Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon: Part VI Third Nephi and Mormon

This is part of a series. See part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part seven.

There seems to be several verses that forbid preemptive war.[1] In Third Nephi, Gidgiddoni claims that the Lord forbids them from preemptively going into their opponents lands ( 3rd Nephi 3:21). But considering the disastrous offensives against the robbers on their territory (Helaman 11:25-28) this was more likely strategic advice than a commandment from the Lord. In that same campaign, Gidgiddoni maneuvered offensively to cut off the robbers. His tactically offensive operations in a strategically defensive stance suggest, at least, a more flexible approach than an overly simplistic notion that offensive war is inherently immoral.

Mormon 3:15 also seems to prohibit preemptive war. However, the real sin recorded by Mormon was not the offensive tactics but rather the bloodlust and vengeance that dictated Nephite strategy (v. 14). One might also say it was their false oath (to a false god?) in Mormon 3:10 that finally forced Mormon into his utter refusal. Again, that doesn’t have much to do with their strategy. The seemingly unequivocal anti-war sentiment expressed in Mormon 4:4 does not record any saying of the Lord, but can just as easily represent a strategic description (that isn’t completely accurate, see below). If this is a command against offensive action it is also contradicted by other writings by Mormon. This is most clearly seen in a reevaluation of Alma 48:14. The traditional understanding of this verse is a prohibition against offensive warfare. But a slightly different reading suggests the Nephites are rather commanded to never “give an offense” except “against an enemy” and “to preserve their lives” (Alma 61:3).

Finally, there is Mormon’s statement that the wicked punish the wicked (Mormon 4:5). This seems to describe the inverse of the ideal to trust in the Lord and implies, unsurprisingly, that making strategic decisions while not “under the influence” of the Spirit results in lousy choices with equally horrible results. Here the German military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz can lend us assistance with his description of an essential element of leadership called Coup De’ Oeil.[2] This term is complex but it basically describes both a commander’s ability to “see the light” and his strength to follow it. Clausewitz did not have any spiritual implications in mind, but it certainly applies here. When the Nephites were spiritually darkened, their ability to make correct military decisions were severely impaired (though not completely destroyed, see below). Thus the military prohibition described in the Book of Mormon is not against offensive or even preemptive action, but it is rather a condemnation against passive stupor, lacking trust in the Lord, and lusting for vengeance—in short, a darkened mind.

In fact, leaving aside Mormon’s denunciation of his soldiers, he recorded their admirable qualities many times. The people were “arouse[d]…somewhat to vigor” and they did meet and beat their enemies (Mormon 2:24, 26). They “went forth” and won against the robbers and recovered their lands (Mormon 2:27). They “beat” the Lamanites in Mormon 3:8. Again, they “repulsed” the Lamanites, and again, the only sin is what Elder Neal A. Maxwell called a pronoun problem in taking credit for themselves instead of giving it to God (Mormon 4:8).[3] A short time later the Nephites stood with “boldness” which gained them another impressive victory (Mormon 4:15-20). If somebody was told that a somewhat vigorous army with bold soldiers repulsed and beat a much larger enemy multiple times to defend their territory, wives, children, and houses (Mormon 2:23) that person would think that army was incredibly skilled and maybe even praise worthy. But the descriptions of their sins were so pervasive that readers have failed to adequately assess their military strategy itself separately from faithfulness of those doing it.

Some might argue they shouldn’t be separated, but one of the difficulties in applying the Book of Mormon to a modern American context is the difference in political systems. The modern notion of separation of church and state precludes a prophet leading the United States and thus begs the question of what constitutes “righteous” leadership. Likewise, the concept of a civilian audit over the military excludes a prophet-general leading the country or even determining military policy in any significant degree. That leaves Latter Day Saints to assess strategies like preemptive war, at least somewhat independently from sin and righteousness.

While Mormon makes it seem as though the Nephites were hopeless (and in a spiritual sense they certainly were), their martial conduct and even the result of their offensive attack was not as disastrous as Mormon makes it seem. They had already repulsed the several Lamanites attacks. In the Nephite preemptive attack they debouched out of Desolation and had some initial success though they were ultimately pushed back. The arrival of a new army caused a further retreat to the city of Teancum. The Nephites (again) “repulsed” the Lamanites and then retook the city of Desolation. In the 8 verses of Mormon 4 that describe their supposedly horrible offensive, they ended up right back where they started.

Mormon blamed their offensive attack, saying that if it wasn’t for that the Lamanites would have no power over them (Mormon 4:4), yet the course of the fight and resulting status quo ante make this offensive essentially a draw and no worse than the annihilation they faced.[4] The skill of the soldiers that produced at least a draw makes it clear that the real sin was their, anger, vengeance, blood lust, and boasting which withdrew the divine strength of the Lord, and not their tactics or strategy. (Sensitive readers might also notice the weary matter of fact after action report in Mormon 4:9: And many thousands were killed on both sides.) In fact, one might say that no strategy except repentance could have save the Nephites, which is a great spiritual message but hardly a condemnation of preemptive war.

If the readers see this period of the war as a back and forth see saw, then a spoiling attack launched from a narrow point against a much larger enemy actually has a good deal of merit. In tactical combat, a narrow point that people must pass through is called a kill zone. If the Nephites knew the point of Lamanites attack, and knew that attack was imminent, they could see a good deal of value in launching an attack against a massed foe in a killing zone. Again, just like Zeniff, and the leaders in Ammon’s day, they could reasonably argue that fighting at a time and place of their choosing, with the advantage of surprise, was better than waiting to receive an imminent and inevitable attack from a much larger enemy (Mormon 5:6).

Returning to the beginning of the paper and the difference between a moral preemptive war and morally suspect preventive war, the justification or lack thereof is based on the relative imminence of the threat. The more imminent (or even ongoing) a threat, the more justified it becomes. Mormon says in the 362nd year they defeated the Lamanites and began to boast (Mormon 3:8). Their supposedly wicked and forbidden attack occurred in the 363rd year (Mormon 4:1). Arguably this event was less like the devastating catalyst for their destruction that Mormon makes it seem, and more like an attempt to recreate Moroni’s expulsion of Lamanites from the wilderness in Alma 50. They both occurred during a period of nominal peace but what really seemed like a simple lull in between phases of fighting. Arguably, the only difference in strategy seemed the relative enthusiasm for the conflict based on their spiritual condition (compare, Alma 48:23 and Mormon 3:9). The Nephites were only 14 years removed from ceding their land of inheritance by treaty and were only a year removed from the previous attack (Mormon 2:28-29 lists the 349th year which would be more recent to the Nephites than the 2000 election is to us at the time of this writing). With an existential threat gathering across a narrow pass, and a generation of warfare to suggest an attack was being launched from a land violently conquered within recent memory, even allowing for an irredentist faction that wanted to recover their homeland at any cost, this strategy had more justification than Moroni’s in Alma 50, and it becomes one of their most justified attacks.

There are several verses that make it seem as though the Lord clearly forbids preemptive war. Those scriptures are more likely strategic advice based on specific context, which are also contradicted without editorial dissent elsewhere in the text by its leading figures like Moroni. At other times it was contradicted by the unnoticed background of a story like in Zeniff’s case, or in the unexamined consequences such as those in Ammon’s case. Other verses clearly condemn blood lust, boasting, the pronoun problem, false swearing, and overall a darkened mind, and not the specific strategy of preemptive war. In fact, when the strategy used to defend the Nephites in their last days is assessed on its own merits, and compared to earlier actions by righteous figures, they actually have what is arguably the most justification for preemptive war in the scriptures. A careful reading of the text suggests the high operational tempo with almost nonstop fighting and loss of territory from year to year, with lulls in the fighting without true peace, leading to their final extinction, makes this a long series of attacks and counter attacks which erase the supposed dichotomy between righteous defensive action and horrible, demonic, and evil preemptive war.

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[1] Jeffrey Johanson, “Wars of Preemption Wars of Revenge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol.35, no.3 (Fall 202), 244-247. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N03_244.pdf
[2] Clausewitz, On War, 101-102.
[3]Neal Maxwell, “Consecrate thy Performance,” April 2002, Ensign, 2002. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2002/04/consecrate-thy-performance?lang=eng
[4] Of course, if the Nephites had a smaller population than the Lamanites the loss of Nephite soldiers would be harder to replace than their enemy, and thus fatally weaken their armies despite their retention of territory and battlefield victories. This is a major criticism of Confederate Robert E. Lee. His spectacular battlefield victories drained the South of manpower and lost a war of attrition.

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