Monday, June 6, 2016

Approaching the War Chapters Part Three: How to Grade on a Curve

This is part three of a series describing how I would approach the war chapters. You can find part one here, which discussed some models examining the causes of the war. You can find part two here, which asked some hard questions about Captain Moroni and the consequences of victory seen within the Book of Helaman. Part three finishes the series by looking at cultural attitudes and ancient practices that warn against simple applications.

Cultural Attitudes:

Probably the most important point at the end of the war chapters is to try applying this. Latter Day Saints are good at making applications to their life, but not all comparisons and applications are equal in quality and application.  The utility of ancient history to modern application is one of the important factors. For example, modern Democracy is far different than a premodern tribal based society.  There is the separation of church and state, and foreign policy is based on things different than a cosmological worldview. That means that Latter Day Saints living in a modern liberal Democracy don’t have the same amount of power over foreign policy as the Nephite Chief Judge. 

Returning to part one, Henry Kissinger described two views concerning foreign policy.[1] These models show us a way we might tentatively apply modern principles to help understand some of the lessons the text might offer.   One is a realist view based on balance of power considerations. As part one discussed, the rising powers of Germany and Sparta threatened the sphere of influence with the dominant powers of Great Britain and Athens.  This unbalance created tension that led to war.  The second kind of foreign policy is based on democratic ideals and an almost crusading concept of intervening to support democracy and greater humanitarianism.  The most vivid example of this would be Woodrow Wilson’s War to End All Wars, 14 Points, support for the League of Nations, and his intervention in World War I. While this is also a modern concept, it helps the reader consider how ancient moral ideas, such as God punishing the wicked Nephites using wicked Lamanites,[2] might be inappropriately applied and morphed into a crusading foreign policy.  Latter Day Saints have a responsibility to consider God’s will concerning warfare, but it isn’t quite as simple as a taking a verse or two and then making sweeping pronouncements in support of warfare. As Sunzi famously said, warfare is the greatest affair of state, the way to life and death, and it must be thoroughly examined.[3]  Considering the justifications for war, both modern foreign policy models and ancient scripture, requires an extensive consideration and application of both.  

For example, the concept of sheltering civilians from the horrors of war developed in the modern Western world largely after the 30 years war ended in 1648.  The humanist movement in Europe reacted against this carnage by trying to regulate conduct on the battlefield, and the discrimination between military targets and those that were off limits. (Though every culture and time has a back and forth struggle and conversation with what is acceptable in war and what isn’t.)  Thus modern Western readers come with a very specific version of what people can and can’t do based upon a series of cultural assumptions that have grown for hundreds of years and are fully expressed in documents like the  Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Geneva Convention.  This is why we might suggest that Moroni is not as righteous for things like indefinite detention and his use of prisoners to test poisoned food. Conversely, judging Moroni solely based on modern standards is a fallacy called presentism. Its most extreme form means that anybody judged racist or sexist by today’s standards, which is pretty much everybody, can be discarded. The best way to use our modern sensibilities is to be aware of them, note the differences, and using a phrase, to assess Moroni’s actions and “grade on a curve.” This means the modern expectations and standards are useful guides, but not necessarily a final determination of his righteous, as even God declared that he teaches men according to their state (2 Nephi 31:3).  

Destructiveness of War:

On top of that, the modern world makes it more difficult to directly cut and paste ancient tactics and strategy.  Pre-modern battle consisted of face-to-face encounters. The armies that traveled to these battles were limited by the primitive logistics of that age. Their logistical limits were compounded by an apparent lack of wheeled transport in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. But even with an army’s damage limited to what they could personally smash or kill, and a nation’s limitations in supplying its troops, the Lamanites could quickly desolate many cities before the Nephites “could raise a sufficient army.” (Alma 16:2-3).  In Helaman 1:19, the Lamanites marched “with such great speed” they and captured the capital city and ultimately they enacted genocide with these primitive means.

                Today’s battlefields stretch over many miles. The personal weapon of American infantrymen, the M-16, has an effective range of roughly a third of a mile. Jet fighters, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles can launch from one location and strike a thousand miles away. And Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles live up to their name, attacking and strike from continents away. Worldwide airline and naval travel easily transport dangerous people and materials. During the Cold War the United States could nominally count on the international order to restrain the actions of the enemy.  Now, the United States faces regimes that explicitly reject that world order, support terrorism as an arm of foreign policy, and seek the most devastating weapons known to man.

Case Study: Nuclear Weapons

It was this triad (rogue regimes, seeking WMDs, and supporting terror) that George W. Bush presented as justification for the attack on Iraq.  This section presents a brief case study that suggests how me might take ancient scriptures that didn’t know about nuclear weapons, and apply them in the modern world, and I adapt it from my work in War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives.

In Alma 46 we read how Amalickiah presented a threat to the liberty of the Nephites. The actual results of his behavior could not be seen until his treachery and murder in chapter 47, his agitation of the Lamanites in Alma 48, his devastating offensive in Alma 50, and his brother’s hellish letter in Alma 54. While it is possible Moroni acted with incomplete intelligence, I believe he correctly identified Amalickiah’s intent and latent evil, and followed a righteous course of action in Alma 46:30-32. In these verses Moroni did “according to his desires” and sought to “cut off” Amalickiah. Thus Moroni saw Amalickiah (using George W. Bush terminology) as a “gathering storm.”  Precise details of Moroni’s specific military campaign are scarce. But the reason for his pre-emptive action is not far removed from George W. Bush’s removal of Saddam Hussein. And it is not at all unlikely that the kingmen who opposed Moroni did so by labeling him as a war-mongering fascist (or its ancient equivalent).

It is always hard to justify offensive action based on possible future events or simply latent evil, but from the actions of Moroni in Alma 46 and several other places, it is clear that offensive, proactive, and even pre-emptive attacks are morally sanctioned from the righteous actors in the Book of Mormon. For example, as already noted, the Nephites at times adopted a vigorous counterinsurgency campaign, meaning they actively sought to search and destroy their enemies.  And on another occasion, the Nephite government established a military outpost in enemy territory to try and strengthen their position. 


You’ll notice I’ve provided many ideas such as the way that treatment of civilians has changed, or the changes brought by nuclear weapons. But I haven’t provided many firm and dogmatic answers.  As the development of the barges in Ether showed, true growth comes from having a pertinent question without any clear answers (Ether 2:18-20, 22-23). I believe reading the text should be a demanding experience.  Sacred scripture gives us answers to questions that potentially affect the lives and deaths of millions of individuals.   The individual must thoughtfully examine and reassess their preconceptions, dive thoughtfully into the text, and then develop a foreign policy vision consistent with the scriptures.[4] Sacred scripture that deals with potentially millions of lives and deaths should be a challenging experience that pushes, engages, strengthens, and radically changes our will and understanding towards God’s. We have amazing modern tools such as foreign policy models that can help us understand the scriptures.  But we also have a different world view from ancient writers, and we are separated from God.  We need all the help we can get in understanding warfare, what it means in understanding the Book of Mormon, and how it applies in the world. I hope this series helped.


[1] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.)
[2] Hugh Nibley, “Warfare in the Book of Mormon,” Warfare in the Book of Mormon, William Hamblin and Stephen Ricks eds, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991).   Though as Duane Boyce pointed out, this model has significant exceptions within the Book of Mormon and does not account for every war. Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015) 73-80.
[3] Sunzi, “The Art of War,” Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993,) 157.
[4] I was incredibly disheartened for example when I praised an author’s work for examining those assumptions, and almost immediately an anti-war proponent copy and pasted a long list of proof texts with no analysis whatsoever. See Jeremy Orb Smith’s comment here: