Thursday, December 15, 2022

Sunzi and the Moral Low Ground


    Whenever I'm not working and have some free time I like to read. I love to engage ideas and usually I engage enough to make a post out of it. In this case I couldn't make it to page 3 of this book (The Choice of War: Iraq and the Just War Tradition) before I found a howler. This author claims that Sunzi "laid great stress on moral aspects of war" as proof the author cites the claim of Sunzi (using an old translation), “to win without fighting.”

    I was so ready to pounce on this incorrect statement I reminded myself of the Office character Dwight Schrute yelling “false.” Sunzi's admonition wasn't out of some moral, pacifistic desire to avoid war. But an amoral desire to avoid costly conflict. His amoral teachings were one reason why Confucians really didn’t like him. His desire to avoid battle was somewhat similar to the legalists in worrying about the productivity of the soon to be conquered province. Dead men don’t pay taxes, burnt farms can’t supply soldiers, and thus the cost of men and material spent in even a victorious battle was astounding and the legalists wanted to avoid costly battle for that reason.

    Sunzi did advise the invading army to seek profit as a way to entice the enemy into battle,[1] (or hopeless prebattle position), and take provisions from invaded territory to lower the cost of war. But these measures were mostly applied to lowering the cost of the invading army. He didn’t talk about ways to incorporate the province and quickly it make it a profitable part of the empire. For example, one of the lesser-known writers of the Seven Military Classics said of the conquered territory: “do not destroy material profits nor agricultural seasons, be magnanimous towards his government officials, stabilize people’s occupations, and provide relief for the impoverished.”[2]  

    Notice the last line that seems in almost direct contradiction of Sunzi. It said to provide relief to the impoverished, while Sunzi advised armies to literally plunder them. The treatment of the people is a huge factor that distinguishes Sunzi from others. My book had three chapters on this subject because it was visited so often and in so many variations by classical Chinese theorists. But outside of a perfunctory statement about winning the people, Sunzi’s writing often relied on pure calculation, force, profit, and throwing soldiers into places which they cannot fleet to stimulate the greatest effort.

    His first line is that warfare is the greatest affair of state, which ignores the second part quoted by most Confucians about protecting the altars of the ancestors.[3] As one writer said, “When a state loses its priorities, the altars of soil and grain will be wronged.” [4] Sunzi instead spoke mostly about tactical positional advantage (designed to produce victory without battle) and not about the Mandate of Heaven, righteousness, or benevolence. He discussed calculations in the temple, but only to assess the prospects of victory, not to pray or invoke Heaven's favor.

    Sunzi's theories were criticized by thee Confucian Xunzi as tactics for a bandit army and day laborers, or like stirring boiling water with a finger.[5] Even Wuzi, a fellow military writer often lumped in with Sunzi thought bandit armies that pursued profits were a weakness that could be exploited. He said that armies based on rewards ‘’scatter and individually” engage in combat, and when enticed with profit “will [greedily] abandon their generals to pursue it.”[6]

    Sunzi’s statement about avoiding the loss of life was not a moral high ground. But the results of base temporal concerns like profit and greed. It was disheartening to read such a major mistake so early in the book, and in print which means it got by an editor. But quoting Sunzi is an easy way to spice up a piece and few people know better so everyone from editors, to readers, and generals just go with it. I’ve seen bad quotes and interpretations from the financial review a Master’s thesis, and even General Petraeus. His terse writing and simple profundity lend itself to a wide variety of interpretations. But when compared to dozens of other classical writers a reader can better understand his theories and eliminate the bad interpretations such as Sunzi having some kind of moral objection to slaughter.

I work as a free lance author. If you found value in this ad free, high quality, research please consider donating using the pay pal button below, or buying one of my books linked in the top left, particularly Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Statecraft. 


[1] “Thus what [motivates men] to slay the enemy is anger; what [stimulates them] to seize profits from the enemy is material goods.” And, “With profit [the general] moves them” Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China: Sunzi (Westview Press, 1993), 160, 165.

[2] Sawyer, Wei Liaozi, 273.

[3] Sawyer, Tai Kong, 64-65.

[4] Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huanglao, and YingYang in Han China, Robin Yates trans., New York City, Ballantine Books, 1997.

[5] Basic Writings of Xunzi, Burton Watson trans., (Columbia University Press, 1963,) 64.

[6] Sawyer, Wuzi, 210.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Research Update: Isolationism, First Strike, Sacrifice, Ambushes Oh My!

Hey everyone. I haven't been able to post here, but that doesn't mean I don't have any great writing out there. Here is a list of current projects in various stages of publication: 

To Stop a Slaughter: The Book of Mormon and Just War: This is being considered by a publisher right now. I've heard that JK Rowling and Frank Herbert's Dune both went through many publishers before getting picked up. So I know its a good manuscript and it will get its day...just some day. 

Am I My Brothers Keeper: This is a piece that discusses the continuing isolationism from American analysts regarding Ukraine. I argue that many people are sadly like Cain, and dismissing the problem in Ukraine as someone else's problem because they aren't their brother's keeper. Its submitted to the same place that published my piece at the beginning of the war so I think it has a good shot. 

Kiskkumen's Dagger: I thought this blogpost was so good I took that skeleton, cut the fat, strengthened some arguments, added more, and submitted it for publication. The concept of first strike is an important modern concern and Helaman 2 probably has the most detailed and applicable account. Its currently at Square Two, since I thought national security professionals might appreciate this the most. 

Maxwell Institute Theology Seminar: This great seminar is back and in Harvard's Divinity School this year. I've applied in the past and this year is on Alma 34, which just happens to be part of my book, and an article for Public Square I've already written. So I think I have a good shot at this, but I say that every year, so yeah. If I'm not one of the participants I'll post my application, consisting of a creative reading of Alma 34:7, here as soon as possible. It is about the use of ancient law regarding witnesses and penal sacrifice in Amulek's sermon about Christ's atonement. (That sounds complicated, but they give me one verse to work with and ask for a creative reading so that's what I do.) 

Moroni's Letter: I've got this one pretty close to journal ready. Its about some of the unique arguments that Moroni makes and addresses in his letter. This includes the proper military strategy that interprets waiting on the Lord for deliverance, interpreting military defeat, and the use of sinfulness of ambushes. Moroni's strategy was much more active, for example, which I contend was a rebuke of previously more passive Nephite strategy. I'm still working on a better title and debating who I should submit to. 

As you can see I have some great things in the works. None of them make a great blog post which is why the blog has been fairly quiet for the past little while. But I've been writing like crazy. If all goes well I'll be announcing many publications soon. They are all pretty connected as well, so even if just a few are published I can still build buzz for my book.

Thanks for reading. What are you most looking forward to?

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, or buying one of my books linked at the top left. 

Monday, October 24, 2022

Modern Problems Ancient Solutions



 I almost named my first book modern problems to ancient solutions. I’ve also mentioned before that I find classical Chinese theory some of the most thorough that I’ve seen outside of maybe Clausewitz. It is all the more amazing because in some cases these theories were expressed thousands of years ago. I was reading a new book Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory by James Dubik. I’ve got a book coming out on just war, and there are so many other books on the subject I want to keep abreast as much as I can. The book itself was a bit of a dud.[1] But the important part was that the book brought up important ideas that were addressed a long time ago, hence the title of this post.

    One of the dominant themes of Reconsidered is that a large reason for having a moral strategy determined by high level leaders is to make sure the soldier’s executing it are not dying in vain for it. President Lincoln considered this idea in the Gettysburg Address. Dubik said the soldiers should know that commanders care about soldiers (p. 52). And on page 99 that soldiers are expected to risk their lives, but know their lives are not thrown away, wasted in missions “without achieving something that would give their sacrifices meaning.”

    That sounds nice but isn’t new. Numerous classical Chinese authors, (between 400 and 200 BC) commented on the connection between goals and methods. One of the reasons the great military theorist Sunzi advised that the pinnacle of victory is winning without a fight, was to avoid needless casualties when they swarm over city walls like ants.[2]

    The purported descendant of Sunzi, Sun Bin, said simply that when commander “employs them like earth and grass,” they won’t respect or follow him.[3] One of the leading Confucians, Mencius attacked the leaders who treat ministers like grass.[4] In both cases they referred to the clumps of dirt and grass that were often cast aside without a thought by shoveling day laborers. These examples focused more on battlefield leadership. But they shared high level responsibility of modern civilian leaders and high-level military strategists. 

     The next comparison from Dubik’s book was between the idea about civil control of the military. The founders were concerned about an Oliver Cromwell type figure which is why they required military funding on a yearly basis done by the House. After World War II the civilians in the government passed the National Security Act as a further safeguard. In this case, Dubik said that militaries strong enough to protect were often strong enough to overthrow the government (57).

    This was a classic Chinese dilemma. The generals of the Southern Jin dynasty of the mid-5th century AD could often sweep down the Yangtze River and overthrow their civilian leaders. The An Lushan rebellion (755 AD) started in the periphery because of a powerful general gained power while protecting the frontier. And the final defection of the Lu Wende, inspired by civilian officials fearful of growing power, doomed the defeat of the Southern Song in the 13th century to the powerful Mongol invasion.

    To solve this, Chinese leaders often had what was called Tiger Tallies, which were two halves of a totem that needed to be combined by the civilian and martial leader, or provincial official and representative from the central government before the provincial military leader could muster the military.

    On top of this, there were various ceremonies that reinforced the need to remove a general from his command and source of power before meeting civilian officials. The historical background for one of the seven military classics, Methods of Sima, included this:[5]

[After taking command and hearing news of the enemy’s withdraw] thereupon [the general] pursued and attacked the [enemy], subsequently retaking all the territory within the borders of the old fief, returning with the soldiers. Before [the general] 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.

    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, before Amalickiah could enter the capital and meet the queen ( Alma 47:33).

    Just  like military officials shouldn’t use their military power to intimidate civilian officials or seize power,  there are multiple examples of how the military commander should not face interference in the field from officials in the court with their often out of date and faulty information. Dubik wrote about the example of President Johnson who brow beat and demeaned his generals to the point that dissuaded the kind of sustained discussion and debate needed for good high-level policy (61,95).

    The military theorist Tai Kong explained it well here:

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 [symbols of authority similar to the tiger tally discussed above]. 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.[6] 

    But the Tai Kong only discussed the general being free from meddling. Johnson (and other poor modern leaders) denigrated their advisers. The classical Chinese military theorist Wuzi discussed this danger as well. In my book about classical Chinese thought, I described the danger that theorists described as being the smartest man in the room:

[The general Wuzi] attended a meeting in court where the ruler was often dismissive of his ministers...After the meeting he expressed his concern to the ruler by sharing the story about the King of Chu and the value of ruler receiving wisdom from ministers: I have heard it said there are no lack of Sages in the world and no shortage of Worthies in a state. One who can get them to be his teachers will be a king, while one who has them as his friends can become a hegemon. Now I am not talented, yet none of my ministers can even equal me in ability…This is what the King of Chu found troublesome, yet you are pleased by it. I therefore dare to be fearful.[7]

    As usual, Wuzi seems to bridge the divide between various camps to produce a sound and practical synthesis. In contrast to legalists he is a military official that seems supportive of the ministerial class, but not so much so like Confucians. He supported the basic concept that a ruler should learn from his advisers in order to create the best strategy which doesn’t needlessly sacrifice his soldier’s lives. Wuzi simply argued that a ruler can be far more powerful by listening to his ministers and side stepped the advice of Taoist rivals about being unknowable.

    Supporting a sustained debate to achieve good strategy is offered by Dubik as a much-needed reassessment but he was simply repeating good ideas elucidated thousands of years ago. This good debate was formed, by what he said, was generals that possessed a “broad understanding.” This term was immediately explained to mean an analytic mind that can see coherence amid fog [a possibly Clausewitz term][8] and listen to extended discourse (101).

    This is an exhortation about military leaders could penetrate the bureaucracy. The writings of Guanzi, often seen as the prototype of a good Confucian minister also gave parameters for penetrating fog, but his “broader approach” suggested moving beyond than super weapons or a larger number of soldiers. I chose to include hit here because, Guanzi’s use of the term is broader than the ability of keen generals to offer good policy advice:

The art of conducting warfare consists… of acquiring a broad knowledge of the realm and an understanding of strategy- all to an unrivalled degree… It is impossible for [the ruler] to hope to bring order to the realm if his material resources do not excel those of the rest of the realm. It is [also] impossible even if he excels in material resources, but fails to excel in [the skill of] his artisans, or if he excels in [the skill] of artisans, fails in weaponry. [Likewise] it is impossible even if he excels in weaponry, but fails in [the quality of] his knights, or if he excels in [the quality of] his knights, fails in his instructions. It remains impossible even if he excels in his instructions, but fails to do so in training, or if he excels in training, but fails in terms of having a broad knowledge of the realm, or excelling in terms of broad knowledge, fails in his understanding of strategy….[9]

    The good ideas of the past being so applicable to modern problems is the major reason why I would rather read older books for their wisdom and avoid being so quick to abandon or ignore those texts in favor of modern ideas. One of the most enjoyable parts of being a historian is reading the wise words of an ancient scholar and being impressed by their keen intellect and wisdom. It is the conceit of every modern age to think that they alone have solved all the world’s problems. Yet they only do so by abandoning the past. Such reasoning has resulted in the reign of terror, massacres in the great leap forward, and the folly of pacificism overriding just war theories. I hope I’ve provided even a small part of their wisdom and I hope I’ve inspired you to read them more.

    Thanks for reading. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below, or buy one of my books linked in the top left. (If you liked this piece, you might enjoy Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Statecraft.)


[1] It discussed the moral burden resting on politicians and top generals involved in creating a winning strategy. But it focused a great deal on bureaucracy which was fairly typical for a top general trying to offer something new.

[2] Sunzi, in The Seven Military Classics, Ralph Sawyer trans., (Basic Books, 1993), 161.

[3] Ralph Sawyer trans., Sun Bin’s Military Methods, (New York: Westview Press, 1995),200.

[4] Mencius: A New Translation Arranged and Annotated For the General Reader, W.A.C.H. Dobson trans., University of Toronto Press, 1963), 16.

[5] The Methods of Sima, in Seven Classics, 114.

[6] Six Secret Teachings of Tai Kong, The Seven Classics, 64.

[7] Wuzi, Seven Classics, 210.

[8] Eugenia C. Kiesling (2001). "On War Without the Fog" (PDF). Military Review. October 2001.

[9] Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophic Essays Vol I, Alan Rickett trans., (Princeton University Press, 1985,) 132.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Kishkumen’s Dagger: Helaman 2 and Preemptive Warfare in the Book of Mormon


    This is part of an ongoing series about preemptive war in the Book of Mormon. See part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, and now part eight.

    We read in the second chapter of Helaman:

6 And it came to pass as [Kiskumen] went forth towards the judgment-seat to destroy Helaman, behold one of the servants of Helaman, having been out by night, and having obtained, through disguise, a knowledge of those plans which had been laid by this band to destroy Helaman—

7 And it came to pass that he met Kishkumen, and he gave unto him a sign; therefore Kishkumen made known unto him the object of his desire, desiring that he would conduct him to the judgment-seat that he might murder Helaman.

8 And when the servant of Helaman had known all the heart of Kishkumen, and how that it was his object to murder, and also that it was the object of all those who belonged to his band to murder, and to rob, and to gain power, (and this was their secret plan, and their combination) the servant of Helaman said unto Kishkumen: Let us go forth unto the judgment-seat.

9 Now this did please Kishkumen exceedingly, for he did suppose that he should accomplish his design; but behold, the servant of Helaman, as they were going forth unto the judgment-seat, did stab Kishkumen even to the heart, that he fell dead without a groan.

    When Helaman’s servant killed Kishkumen this seemed like a divinely ordained protection of Helaman(2).[1] Kishkumen’s guilt is established by the narration in verse 8. Curiously, the Book of Mormon says that Nephite law didn’t punish a person’s belief Alma 30:7,9; a person was only punished after committing murder or robbery (Alma 30:10). Kishkumen did murder the preceding chief judge (Helaman 1:9) but hadn’t yet committed this crime. Yet there is no record of the servant’s punishment over his preemptive murder or taking justice into his own hands over Kishkumen’s previous murder, and no editorial critique from Mormon, except a warning that the Gadianton Robbers would overthrow the people of Nephi (Helaman 2:13-14). The text simply shows that Helaman was a prophet and good leader whose servant righteously defended him.

    Various thoughtful theorists from hundreds of years in the past have explained why that can remain a just action. Except none of that thought has been applied to LDS scripture. Patrick Mason summarizes many Latter Day Saints when he calls just war theory “neither broad nor comprehensive enough.”[2] Even National Security professionals feel the need to defend the use of just war for members of Christ’s church to resolve modern problems.[3]

    But there is rich material that applies. The theorist, Samuel Pufendorf, writing around the time of the 30 Years War compared the right of preemptive or even preventive action to a person that sees a “charging assailant with sword in hand.”[4] The modern theorist Michael Walzer suggests that someone being hunted has a right to ambush his attacker.[5] In both instances the basic premise is than an individual who sees an attack in progress doesn’t have to wait for the first blow to defend themselves.

    The early modern theorist Hugo Grotius explained those underlying principles when he wrote that if the state faced a danger that was facing “immediate and certain” danger or an attack that “commenced but not carried through” the state could take preemptive action. Commenced but not carried through might sound odd, but you’ve already read several examples like that in this post. It would be like the individual has drawn the sword, sworn an oath to kill you, but has only raised and not swung the sword yet. Or maybe it would be like a would-be assassin that has sworn an oath to kill the chief judge and has arrived on the scene with a dagger to do the deed, and that assassin killed a previous judge (Helaman2:3). A modern example would be that a nation has launched its bombers in a nuclear strike, but they haven’t hit their target yet. Even though President Eisenhower is often quoted as an opponent of preemptive war,[6] he admitted during the Berlin crisis that if placed in that situation he would launch a preemptive nuclear first strike.[7]

    The modern conception of just preemptive war is referred to as the Caroline standard. In stopping an arms shipment to Canadian separatists the US navy took preemptive action to destroy the Caroline. Daniel Webster argued that the “instant and overwhelming need for self-defense, leaving no choice and no moment for deliberation” justified the attack.

    In short, the main criteria summarized from theorists as far back as the 16th century suggests that preemptive warfare is justified when a threat must have intent, means, and imminence. Applied to the case of Helaman’s servant, the servant knew they had intent. A previous chief judge had been killed, and the servant attended the meeting of conspirators planning the murder of Helaman. Kishkumen had the weapon we would use to perform the killing and thought he had been granted access to the chief judge. An assassination would happen within moments. This seems to meet all of the requirements but there are still questions about the theory itself and its modern application.

    The major problem with this standard is the rather subjective nature of “imminent.” Grotius for example, used the example of a plot formed by robbers to argue for a more restrained and patient approached led by law enforcement approach instead of a preemptive strike. He wrote, if they “formed a plot, prepar[ed] an ambuscade, poisoning, or readied a false accusation [the planner] cannot lawfully be killed either if danger can in any other way be avoided, or if [the ruler] thought delays could afford remedies.”

    Justified self-defense within the criminal law is founded upon the principle of defending yourself against an immediate attack. Not a preemptive attack because the two parties have been threatening each other, or a long-awaited revenge killing in retaliation. Going back to Webster and the Caroline case again, the preemptive attack must be in the moment when the threat of deadly force creates and “overwhelming need” for force and the attack must be made when there is “no moment for deliberation.”[8]

    But other theorists took a rather expansive view. A contemporary theorist of Grotius named Alberico Gentili argued that “at the first signs trouble are perceived, it is easy to find a solution, but if one lets trouble develop medicine will be too late.”[9] This is the exact same argument that the classical Chinese theorist Shizi made. 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![10]

    The enlightenment writer Emil Vattel wrote that a state can attack “as soon as [its neighbors] has been given evidence of injustice, greed, pride, ambition, or desire of dominating over its neighbors.”[11]

    The problem with the reasoning of the above theorists is that just about any change or perceived change can justify those conditions, and anything can be spun by a ruler seeking expansive war to justify those requirements.

    In short, there is significant debate over how immediate something must be and how important that qualification is with answers ranging from very to none. To better understand the differences we might return to the preemptive attack from Helaman’s servant. At first glance it seems like Helaman’s servant was justified, but he many not have been. The text says that he received this information the night before. Thus, the servant of Helaman didn’t have to resort to killing. He could have notified Helaman so the latter wasn’t on the judgement seat when Kishkumen came. The servant could have called for additional guards to arrest Kishkumen when the latter arrived on the scene. The key point is that unlike the Webster’s reasoning in the Caroline case, the servant had time to deliberate. But the servant resorted to killing, when he had been out by night (Helaman 2:6) and had thus had time to arrange a non-lethal way to end the approaching attack.

    But the problem of judging immediacy is even tougher in the modern era. For example, if the US waited until the 9/11 attacks were “commenced but not carried out” as Grotius said, “left no moment for deliberation” from the Caroline case, or were clearly imminent as the standard demands, then the planes would have already been on their way to the twin towers. America would have been forced to kill several hundred innocent passengers to stop the terrorist attacks.

    The answer to the problem of immediacy then, is to examine the danger and its magnitude combined with the other two criteria, intent and means. Terrorists have been attacking America for years, so like the Gadianton Robbers, they have shown intent. But unlike Kishkumen’s dagger, terrorists armed with nuclear weapons have much stronger means. With a nuclear weapon they could kill millions in a single attack. Sounding very similar to my writings:

John F. Kennedy wrote said, “We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nations security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in deployment may well be regarded as a threat to peace.[12]

    Or as I wrote using my good instincts about the dangers of nuclear weapons:[13]

During the Cold War the United States could nominally count on the international order to restrain the actions of the enemy.[14] Now, the United States faces regimes that explicitly reject that world order…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.[15]    

    Thus, if a terrorist group fulfilled the first two criteria, means and intent, but the timing of the attack remained unclear, it would be incredibly dangerous to wait and accept a single blow (let alone three,) or wait until the attack was commenced but not carried out. Instead, as a justified self-defense America would launch a preemptive and even preventive strike.

    Many Latter-Day Saints wrongly presume that scriptures like section 98 are a strict guide to foreign policy and argue the neighbor should receive three attacks. (As Duane Boyce pointed out,[16] even that is confusing. Do you count three bullets, three magazines, or three battles?) But a person has a basic right to life, and a right to defend it. Reason, natural law as theorists would say, or some common sense regarding nuclear weapons suggests waiting to receive even a single attack is foolish and even wicked because it will be fatal.

    That doesn’t mean a person or nation should go to the extreme and launch an attack at the mere hint of attack. (Though there are some theorists that go that far.)  Instead, there are many options in between a destructive strike at the first provocation and waiting to receive the likely fatal first blow. A besieged neighbor might intercept the weapons shipments, which means the neighboring enemy would have far less ability, or means, to attack you at all. (Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having nuclear weapons 90 miles from America was a grave threat and justified a military response to remove them, but part of the concern of the Kennedy administration was a proportional response, hence the blockade.) Though the principle is clear, modern crises aren’t quit as simple.

    Thus, Americans should be aware of terrorist ideology (intent.) They must continue to take steps to prevent them from obtaining means like weapons, and especially any WMDs. But they don’t have to for imminent attacks before striking, as that would often be too late. Instead, to protect lives they should launch devastating strikes against terrorists before the threats materialize.

    Helaman chapter two is not simply a short cloak and dagger tale, or introduction to the Gadianton Robbers that eventually dominate the text. But become an important case study about the just and righteous principles behind first strikes. If an enemy shows intent, means, and imminency (however sometimes vague the last might be), like Helaman’s servant, they have a right to strike first with preemptive and even preventive war. They might thoughtfully consider other options less of force, but the right remains and often there is no time for those other options.

I work as a free lance author. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below, or buy one of my books linked in the top left. 


[1] Hereafter all references refer to Helaman the younger.

[2] Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Proclaim Peace: The Restoration Answers to the Age of Conflict, (Deseret Book, Maxwell Institute, 2021), 135. See also Connor Boyack who dismisses the applicability of all the war chapters: Connor Boyack, “Preventive War and the Book of Mormon,” Connors Conundrums, September 13th, 2009 (Accessed, August 26, 2022.)

[3] John Maddox, “The Book of Mormon as a Touchstone for Evaluating the Theory of Just War,” in Wielding the Sword While Proclaiming Peace: Views from the LDS Community on Reconciling the Demands of National Security with the Imperatives of Revelated Truth, Kerry Kartchner and Valerie Hudson eds., (Brigham Young University, 2004,) 57.

[4] Totten, Mark, First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 129-146. 

[5] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (Basic Books, New York: 2006,) 88.

[6] See Connor Boyacks piece, for example, in fn 2.

[7] Totten, First Strike, 2.

[8] Webster, Daniel. 'Letter to Henry Stephen Fox', in K.E Shewmaker (ed.). The Papers of Daniel Webster: Diplomatic Papers, vol. 1. 1841-1843 (1983) 62. Dartmouth College Press.

[9] Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, Stephen Neff trans., (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 83-84.

[10] Shizi: China’s First Syncretist, Paul Fischer trans., (Columbia University Press, 2012,) 67-68.

[11] Totten, First Strike, 136.

[12] Totten, First strike, 71.

[13] Morgan Deane, “The Lord Forbid? Offensive Warfare in the Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Richard Bushman, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher eds., (Greg Kofford books, 2012), 9-19.

[14] But even this balance of power produced the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Krushchev threatening to “swat [America's] ass” with the nuclear weapons he inserted there. See Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 428.

[15] Clausewitz, On War, 363.

[16] Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed (West Jordan UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 156-157: The matter of definition is especially important when we consider the trespass of one state against another. … When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the assault occurred in two waves and involved six aircraft carriers and more than three hundred fifty planes. During the attack the Japanese damaged or sank sixteen U.S. ships, destroyed some one hundred ninety planes, killed twenty-four hundred Americans, and wounded twelve hundred more. Now, which of these numbers is most pertinent to the commandment that an aggressed party (the United States in this case) must suffer “trespass” three times [as explained in section 98] before responding? Would this assault on Pearl Harbor fall short of that threshold altogether since it was only a single attack and occurred in only two waves? If we saw the matter this way, then it would seem that the United States was obligated to suffer two more attacks from the Japanese before being justified in declaring war in response.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Moral Clarity on the Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings


[Originally posted at Real Clear Defense]

    August 6th marks the dubious day in 1945 where America became the only power to use a nuclear bomb. This continues to spark controversy. From 1945 to 2005 American approval of the bombings has dropped from 85 to 57 percent. And a record low number of Americans are proud of their country. This is somewhat understandable as societal attitudes change and there is a great deal to critique over the decision. But it might also be what the editors at the National Review recently pointed out is part of the crisis of self-doubt gaining traction in America and what Wilfred McClay called a deeply unserious country that doesn’t believe in itself. Yet a proper study of the history surrounding the decision to drop the bombs and an examination of ethics finds the bombing was both justified and necessary.

    During the war both sides held a great deal of racial animus towards one another, which suggests the bomb might have been more willingly used because of racism.[1] Though, the bomb wasn’t ready in time to end the war against Germany so that is hard to gauge. Using an area effect weapon that didn’t distinguish between civilians and military targets invites condemnation.[2] The lack of military targets in Hiroshima and the dubious effectiveness of the bomb makes some people say this was terrorism.[3] After all, the Strategic Bombing survey revealed that the trains ran normally a mere two days later and this was often considered a way to stun the Japanese into surrendering and impress the Russians with the viability of the program.[4] (Though it should be noted that both cities had important military components. Nagasaki for example, was home to one of the most important military garrisons and was a foremost military shipping depot, and thus remained a valid military target.) Plus, there were supposedly peace feelers from the Japanese that made this completely unnecessary.

    As I will show below, these are all extremely flawed arguments that don’t accurately reflect the historical context and seem like excuses to blame American and undermine moral confidence today, instead of understanding the tragic but justified decisions of the past.

    The strongest criticism seems to be the peace overtures. Who doesn’t want the war to end early? This theory argues that the Japanese were ready for peace and only block headed, blood thirsty, and maybe even racist generals kept the war going. These were detailed by a revisionist historian, Gar Alperovitz and thus come long after the fact when it became more fashionable to search and promulgate these theories.[5] More importantly, this theory cherry picks some information and leave out much more important events that shows these peace feelers were completely impotent and U.S. officials were correct when they disregarded them.

    The best evidence against this theory comes after the Japanese emperor’s decision to surrender. After the bombs dropped and the emperor wanted peace army leaders challenged and almost reversed the decision through a military coup. It’s incredibly unlikely that minor officials would have produced peace when the atomically convinced emperor almost didn’t. Let me stress, even AFTER the atomic bombs were dropped there were significant factions in Japan that wanted to keep fighting. Peace was not possible before the bombs were dropped. Plus, American willingness to negotiate before the bombs dropped would have emboldened the Japanese and aggressive army generals to think that more fighting would have gotten them more concessions.

    Other critics quote leaders who sound authoritative but really aren’t. Many of these quotes also ignore historical context. One example comes from Eisenhower who said: [I believe] that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary…[6]

    With all due respect to Eisenhower and other generals cherry picked for opposing nuclear weapons, he was thousands of miles and away and was not privy to the intelligence and decision-making councils that led to it. It would be like Admiral Nimitz second guessing Eisenhower’s decision to stop at the Elbe. Eisenhower is a particularly odd choice for opposing nuclear weapons since his New Look military relied so heavily on nukes and spooks.[7] Those that blanche at the use of nuclear weapons and hate the national security state should probably avoid quoting a general that as president, threatened to use nuclear weapons in the Taiwan Strait crises, and unleashed CIA sponsored coups on democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala that still reverberate today.

    Other military critics were vocal against nuclear weapons not because of moral principles, but because of parochial rivalries. The bombs were delivered by bombers, and this helped Curtis LeMay argue for the creation of an independent Airforce. In turn, this would take resources and prestige away from the Navy and Army chiefs, who were incredibly territorial, had differing strategies and demands, and wanted the air corps assets divided between them.[8] Thus it isn’t surprising to find that admirals would elevate the role of commerce raiding in the defeat of Japan and minimize the “barbaric” “toy” dropped by the budding air corps. Their opposition had little to do with the moral concerns of the time and are especially dissimilar from modern antiwar sentiments. In fact, the admirals preferred a blockade of the Japan that would have slowly killed millions, and the army preferred an invasion that would have also killed millions (see below.)

    The sad truth is that the Japanese would not surrender without the atomic bomb dropping or millions (of Americans, Japanese, and Chinese) dying from an invasion. The East Asian victims of Japanese aggression are often forgotten in Western centric debates over the war. But the Japanese launched the Ichigo offensive in late 1944 which was comparable in size and scope to the German invasion of the Soviet Union.[9] Nationalist Chinese leader Kiang Chai Shek had seen a great deal of bloodshed, but called this period the worst of his entire life. An estimated two hundred thousand Chinese a month were dying at this point in the war. An invasion by American forces on the Japanese homeland would have skyrocketed those figures. Secretary of War Stimson estimated that 400,000 to 800,000 Americans would have died, (including 100,000 prisoners of war that were set to be executed upon invasion), and 5 to 10 million Japanese would have died from an invasion.[10]

    There was the option not to fight which would have left China and much of Asia in the hands of a regime as bad as Hitler’s. Yet one has to wonder how long the imperial Japanese would have felt comfortable with the U.S. in Hawaii so they would probably have attacked America again anyway. The U.S. could have continued to bomb them. The firebombing of Tokyo and conventional attacks actually caused more deaths than the nuclear bombs so that couldn’t have been a better option.

    The U.S. could have blockaded the country. The admirals at the time and later scholars argued that the U.S. had already destroyed much of Japanese shipping and merchant marine by August 1945,[11] and this may have been what Eisenhower meant by already defeating Japan, but then America would have to wait for the country to starve to death. That would have caused more deaths and in a slow manner arguably worse than two nuclear bombings. Its effects would have been unevenly felt across the population. With the elites that caused the war suffering far less than the population that fought it. It also would have given the Japanese army in China more time in their genocidal war against China. So between deaths from famine and deaths from the Greater East Asian War that option would have killed millions more than the bombings. Even then, any peace offering from the emperor would have likely faced a coup just like the surrender after the atomic bombings. Keep in mind that the admirals who argued for this possibly unjust and criminal course are the same admirals being quoted out of context today for entirely different reasons than the military leaders originally intended.  

    Dropping the atomic bomb quickly ended the war which prevented the Soviets from invading as well. The first atomic bomb was dropped literally the day after Stalin finalized plans to invade Japan and he invaded a day after the second bombing. The Soviets treated Eastern Europeans to show trials, mass deportations to the gulags, the Soviet army’s refusal to help the free Poles in the Battle of Warsaw etc., so it was a good option to end the war quickly and prevent the negative effects of Communist rule seen in East Germany and Eastern Europe even today. You can easily argue that the Japanese Constitution and rebuilding under MacArthur was far preferable to Soviet occupation.

    After looking at the other options and strategic context in late 1945, the decision to drop the bomb was moral and justified. In fact, ending the war for mere hundreds of thousands compared to the abject blood bath and millions of deaths that awaited all sides is the reason why the allied leaders considered this weapon a godsend. Even though Michael Walzer opposed nuclear weapons, he also said that ending a war swiftly with a minimum of causalities is the greatest kindness a leader could offer.[12]  Secretary of War Henry Stimson exemplified the latter idea when he said: My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.[13]

    In short, every other option than using nuclear weapons was worse. Taken in vacuum nuclear weapons are horrific, but that weapon wasn’t used in a vacuum and its incredibly unfair to blame America for being barbarians while ignoring the context that justified and compelled their use. This is probably because few have studied military ethics in depth, they simply think that some things are “bad.” But again, considering every option and the context of their war the dropping of atomic weapons was justified and necessary. The war was ended more quickly, saving lives, including millions of Asian lives.

    Americans and members of the church must rightly hope to avoid the tragedy of any having any conflict. But Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sadly reminds us that the specter of war can never be vanquished with hopeful thoughts. Americans can recognize that war, particularly defending life against the most genocidal regimes of the 20th century, was necessary, and the atomic bombings were a necessary and justified choice in World War II.  And every American should strive to have the knowledge and tools to properly judge the morality of the past, which in turn provides the moral confidence to justly proceed in the present.

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[1] For a good overview, see John Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, (New York: Basic Books, 2009), chapter 7.

[2] Micheal Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, (New York, Basic Books, 2015), 250-260.

[3] Howard Zinn, “Breaking the Silence.” ND. ( Accessed August 6th, 2021.)

[4] The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Summary Report: 24.  The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effect of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 6.

[5] Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, (Vintage Books: 2010).

[6] Julian Borger, “Hiroshima at 75: Bitter Row Persists Over US Decision to Drop the Bomb, The Guardian, August 5th, 2020, ( (Accessed August 6th 2021.)

[7] Gordon H. Change, He Di, “Eisenhower’s Reckless Nuclear Gamble over the Taiwan Strait,” American Historical Review 98 (December 1993), 1502-1523.

[8] Keith McFarland, "The 1949 Revolt of the Admirals" Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College Quarterly. XI (2): 53–63.

[9] Morgan Deane, Decisive Battles in Chinese History, (Westholme Press, 2017), chapter 12.  

[10] Frank, Richard B. (1999). Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Random House, 340.

[11] Strategic Bombing Survey: Summary Report, 11.  

[12] Michael Walzer, Just Wars, quoting Moltke the Elder, 47.  

[13] Henry L. Stimson, as quoted in The Great Decision: The Secret History of the Atomic Bomb (1959) by Michael Amrine, p. 197