Friday, October 20, 2017

On Mental Gymnastics

I don't think the anger comes out of a desire to see the church disappears. In my case is more the aghast and shocking reaction to the mental gymnastics that that nuanced members have to do to justify the historical problems particularly. In my mind and in the minds of many exmos there is no "perfectly rational and intellectual defense of all historical problems ". I see it as people clinging desperately to Mormonism and for many of us is not something worth clinging to. To many of us the evidence against the church is much more black and white and damning.  I feel like I'm speaking to a truther or a anti vaxers when I hear some of the justifications for belief by the nuanced crowd. (In the comments here)

I see the term “mental gymnastics” a great deal. Gymnasts are well trained athletes that must put thousands of hours into their craft just for entry level competition, and Olympic athletes dedicate vast sums of time and effort to training.  I’m often bemused by the term, as though being a mental couch potato is better. When the critics use that term they aren’t comparing apologists to dedicated athletes, nor are they praising mental laziness, so obviously something else is going on. Based on my research into the use of words as insults, I think critics use the term as shorthand for deceptive and straining arguments while trying to turn the academic debate upside down.

The important connotation with words like mental gymnasts is the contortions that the gymnast must perform. The critics imply that church members must go through all sorts of crazy contortions in order to support the truth. The critic in contrast, can point to their simple narrative as the correct position that doesn’t need explanation. With an increasing discussion of good and bad apologetics, the release of the excellent Greg Kofford volume in the subject, and continuing debate over its methods, the term seems like a particularly egregious, gutter style tactic.

Those who have dealt with critics have probably heard this narrative. The critics enjoy telling stories of vast million people Jewish American tribes that rode Tapirs into battle and came over on submarines while not leaving a trace of evidence. Joseph smith made it up as he went along, and so on. (As you can tell, I tend to focus on the Book of Mormon so I hear way more of those lousy narratives than the Joseph Smith/ church history ones.)

What the critics are doing is somewhat sophisticated. I say somewhat because I doubt that it is deliberate in most cases. As we might see in statements like "Bush lied and people died," its quite common in political arguments to shape the conversation (or figurative battlefield more often), using loaded terms.  (The phrase is loaded, because it assumes that Bush deliberately lied and simply wasn't mistaken.)

I first noticed this trend in the Book of Mormon. In my first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents, I wrote how “robber” was one of these terms. Throughout history the term was used by various historians to describe what called objectively be called the private armies of individuals. But in situation where the government power was deteriorating the distinction between legitimate agents of the government collecting taxes and ruffians robbing the people became blurry. Hence the term robber could be used against agents of the government, rebels could be called terrorists, terrorists could call themselves freedom fighters, and so on.

The term genocide, terrorist, war monger, and even liberal and conservative on occasion are used more often for their pejorative and emotional value than clinical accuracy. These terms shift the debate and put the other party on defense, and even clouds the debate with the FOG of war. (Fear obligation guilt.) Politicians that oppose war feel obligated to reaffirm their patriotism. Those that want to use western land have to wade through guilt inducing narratives from Native Americans and so on. And in the game of politics, the simpler argument usually wins.

In the case of the Book of Mormon or other apologetic endeavors, the rhetorical maneuvers actually make an intense study of a topic into something negative. Apologetics seems to be the only field where random memes and face value impressions seem to count more than diligent and thoughtful research.  If you disagree with my assessment, try to make an argument about chariots or horses in the Book of Mormon, or a nuanced historical assessment of Smith's marriages to a critic and let the ridicule flow. They preemptively dismiss the idea that translations might be loose, loan words used, history is complicated with incomplete sources, and that the etymology of words allows for alternative interpretations of chariot. (In my study of Chinese, the two character word for palanquin chair uses the primitive for chariot.)   Using this technique a mocking comment about submarines counts more than sophisticated insights gleaned ancient seafaring practices.  A meme of an Indian being pulled by on a sled by chariots, and other mocking items counts more than a thoughtful study of translations and cross cultural contact.

I'm particularly annoyed by the mocking based on numbers. One of the first tasks undertaken by professional historians such as Hans Delbruck included a reassessment of numbers. Unscientific methods of counting, unreliable reports, mistakes in translation, and deliberate exaggeration to prove a moral point are all perfectly acceptable ways to understand and amend our understanding of battle numbers. Doubting large numbers is also a favorite historical past time, from the Battle of Fei River to the size of Hangzhou, the histories of China have often been disputed as fantasy.  (I especially like to point out Marco Polo's description of unicorns. Its plain to modern readers that he simply got it wrong and they are rhinos, but seeing critics explain away the obvious application regarding the naming of animals is too fun. That is some gymnastics worth watching.)

In short then, a discussion of wrong numbers is not only appropriate, its almost one of the first tools developed by modern historians. (I have a chapter in my next book about numbers, and you can previews here and here.) The contrast between the diligent study put into the text, and the seeming ease with which critics dismiss it with a way of their hand makes me feel a good deal like Dr. Evil,  and that I didn't go to six years of school just to called Mr., thank you very much.

The face value reading of something matters. Strong impressions are vital, and it's possible to connect those impressions to Moroni's promise. But face also has the same Latin route as the word superficial. Assuming that a chariot has to mean whatever was seen in Ben Hur is not a proper way to read and understand a text.  I'm often bemused at how cavalier members and critics can be with something that is supposed to be a sacred text. Without getting into a long discussion of the various deficiencies of the church's scripture study program, and the critics have their own issues as well, if a member believes that something is scripture they should be willing to dive deeply into the text's possible literary styles, allusions, patterns, historical antecedents, possible cultural comparisons, moral messages, and doctrinal exposition. In short, while critics use the term mockingly, I think we should be mental gymnasts instead of couch potatoes when it comes to our scriptures.  The current use and acceptance of “mental gymnastics” is a way to delegitimize substantive Mormon arguments, solidify their own (often shallow or deliberately obtuse) interpretations of the text, and they do so often unwittingly using a cliché term.
  • Upon reflection, are there any terms that you might use which that are emotionally charged and used to shape the conversation?
  • This post doesn’t mean to imply that every apologetic argument is good simply based on its complexity or number of footnotes. What are some legitimately bad apologetic arguments that stretch to reach a conclusion?
  • What was the most annoying conversation you had with a critic (or apologist)?
  • What is the difference between a nuanced and valid argument, and mental gymnastics that reconciles at any cost? Can you provide examples?
[Thanks for reading. If you found value in this post please consider donating using one of the pay pal buttons below.] 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Reassessing History on Columbus Day

This is the my most recent publication from Opslens. I published between two and four articles a week on that site so if you like my writing make sure to check it regularly. I reprint items of particular importance here. 

Politicians and activists complain that Columbus Day celebrates the genocide of Native Americans. This evokes a good deal of emotion and the idea of genocide is often discussed around Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, but it’s also brought up in various contemporary political debates. Yet the use of the term genocide is not accurate. It contorts the definition of genocide, uses it for its emotional value, and obscures the historical nature of European and Native American interaction.

The death of so many Native American was tragic, and certainly judging by today’s standards the Europeans who killed them were racist. That reasoning uses the presentism fallacy, which judges past figures based on modern notions of morality. I like to remind liberals that the Barack Obama of 2013 held a position on gay marriage that the modern left would find incredibly offensive and homophobic.

If one of the primary leaders of the left held a position just five years ago that is considered wrong today, it can be expected that people from 500 years ago certainly did. But it was the introduction of deadly diseases into Native American cultures that killed far more natives in a quicker time than most other causes, yet this was not a deliberate and diabolical plan of Europeans. There was no germ warfare against the natives, just tragic cross-cultural contact.

The natives didn’t have the same political race consciousness that modern people do. Many Native American tribes actually fought on the side of Europeans against other tribes. The Aztec practice of human sacrifice both angered and frightened their neighbors who quickly joined Cortez. In fact, not only did natives join European fights, but some scholars such as Ross Hassig posit that the natives actually used the Europeans to settle their political scores. The Five Nations of the Iroquois joined the British to fight the Americans, and the French and Indian War featured natives allied with the French.

If we are to believe the modern political arguments, these were race traitors serving foreign masters in their own destruction. In reality, each tribe acted independently according to their best interests, which sometimes meant allying with Europeans and exterminating bordering native tribes. Many tribes such as the Plains Cree and Comanche established their own empires in the West by subjugating, killing, and enslaving their Indian neighbors. The concept of noble Native Americans fighting the rapacious white men is a modern invention, often used to inspire guilt in political opponents (like the mayor of San Juan did last week), but doesn’t accurately reflect history.

In addition to the Europeans having native allies and vice versa, the Europeans themselves were not a monolithic whole. The Conquistadors just happened to be the most fanatic religionists from Europe that encountered an empire with some of the continent’s bloodiest rituals. Their reaction doesn’t mean every other European power acted the same way. In fact, the Spanish rulers outlawed slavery, and there were many Spanish monks that spent their entire lives ministering to the Indians, learning their ways, providing medical care, and writing down their customs.

The actions of the 16th century Spanish should be separated from 19thcentury Americans. There was not an organized and systematic campaign that called for their extermination similar to Hitler or Milosevic. In contrast to Nazis and Serbian killing squads, the fall of natives in America was a series of sad events over 500 years that resulted in their current situation.

The Spanish were religious zealots, different from the French whose search for furs led to excessive hunting, and both were different from the English who wanted valuable farming lands. Whenever two people come into contact they have a series of mutually inspired changes and responses. The Europeans established missions or trading posts, or planted new crops. Some groups of natives adopted horses and used gunpowder (and often used those items to exterminate neighboring tribes). Different groups of people interacted with others differently depending on their wants and needs.

Unfortunately, the loss of population from disease and the superior numbers of sedentary farmers compared to semi nomadic hunters meant that the Europeans pushed out native cultures. This trend accelerated in the North American West after the American Civil War due to the railroad. But even then it was not a monolithic and organized campaign of extermination, just the extension and sad conclusion of centuries of interaction.

All of these reasons mean that term genocide is used because of its emotional value and not because of its accuracy. Many of the modern users of the word have a much politicized version of history that generally views dead white men as the villains. This over-politicization is misguided on several fronts. In addition to the needless simplification of history described above, the concept of whiteness is extremely fluid.

For example, when Southern and Eastern Europeans migrated in large numbers in the late 19th century, Americans reacted with fear and horror that their country was being taken over by dark skinned Italians, Spaniards, and Poles who had values that were not compatible with Western ideals. But Columbus the Italian and Cortez the Spaniard are the individuals that first started this supposed genocide. In other words, they weren’t white enough to settle in the USA during the late 19th century, but liberal academics believe the 16th century Spanish and Italians were the epitome of white when they supposedly started the genocide against the natives.

The Native Americans can point to a long list of unfortunate events and even abuses. Their plight throughout the years has often been incredibly tragic. They lost huge numbers of people to disease the first few generations after contact with the Europeans. They were also part of a competition between and among nations that included natives allying with the Europeans and vice versa. The attacks on the natives were part of a rather common pattern of warfare that Europeans used against each other, and that the natives used among and between each other.

So, on the next Columbus day, call for indigenous day, or politicized racial attack on white people, it’s important not to be afraid of the political cudgel of misused history, but to respond with a nuanced and thorough understanding of it that says this was not genocide against Native Americans and that there is plenty to celebrate about Columbus.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Record Keeping Magic

[I'm starting a new position as a permablogger at Wheat and Tares. I've gusted posted there on and off over the years and they are trying to expand their offering. I've found they are a receptive and mostly positive audience to my ideas. As a result, most of these posts are also cross posted over there and they might add some background you've already heard.]

I’ve been operating a blog, Warfare in the Book of Mormon for the better part of a decade now. The most fruitful approach I’ve taken over the last several years is to read the text a bit more critically. This is only a blog so I won’t get into the methodological weeds, but I think the good guys aren’t as good as we think, and the bad guys aren’t’ always as bad.  There is a FAIR conference talk about ten years ago that talked about not having a testimony of the history of the church. This means that while the gospel is true, the history of the church is complicated, nuanced, grey, and not nearly as black and white as many members assume.  As I’ve taken this same approach to the Book of Mormon and tried to examine how the Nephites might not have been as noble and pure as the narrative implies, I’ve noticed that the Nephite record keepers are great magicians.

As Grant Hardy intimated in his book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, sometimes the text omits key material, or includes other material that essentially distracts from uncomfortable implications. He points out Nephi’s return with the brass plates. The narrative skips over’s Lehi’s reaction to instead include a rather rare example of a women speaking and complaining in the text. (1 Nephi 5:1-9) Hardy’s analysis uses that unusual inclusion plus the resulting peace offering to suggest that Lehi didn’t approve of Nephi slaying Laban. The Nephite record keepers use emotionally based language such as this to make the reader see what they want you to see, and ignore the context, implications, and unintended consequences detailed within the text.  This post briefly (as possible) looks at three examples that illustrate these magic tricks.
The burning of Sanjo Palace in Medieval Japan. I like this picture because the Samurai are often viewed as these noble Knight like individuals and even became the basis for the Jedi. But in this battle they burned the palace, and then killed all of the survivors as they fled. You can see a decapitation in the center of the picture. Historical reality is different than the often idealized views of the past. 

This land is my land 

The first example might sound a bit familiar. Last time I posted a dramatized account of Moroni’s army sweeping out the Lamanites in Alma 50:9.  They likely didn’t issue a 30 day eviction notice and do so with a regard for Lamanite civil liberties. In fact, while it’s not recorded in the text I bet they used many of their ethnocentric descriptions of Lamanites to justify their action (see the next section).  The Lamanites are dark, loathsome, bloodthirsty, and wild people while the Nephites will bring the light of Christ and civilization to the region.

In fact, the magic trick then becomes the very long discussion of how happy and secure this made the Nephites. Instead of considering how the Nephites may not have been Christlike to their neighbors, how they exercised naked power against their ethnic rivals, and how those refugees likely enhanced Amalickiah’s arguments about Nephite perfidy the chapter discusses how secure they were. Verse 12 discussed “the assurance of protection” offered by new lands, and waxed eloquent about how happy and blessed the people were until finally in v 23. the text says that there “was never a happier time” among the people.

Yet, just a few verses later, in the same chapter, Morianton does the same thing as Moroni and is defeated by Moroni (v.26-36)!  Instead of receiving praise, Morianton’s people taking up arms is presented in stark and dangerous terms. There was a “warm contention,” and Moroni was afraid the people of Bountiful would side with Morianton in the dispute (Alma 50:32.)  But instead of concentrating how the people of Lehi likely presented a one sided account of the conflict, and how naturally fearful anybody would be of Moroni, the text instead becomes a morality tale as Morianton beat one his servants. Morianton didn’t immediately chase his servant which suggests the possibility that she often ran away and then came back.  But this time she went to Moroni who then found significant moral authority to deal with Morianton.

This moral authority was needed because Morianton was simply doing the same thing that Moroni did a few verses earlier. But Morianton had the negatives of possible being an ethnic minority (because of the Jaredite root ending in his name), driving out Nephite settlers instead of Lamanites, and having the survivors flee to Moroni’s camp.  This is the second magic trick in this story.  In addition to ignoring the consequences of preemptive action seizing land and creating refugees, Morianton couldn’t do the same thing because he was morally corrupt and seditious.

Praiseworthy Bloodthirstiness

The next piece of magic again comes squeezed within a good deal of happy talk. After Nephi and Lehi preach to Lamanites, are encircled by fire, and have massive conversions, there is a stunning change in affairs. Suddenly there is peace, harmony, increased trade, and righteousness throughout the first part of Helaman chapter 6. Yet not all is good because the Gadianton robbers are still active (and we’ll get to that part of the story in a minute.)  

From a spiritual standpoint this is a great story, but conversion also results in societal changes as well. I discuss the historical incidents using examples from European history where I describe how conversion is crown deep. There are numerous benefits that range from added political power, top down government control, additional tools of statecraft, diplomatic benefits that include being part of the Christian club of nations. The conversion of Lithuania is a good case study for seeing all of these trends but for brevity I will focus on the diplomatic benefits.

In Helaman 6:20 the Lamanites are praised for using “every means” to “destroy” the Gadianton Robbers, which might be the only time in the scriptures their martial activities are praised. When the Lamanites are not part of the club they are described a wild, ferocious, bloodthirsty, barbarous, cruel, hardened and a plundering people (Enos 1:20, Mosiah 10:12 Alma 17:14 Alma 48:24). These are typical ethnic stereotypes of the other, but amazingly they disappeared when the Lamanites convert and fought the Gadianton Robbers. When the Lamanite Christians later became Nephites in order to fight the robbers in 3rd Nephi 2:12-16 their kids also became white!  Fighting satanic pagans under the banner of Christ gets you a good amount of praise from the recording historian (Mormon) as those fighters suddenly become part of the club. This piece of magic is consistent with historical practice and particularly prominent when the historian has a religious background.  

Wicked Chief Judge- Worst thing ever or minor inconvenience?

The final example comes from involves the Chief Judge. In Alma 46 changing a few laws is presented as a grave threat to liberty and resulted in rather passionate prayer, prophecy (and militarization) by Moroni. The Title of Liberty is praised in the most heroic terms. Nonviolent advocates like Jana Reiss and Joshua Madsen have called him a military “stud muffin” and “action hero”. His words helped me get through Marine Corps boot camp and many uncomfortable nights in the field, (at the risk of confirming stereotypes) during my mission in Texas I went to military compounds that quoted and framed the Title of Liberty on their gate, and the Frieberg painting was prominently displayed in my step dad’s office when he was company commander of the 82nd Airborne. This action was seen as a valiant defense of liberty but the magical description of the powerful Moroni obscures unintended consequences and contrasts with Helaman 6:39 and the trial of where Nephites lost control of the government with little more than a shrug and a whimper.
Just like the refugees created in Alma 50, after the Title of Libety the fleeing men of Amalickiah likely had much more ammunition to spin a tale in front of the Lamanites. He likely didn’t have to exaggerate much to imply that Moroni was an aggressive and dangerous leader.  Nothing says freedom for example like forcing people to support it at sword point (Alma 46:36). Historically failed revolts lands resulted in confiscated lands that were then distributed. Considering the high cost of equipping Nephites with new game changing armor,[1] I wonder if lands were taken or very least a heavy tax levied to support this move. Not only were Kingmen forced to support liberty at sword point, but they likely had to literally pay for it too. This seems like a good case of blowback if there ever was one, and it happened without anybody noticing because we get such warm fuzzies reading about the Title of Liberty.   

Moreover, when the Gadianton Robbers did obtain “sole management” of the government in Helaman 6:39, they were described in the worst terms. Mormon claims the Robbers did “no justice” in the land. They punished the poor because they were poor and allowed the rich to go free so they could go on whore mongering and killing (Helaman 7:4-5). 

Yet, one of the few detailed examples of their justice we have is actually fairly evenhanded. After Nephi prophesied of the murder of another chief judge he was arrested as part of the conspiracy.  They managed to arrest Nephi, an extremely vocal critic of the government, conduct an investigation, and then release him without any indication from the record that he was mistreated.  Nephi didn’t have his lands seized (like the Nephites did to the Lamanites in Alma 50 or possibly the Kingmen in Alma 46), as Nephi apparently maintained his residence in the capital city. Nephi wasn’t indefinitely detained before finally being executed like the Nephites did to their vocal critics during the great war (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:9).  Despite being a vociferous critic of an evil government that he says is inspired by Satan, Nephi received a fair amount of what we would call due process.  Of course, Nephi’s son did have an execution date set. And as a leader of a major or dominant religion, Nephi may have been too big to jail.  Yet this example is still illustrative of how losing control of the government wasn’t the world ending result, especially when we might infer even worse about the supposedly righteous rule of Nephites.

Nephite leaders preemptively seized a perceived threat against the government in Helaman 1, where the person’s sole crime seemed to be just thinking about flattering the people. That could have seemed like a decent reaction based on the chaos caused by other dissenters. But even King Mosiah had to plead to the people that they had no right to “destroy” his son Aaron should he reassert his right to the throne and spark a civil war (Mosiah 29:8), so it seems like a pretty common response that even applied to repentant missionaries. Reading John Welch’s, Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon, shows us that Alma the Younger had to be very creative in his sentence and execution of Nehor, which still inflamed sectarian conflict.[2]  There are many more examples we could infer about the injustice of the Nephites. Daniel Belnap for example, wrote a very good article detailing the strife and “stumbling block” that unrighteous and unjust actions of Nephites caused in the 18th year of the reign of the judges.[3] 

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). Of course the beatings to get confessions were committed by unrighteous figures from the wicked city of Ammonihah. Though its important to note that no beatings were recorded during the period the robbers had “sole management” of the government. The Nephites even tested the wine on their prisoners first (Alma 55: 31-32)! Jailing the prophet for a bit in connection to a murder that he just predicated, hardly seems like the government of Satan, and seems comparatively better than some of the actions by righteous figures. Yet again, few readers notice because the Title of Liberty and preaching and prophecy of Nephi distract from that comparison and contrast.


The Book of Mormon is a complex book. Suggesting that the Nephites are unrighteous might be upsetting to some people. After I gave presented at the FAIR conference I got some strong rebukes by people quoting scripture suggesting that I was completely wrong in my reading. This analysis is admittedly speculative, but it’s no less so than the Heartland kooks that probably dominate your Sunday School.  This approach gives us the benefit of treating Mormon as a real person and historian with tension between the spiritual and history in his book. As Michael Austin said the last time this controversy arose, many members insist the book is historical, but then read the text as though it’s a bad novel or propaganda. If the Nephites were real people then they were self-interested just like everybody else in history, and particularly the children of Israel. As a result their record keeping shows the same techniques used by other ancient historians. They liked power and prosperity, and they wrote their history the same way others did. So their culture was seen as better, the “others” were seen as wicked, losing power to wicked individuals was the worst, and making smart moves to consolidate their power was wise. The Nephites were not cardboard cut outs, but acted like people throughout history, moving through a fallen and difficult world the best they can.

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[1] Alma 43:19-21 suggest the armor was enough to scare away the Lamanites, and they blame their defeat on it 44:9). We don’t know the exact material. Large metal was not feasible in Mesoamerica at this time, and the Limhites brought back a large piece of armor because apparently it was rare. But it was heavier and enough to tip the balance of power.
[2] John Welch, Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2008), The Trial of Nehor.  
[3] Dan Belnap “And it came to pass . . .”: The Sociopolitical Events in the Book of Mormon Leading to the Eighteenth Year of the Reign of the Judges Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 2014 (23): 101-139

Monday, September 25, 2017

Real Clear Defense: The Imperative of Chinese History and Geography

[I suppose its a good sign that I do so much writing that I didn't see this piece. It was originally published on Strategy Bridge, which I noted earlier in the year. But it was also picked up by Real Clear Defense. I check out their collection of links almost every day and its an honor to be included among them. The cool thing about this article is that it is largely based on a chapter of my book. I noticed that the regions included in a Stratfor article on being critical to China, are the same ones I discussed in the chapter. ] 


Chinese behavior in the South China Sea is viewed by many as implacably aggressive. China contends it is consistently defensive and even pacifistic. To cut through the rhetoric we can look at the combination of geography and history in the past 150 years to explain Chinese behavior. As Stratfor has noted, China has core geographic imperatives. Western powers (and Japan after adopting Western weapons and attitudes) penetrated these core territories during a long period of weakness that lasted from about 1840 to 1950. As a result, since 1950 Chinese leaders have fought offensive and often preemptive wars with each one of their neighbors, but they’ve been able to claim these are defensive measures. A careful look at the history suggests there is some merit to Chinese positions, but most often they are used as rhetoric to justify aggression.

The geographic regions of most concern to China consist of its core Han territories between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, its tributary states such as the Muslim Republics in the West, and the littorals and oceanic avenues of approach to Chinese territory. Hereafter they will simply be referred to as key territories. For much of Chinese history these territories have been the route of invaders ranging from Mongolian invaders from the North West in the 13th century to the wokou (literally translated as dwarf pirates) along the South Eastern coast in the 16th. Chinese diplomacy was also predicated on their being the center of diplomacy, after all, they are the Middle Kingdom, with many tributaries and neighboring nations acting as figurative sons or brothers to their Chinese father.[1] For example, Hideyoshi’s 1592 invasion of Korea was explicitly announced as a prelude to assaulting China and changing the East Asian world order. My forthcoming book, Decisive Battles in Chinese History, describes what happened to China when those key regions were penetrated starting with the Opium War (1839-1842). British warships with shallow drafts often bypassed key positions and easily out fought the apathetic ethnic Han troops who did not wish to fight on the behalf of the foreign rulers of the Manchu Dynasty. The resulting treaty overturned the nature of Chinese diplomacy, forcibly opened many Chinese cities and penetrated on of their key geographic areas.Chinese victories for the next half century after the Opium War showed evidence of their adaptability, inherent strength, and desire to defend their territories.[2] Chinese armies armed with Western-style rifles and diplomatic tactics recovered and even expanded further into central Asia. They fought a brief war and resolved the conflict with Russia over the pivotal Ili valley and province. They subdued the Taiping rebellion that engulfed most of China during roughly the same period as the American Civil War, and defeated Muslim-led revolts in the remote Southwest of Chinese territory. This period proved that an active and capable leader could still secure and recover territory, as well as make modest improvements in adopting Western arms in the face of resistance from traditionalists and cultural elites. Compared to the collapse of the Song and Ming dynasties (in the 12th and 17th centuries respectively), the Qing government performed well against stronger threats in creating peace and prosperity.

With the exception of trade cities opened by the British in key Chinese territory, the Chinese were able to respond to land-based threats and internal rebellions in their core territories and their tributary states, but the European naval threats to areas that were nominally under their control were a different story. The Chinese fought and lost two wars against the British, which prompted military reforms and they lost two more pivotal wars in the latter decades of the century that showed their efforts at modernizing were stumbling and inadequate. The first of these was against the French in 1883-1885 for control of territory we now know as Vietnam, and which was a frequent tributary in China’s long history and hence one of their key territories. The failures of this war were stark, but not complete. They mostly revealed that the efforts at military reform were led by various local leaders in an inconsistent fashion hampered by factional politics. The uneven reform resulted in modern ships and armies that lacked standardized equipment, spare parts, common training, and adequate leadership. This was a common theme until the end of World War II, as China at various points in this period obtained Soviet, German, Japanese, American, German, British, and French advisers and equipment.[3]

Assuming they did have working equipment, good doctrine and rigorous training they faced factional infighting between various governors and regional leaders. Once the conflict with France began for example, the key reform leader Li Hongzhang, a skilled veteran of the Taiping and Muslim rebellions, would not allow his Northern Chinese fleet to move south. He jealously procured and guarded the very best ships (ironically French built), not wanting to risk them. Unlike the Opium War though, the Chinese performance was not such a clear cut failure. China scored several clear victories over French infantry in Northern Vietnam, and only lost control of a small amount of territory on the periphery that became the French colony of Vietnam.

It was the second of these two conflicts, the Japanese war in 1894-1895, however, that clearly revealed Chinese weakness and signaled an era of Western (and Japanese) predations. The conduct of China’s army and sea forces were a complete embarrassment for the Qing Dynasty and their Manchu rulers. The Chinese army was sent retreating , core Chinese territory was penetrated, and Beijing was close to falling. Despite having superior numbers, the navy was completely destroyed. Once again, the Northern and Southern Chinese navies failed to assist each other, but even if they had acted in a concerted effort it likely would not have helped. The Japanese fleet completely out maneuvered, outperformed, and annihilated the much larger Chinese fleet. The resulting treaty removed Korea and Taiwan from Chinese orbit and a key tributary and part of traditional China respectively, and subjected China to years of Japanese aggression. Many local Japanese leaders regularly seized territory long considered by Chinese rulers as vital to the defense of the capital and cultural cradle of their civilization. The last of the puppet states in Manchuria would eventually lead to the start of World War II.After the Sino Japanese War of 1894-1895, Germany, Russia, and Great Britain demanded additional trade concessions in ports, the rights to use railroads, and special protections for missionaries. American concessions were smaller, but still consisted of the Open Door policy that allowed American goods to flood China. In short, the Sino Japanese War revealed the impotence of the Manchus in the face of aggression from Japan. Western nations soon competed to see who could take the most advantage of China’s vulnerable state. Geographically, these defeats centered on the three geographic territories listed above: core Chinese territory, traditional tributary states like Vietnam and Korea, and approaches from the sea near the ports seized.

It wasn’t until 1949 that China was unified, and it is no surprise that their primary concern since that time has been to secure their core territories, protect bordering states that were historically tributary clients, readjust their borders in favor of Chinese interest, and to aggressively protect its seaward approaches. In 1950, when many analysts believed China needed years of recovery, Mao launched an attack on American forces in Korea nearing the Chinese border. A few years later they seized several islands controlled by Taiwan and Mao signaled his intention to take the rest of their territory. Only the timely intervention of American forces prevented that action. Chinese wanted to address the unequal treaties regarding Indian territory in 1962 and Outer Mongolian territory in the Ussuri River Skirmish with Soviet Union (1969). After a war with Vietnam in 1979, China had settled its control over core territories (except Taiwan) and states that were former tributes.[4] The final key remains the approaches to China which leads to today’s flashpoints in the South and East China Sea where China is placing military facilities, landing strips, and various missile batteries on contested islands,or building islands on which to place these capabilities.

When placed in this historical context Chinese behavior is and goals are easier to understand. The seizure of territory in all three of the traditional areas, adjusting borders and the removal of foreign troops from those territories, such as the Americans in Korea or Soviets in Vietnam, all can be seen as action which sought to protect China’s core. Yet the Chinese were not forced into preemptive wars with almost every one of their neighbors. The traditional narrative of a China that is set upon by greedy Westerners leaves out important details that suggest China’s offensives were optional. It is true that MacArthur was approaching the Yalu River bordering Chinese territory, but the Chinese had strong defensive positions against a potential enemy that was at the end of its logistical limits and an avowed goal to stop at the Yalu river when China launched their attack in the Korean war. There was no immediate threat to Chinese territory and China was still recovering from its long internal civil war. The territory they seized from India was a rather small, and the Indians already had their own share of South Asian problems. The Chinese could have used diplomacy with both India and Pakistan to leverage what they wanted without a preemptive strike. At the time of Ussuri River Skirmish, China was nominally an ally of the Soviet Union, and had a 1950 treaty of friendship that recognized the pivotal nature of Mongolian territory to Chinese security.

After many years of heavy investment in their military, and especially their naval forces, China currently possesses significant coastal defenses, increasingly advanced missiles, ships, and bombers; there is a good argument that there is no need to militarize the South China Sea. In short, even though there is strong historical precedent for China to be wary of the West and want to aggressively defend its territory, the one hundred years of Chinese defeats from the Opium War to the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war is more often used as a shield to excuse or explain away overt aggression.

Understanding this behavior will allow the United States to properly adopt foreign policy positions that will perhaps convince China there is no need to aggressively defend those traditionally key territories because the current measures are sufficient. For example, freedom of the seas operations reaffirm the import of international law and make it less likely that matters will be settled by force.

If a conflict occurs United States has and can take even more appropriate measures to prevent conflict. China’s much vaunted Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy is frequently discussed but not as formidable as many think. Carrier-killing and hyper sonic missiles do have impressive speeds and capabilities but they are also simply the newest version of technology that have been around for 70 years. Over that time the United States developed robust defenses against this threat. To begin with for example they can use the combat air patrol and repurposed Ohio class submarines to knock out launch sites. The latter is particularly deadly as they can carry and launch more land attack missiles than an entire carrier group combined, launch them from a stealth platform, and fire all of those missiles within six minutes.[5] The navy is using the new F-35 to network with older fighters to extend their range beyond the horizon. The next layer of defense are Aegis destroyers, and they are being networked with the F-35 and their radar is receiving improvements that make them 35 times stronger. The rapid capabilities office wants to re-purpose howitzers to target and destroy incoming missiles. (Though placing offensive weapons near contested islands will hardly relax tensions.)

Given the current climate in the region it's tough to believe a simple knowledge of history will ease all of the tension but the United States can understand how to react and respond in the region without aggravating historic concerns and be more likely to see through Chinese masking rhetoric. They have a reason to be cautious about Chinese capabilities and objectives, but they have the tactics and weapons systems to counter the Chinese threat.

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[1] This also related to the Chinese concept of Imperial Confucianism, which ordered society based on the duties that one had to take based on their relationship. A ruler had to be a good representative of Heaven, a father a good father, a son a good son and so forth. Chinese rulers and court officials incorporated their foreign relations into the same ideas.

[2] Richard Horowitz, “Beyond the Marble Boat: The transformation of the Chinese military from 1850-1911,” in A Military History of China, David Graf, Robin Higham ed. (New York: Westview Press, 2002)153-174. Also see chapters 5 and 6 of Bruce Elleman, Modern Chinese Warfare- 1795-1989. New York: Routledge Press, 2001.

[3] For a representative example you might examine the equipment and performance of the Chinese army during the Battle of Shanghai. Harmsen, Peter. Shanghai: 1937 Stalingrad on the Yangtze. (New York: Casemate, 2015).

[4] See this for Chinese motivations in their war with Vietnam. Xiaoming Zhang, Deng Xiaoping's Long War The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991 ( New York: UNC Press, 2016).

[5] The Ohio class submarine can carry as many as 154 land attack missiles. The other ships in a carrier group have multiple functions, and hence carry a smaller amount of different kinds of missiles.