Saturday, December 27, 2014

Maintaining and Manipulating the Appearance of Your Camp in The Book of Mormon and Chinese Theory

I had the pleasure of reviewing an advanced copy of David Spencer’s new book: Moroni’s Command. I offered some thoughts and brief endorsement for the back cover. But there was one particular passage that really stuck out to me based upon my knowledge of Chinese military theory:

When scouts were sent out from Manti to determine the strength of the Nephite force, they discovered that the Nephite force was not too large, so the Lamanite force began to make preparations to attack. Helaman’s own scouts reported the Lamanite activity, and he began to make demonstrations carefully designed to give the impression that his force did not suspect the actions of the Lamanite force. Along the main approach to his camp he dispatched two small forces, one under Gid and the other under Teomnor and ordered them to take up hidden positions to the left and right of the main path (Alma 58:16-17). Meanwhile he made an effort to maintain appearances that everything was business as usual in the Nephite camp, seeking to allay any Lamanite suspicions, so they would approach without caution. Helaman’s maturity as a commander since the Antiparah maneuver is evident in this account, as his forces in the main camp coolly waited until the last possible moment before fleeing from the advancing Lamanite force dispatched to destroy them.  This was an essential component of the plan because, by keeping up these appearances Gid and Teomner remained completely undetected.[1]  

The appearances of an armies camp is an important tool that China theorists prescribed for finding out the strength of the enemy. Since those theorists also described warfare as the “way of deception”.[2] It is no surprise then, that military commanders often manipulated their appearance to fool the enemy. 

Tai Kong wrote:[3]

If [your plans] are heard about, the enemy will make counter plans. If you are perceived they will plot against you. If you are known, they will put you in difficulty. If you are fathomed, they will endanger you.

Thus one excels at eliminating the misfortunes of the people manages them before they appear. Conquering the enemy means being victorious over the formless.[i.e., good at denying the enemy a chance to know your plans…]

To be the first to gain victory, initially display some weakness to the enemy and only afterward do battle. Then your effort will be half, but the achievement will be doubled.

And Wuzi wrote:[4]

In employing the army you must ascertain the enemy’s voids and strengths and then race [to take advantage of] his endangered points. When the enemy has just arrived from afar and their battle formations are not yet properly deployed, they can be attacked. If they have eaten but not yet established their encampment, they can be attacked. If they are running about wildly, they can be attacked. If they have labored hard, they can be attacked. If they have not yet taken advantage of the terrain, they can be attacked. When they have lost their critical moment and not followed up on opportunities, they can be attacked. When they have traversed a great distance and the rear guard has not yet had time to rest, they can be attacked. When fording rivers and only half of them have crossed, they can be attacked….In general circumstances such as these, select crack troops to rush on them, divide your remaining troops, and continue the assault- pressing the attack swiftly and decisively.

And the most famous Chinese theorist, Sunzi, touched upon each of these matters as well. “Thus if I determine the enemy’s disposition of forces [hsing] while I have no perceptible form, I can concentrate [my forces] while the enemy is fragmented.”[5]

And he offered a warning to those that judge based on enemy camps:

Thus the strategy for employing the military: Do not approach high mountains; do not confront those who have hills behind them.[6]  Do not pursue feigned retreats. Do not attack animated troops. Do not swallow an army acting as bait…[7]

There is a clear congruence between Spencer’s narrative of how this battle developed, and the way that theorists described the need to study, and sometimes manipulate or avoid being manipulated by the enemies’ organization in their camp.  As I described in my book, this doesn’t mean that Helaman opened up his copy of the Seven Military Classics. But if we assume that military theory categorizes and measures military operations the same way a thermometer can measure heat, then using this theory to analyze the Book of Mormon is no different than checking the temperature on your food.  Moreover, if we assume the events described in the text are historical, then we should notice its relation to historical military texts.  Finally, I should not that I’m not completely convinced this is how the battle happened. I think Spencer fills in some blanks that aren’t readily apparent to this reader. But given that my second books is entirely about filling in blanks and making sometimes large (though well founded) assumptions based on small amounts of text;[8] and I find his description of the events matches up surprisingly well with military theory, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in making those assumptions. I rather enjoyed describing connection and I hope you enjoyed reading about it. Thanks.  

[1] David Spencer, Moroni’s Command: Dynamics of Command in the Book of Mormon,  (Salt Lake City: Cedar Fort Books, 2015), 137-139.
[2] Ralph Sawyer, trans. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (New York: West View Press, 1993)158.
[3]Ibid., 68-69.
[4] Ibid., 213.
[5] Ibid., 167.
[6] An army with hills behind them would be in fatal terrain, making them especially dangerous. See chapter 4 of my book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents.
[7] Sawyer, Seven Military Classics, 170-171.
[8] And several anonymous reviewers, one in particular, seemed especially nit-picky and ridiculous in offering criticism of that approach.