s not indicated how imminent his rebellion was. John Welch suggested he may have been in the open market place about to call for rebellion.[1] But he could have been meeting with key players among “the people” to ensure that his play for the judgeship was successful. The imprecise immediacy of his rebellion shows us the difficulty of judging the difference between preemptive and preventive wars assessing their relative merits.

The Nephites and those sympathetic to their cause would have viewed Paanchi’s rebellion as very imminent. The key leaders such as Moroni and Pahoran had recently died and the Nephites had unsettled or uncertain political and military leadership. A short time after Nephite leaders executed Paanchi the Lamanites invaded. At a state of dangerous unpreparedness (Helaman 1:18) the Lamanites marched quickly to capture the capital. The general was a dissenter from Nephite lands, ordered by the son of the dissenting Ammoron, brother of the arch dissenter, Amalickiah. Their attack showed that even a short time after the great victory of Moroni and during a time of peace the Nephite realm could face a speedy invasion that killed their chief judge and capture its capital. Not only did he die but he was unceremoniously “[smitten] against the wall (Helaman 1:21).”

Even with an army’s damage limited to what they could personally smash or kill, and a nation’s limitations in supplying its troops, the Lamanites could quickly desolate many cities before the Nephites “could raise a sufficient army” (Alma 16:2-3). In Helaman 1:19, the Lamanites marched “with such great speed” and captured the capital city, and eventually enacted genocide with these primitive means. This means that modern surprise attacks could be even more deadly and require active and preemptive measures as a defense. And just like ancient times, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 demonstrate that the United States’ “narrow strip of wilderness” is surprisingly thin. But unlike ancient times, strategic surprise in the modern age may not simply represent the destruction of a small ancient city, but could take the form of a nuclear attack in a highly populated metropolis. The power of nuclear weapons increases the ability of an opponent to “end the war at a stroke.”[2]

Attacking the Nephite’s desire for preemptive war ignores the strategic realities that the ancient Nephite and Lamanite nations faced as a result of geography and technology. It is even more foolish in the modern world. According to many neo isolationists and peace advocates that incorrectly apply scriptures like D&C 89, the United States must receive an attack three times before they could justifiably response. Yet the threat of a surprise attack from Pearl Harbor was traumatic enough, just one from a nuclear weapon would mean that millions would be killed, or we would have to accept three 9/11 attacks of perhaps even greater magnitude before we could righteously respond.[3]

Yet the justifications still have caveats. Kishkumen, his robbers, and those that were not sympathetic to Nephite rule, would have argued that Nephites actions were unjust. Welch did establish a legal precedent for executing conspirators against the crown. Yet he also pointed out how the feelings of “alienation and hostility” would have lingered among the political opponents of the Nephites.[4] I’ve discussed the social bandit ideology before, and it is a powerful and common motivation for all insurgencies against the government.[5] A critical reading of the text reveals plenty of possible reasons for simmering discontent. Helaman’s servant stabbed an assassin after nighttime spying (Helaman 2:6), and Nephi exposed another killer in Helaman 9:6. Lawyers and leaders within the Nephite nation were known to beat confessions out of criminals (Alma 14:17-22), and both Lamanites and Nephties attempted to poison each other with wine (Alma 55:13). The Nephites even tested the wine on their prisoners first (Alma 55: 31-32)! Gaining and keeping power in Nephite society required significant cunning and craftiness from even righteous leaders. It’s no surprise then that the trial and execution was the catalyst for Kiskumen and his band to begin their campaign of assassination and rebellion.

Helaman 1 shows the danger of preemptively attacking somebody, as that action further inspired opponents of the government. But in the same chapter Nephite passivity in defending their lands was rewarded with a devastating invasion. The threat was always hanging over them, and preemptive war to remove or lesson that threat was a legitimate and even righteous action, albeit one with potentially explosive consequences. It’s also important to note that this was an internal matter just like the preemptive war against Amalickiah. But the imminence of his rebellion, and the desire to preemptively nip it in the bud and avoid costly consequences, represent the major attraction behind the strike. The threat of surprise terrorist or nuclear attacks in the modern world only increases the allure and justification for preemptive war.

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[1] John Welch, “The Case of Paanchi,” Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon, (Provo, Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Press, 2008).
[2] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War,( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989)363.
[3] Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed, 157.
[4] Welch, The Case of Paanchi.
[5] Morgan Deane, “Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon”, Provo FAIR Presentation, August 4th, 2016.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon: Part IV Alma 46-50

This is part 4 of an ongoing series. See part one, part two, part three, part five, part six, part sevenpart eight.

These scriptures are most commonly cited as a defense of preemptive war, though there are hidden details and consequences that should prevent easy use of the strategy.[1] As he prepared an ambush for Lamanite forces, Captain Moroni “thought it no sin that he should defend [the Nephites] by stratagem” (Alma 43:30). Moreover, Moroni preemptively attacked and tried to capture and presumably execute Amalickiah, based on the assumption that preventing his escape through military action would prevent a future war. As with Zeniff’s scouting, this action is presented without editorial dissent, and it is instead given as part of Moroni’s stellar resume. In the same chapter that described a period in their history that was “never happier,”[2] Moroni “cut off” the Lamanites living in the east and west wildernesses (Alma 50:11). This occurs during a time of supposed peace, but it could also be described as a lull or “cold war” between the First and Second Amalickiahite War.[3] Duane Boyce went further and created a just war theory out of Moroni’s preparations in Alma 48.[4] During an attack or in a time of strained peace, Moroni is lauded for his preemptive actions, ambushes, and active defense.

The major objection to this line of thinking from opponents of preemptive war comes from the idea that Amalickiah was just a dissenter. The argument then goes that these were wicked Nephites that caused “otherwise neutral” Lamanites to go to war with their propaganda.[5] But this breaks down upon further examination. The father of King Lamoni was hostile on site (Alma 20:10), and pretty quickly the king tried to kill Ammon (Alma 20:16). The leader of the Lamanites gives a pretty good indication of their general disdain and aggressiveness towards the Nephites, not their neutrality. Readers of the Book of Mormon have the advantage of knowing the rest of the story. Amalickiah went on to raise an army, provoke war, and invade in what was an intense and lasting conflict, so Moroni and Nephite leaders had ample cause to be concerned about his behavior. As will be discussed below, seizing and killing potential usurpers was a common practice for the Nephites and in Amalickiah’s case it was necessary.

Those who say these chapters don’t count as enough defense of preemptive war also point to the refusal of Lamanites to take up arms. But this wasn’t an indication of their peacefulness. As described above, their refusal is evidence that Nephite martial prowess and preemptive strikes could successfully dissuade an attack before it was launched.

Supporters of preemptive war who cite these verses also miss the factors that led to Moroni’s use of it in the first place, and they fail to look at the consequences of his actions. Both of these factors complicate the use of these scriptures in defense of preemptive war, though they do not nullify them. Moroni was old enough to remember the Amlicite war. In Alma 2:9 the Amlicites appointed Amlici as king. A short time later they attacked the land of Zarahemla and even joined the Lamanites. In response to these provocative actions the Nephites seemed defensive and reactionary. Alma 2:12 described how the Nephites knew the Amlicites intent and “prepared to meet them.” They did arm themselves, but the Nephites didn’t attack first or advance to meet the enemy, they didn’t try to position themselves to fight on advantageous terrain. Reinforcing the idea that a passive defense instead of preemptive attack places the defenders in a poor position when they do face battle, the Nephite army were in such a poor position that they had to make an armed crossing of a river (Alma 2:27). They almost didn’t make it to the battle, as the breathless report of their spies spurred them to a perilously tardy counter attack (Alma 2:23-24). With the hindsight gained from the Amlicite War, the Lamanite attack that resulted from Ammon’s missionary service, and possibly Zeniff’s aborted attack, of course Moroni preemptively chased down Amalickiah, and sought to “cut off” and “head” his army (Alma 46:30-32). In short, Moroni learned the lessons paid for in Nephite blood when they awaited Lamanite attack, forfeited the advantage of surprise, and had to reacted to Lamanites who took the initiative.

While Moroni’s active and premptive strategy didn’t repeat the past mistakes it possibly created new ones. The first negative consequence was the possible militarization of events by Moroni. The Nephites supporting Moroni rushed forward with their arms and armor to make these covenants (Alma 46:13, 21), which suggests Moroni escalated from warm disputes with fists to one side being armed for warfare (Alma 1:22). A politician with Amalickiah’s skill wouldn’t have needed much to make a strong case out of these actions to the Lamanite king. Nephite actions, including Moroni’s armed response, attack and attempted capture of Amalickiah and preemptive seizure of land in Alma 50 provided Amalickiah with mountains of ammunition. One can picture the shot in the arm Amalickiah received after making arguments to the Lamanite king (Alma 47:1) and his supporters received when they spoke the Lamanite people (Alma 48:1) when the Lamanite refugees from the wilderness came pouring into the land based upon Nephite preemptive action (Alma 50:7). The angry young men would have made especially ready recruits for his “wonderfully great” army (Alma 51:11).

Instead of neat conclusions based on a handful of verses, a close reading of the scriptures suggests no easy answers to today’s dilemmas in Moroni’s actions. He certainly seemed justified based upon the trauma of his youth. The brutal killing of Gideon, civil war, destruction of Ammonihah, capture of prisoners, near defeat, almost annihilation, many deaths, and famine of the Nephite realm during his youth made him rather aggressive in defending the Nephites. His actions were successful in defending the Nephite realm and they almost nipped the threat from Amalickiah in the bud. But they had severe unexamined consequences that may have exacerbated Nephite problems. The solution instead of dogmatic dismissals and overwrought denunciations of the practice is that it was a strategy with precedent and justification but was not a simple solution or cure all. It is possible that many of the negative consequences could have been avoided if Moroni had been completely successful in capturing in capturing Amalickiah, but the next example suggests preemptive action wouldn’t solve Nephite problems.

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[1] Mark Henshaw, Valerie Hudson et. Al. “War and the Gospel: Perspectives from Latter day Saint National Security Practitioners,” Square Two, v.2 no.2 (Summer 2009.)
This passage borrows material first written 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), 32-33.
[2] Mormon said there “was never a happier time” during a lull in the war chapters (Alma 50:23). R. Douglas Phillips refers to it as a “golden age” in “Why is so much of the Book of Mormon Given Over to Military Accounts?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 27.
[3] Using the terminology of John Welch, “Why Study War in the Book of Mormon?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 6-15.
[4] Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed, chapter 15.
[5] Connor Boyack, “The Problematic Inward Vessel,” Connors Conundrums, February 23rd, 2009. (Accessed October 21st, 2016. )