Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Eat This: Logistics in the Book of Mormon

Mormon doesn’t include many details in his narrative of the destruction of the Nephites, his most frequent refrain is that he doesn't want to dwell on the war they are losing; but in a letter to his son we do get an interesting tidbit. Moroni 9:16-

And again, my son, there are many widows and their daughters who remain in Sherrizah; and that part of the provisions which the Lamanites did not carry away, behold, the army of Zenephi has carried away, and left them to wander whithersoever they can for food; and many old women do faint by the way and die.

This verse is intriguing for several reasons. I first thought of it in response to a critic attempting to describe how logistical problems of feeding groups as large as the quarter million mentioned in chapter six would be impossible and lead to starvation. According to his logic therefore the Book of Mormon was obviously a fiction from Smith’s mind.  So while the account was rather brief, in one of the most detailed letters we do see examples of logistical problems that led to combat over limited provisions and starving civilians.[1] Of course, chapter 9 also mentions acts of cannibalism on both sides, so the assumption that they were living on a normal diet, and would need the normal amounts of food listed in such places as Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Supplying War, and even Aztec Warfare wouldn’t apply in this situation.[2] On top of this, the prisoners taken by the Lamanites were only fed the flesh of their relatives. (Moroni 9:8) So what we have here could be the practical implications of excessive war in addition to spiritual decay.

Moreover, I’ve often compared the large numbers in the Book of Mormon to the Chinese War of the Eight Princes. Unsurprisingly, their bloody war featuring massive numbers of people and the end of a nation also featured cannibalism. As I wrote in chapter one of my upcoming book (highlights added):

The Princes of the Jin dynasty laid waste to the rival cities. The citizens in and around the capital city of Luoyang were almost continuously looted, raided, starved, eaten, conscripted and attacked by Chinese and barbarian forces until one of the largest cities of the 3rd century world and most prosperous regions was desolate. The city of Luoyang had an estimated 600,000 people, and the army may have had as many as 700,000 people at the start of the war. And even suggested peace plans and the heads of rival generals couldn’t stay the slaughter.

And contemporary and later Chinese historians recorded:

By the [end of the war] trouble and disturbances were very widespread….many suffered from hunger and poverty. People were sold [as slaves]. Vagrants became countless. In the [provinces around the capital] there was a plague of locusts…Virulent disease accompanied the famine. Also the people were murdered by bandits. There rivers were filled with floating corpses; bleached bones covered the fields…There was much cannibalism. Famine and pestilence came hand in hand.

The verse also mentions several armies. The Lamanites are naturally listed. But then he mentions the army of Zenephi. This doesn’t seem like a Lamanite army or Mormon wouldn’t have listed it right after them. So it is either an independent army from another power, or a Gadianite army. Mormon uses the term “my army is weak” in the next verse and laments that he could no longer enforce his commands. So we may infer that he commanded that the widows, and civilians in general be protected and provided with food. But the Nephite army led by Zenephi disobeyed those commands and took the supplies they needed. (17-18)

Notice also, how close this commander’s name is very similar to Nephi. A brief search of the term suggests it is a hybrid Egyptian and Hebrew name meaning, “one of Nephi.” But given this is an apostate general I like the Hebrew term that means “one of lighting.” https://onoma.lib.byu.edu/onoma/index.php/ZENEPHI

Strategically this implies that the Nephites were pressed on several fronts. All the armies were close to the tower of Sherrizah, but Mormon could not reach it. So the Lamanite army occupied what is called the central position. This allowed the Lamanites to shift and mass their forces between the army of Mormon and that of Zenephi as necessary. While the Nephites armies would each have to attack on their own. Since Zenephi is not following the orders of Mormon it is unlikely that would work. Napoleons early campaigns in Italy, and Stonewall Jackson at the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic used this to maneuver to great effect.[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jackson%27s_Valley_Campaign_May_21_-_June_9,_1862.png

Mormon also mentioned that he lost several choice men in battle. These could be previously loyal commanders of other armies. Or it could be sub commanders in his army. Again using the American Civil War and Napoleonic Wars, as the war dragged on the brilliant commanders like Lee and Napoleon increasingly had to rely on less capable and less trustworthy generals. This trend could only have been worse in an ancient society, and one like the Nephites where I’ve argued before that they were only a dominant city state of a coalition than a large hegemonic power like the Romans.[4]

Finally, we realize more about Mormon as a man. He cares deeply about his people, and the only details of battle he gives are the loss of righteous men, the horrible treatment of prisoners by forces on both sides, and the suffering of widows. While he was a commander capable of earning the respect of his people and was given leadership at a young age. He cared more about the spiritual welfare of his people. Given the horrors he witnessed and constant fighting it is amazing he held to a belief and hope in Christ. While all of my strategizing is good, it is better that we remember the struggle that Mormon and Moroni truly cared about, the salvation of their brethren. Thus a nuanced and detailed analysis of the Book of Mormon helps us understand its many dimensions, but also gives us additional context and a deeper understanding of its primary mission. Thanks for reading.

[1] This has important anthropological implications as well, since fighting over limited resources is one of the reasons given for conflict in society. 
[2] Engles, D. W. (1978). Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. Berkely: Univeristy of California Press. Creveld, M. V. (1977). Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. London: Cambridge University Press.  Hassig, R. (1988). Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman, London: University of Oklahoma Press.
[3] I’m glad my Master’s Thesis on Stonewall Jackson is still useful.
[4] This thought is expanded upon in chapter two of my upcoming book. http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2010/12/nephite-politics.html