The Catholic church has spent centuries refining its theology of “just wars.” This theology partly reflects biblical ideas, including Old Testament and New Testament statements about the necessity of conflict to defend the Kingdom of God. In part, the just war doctrine also reflects the pragmatic needs of a church that has helped govern much of a continent for hundreds to thousands of years.
Compared with the Catholics, Mormons have unique theological resources for constructing a theology of war. The Book of Mormon, in particular, contains extensive texts about righteous and wicked warfare. If we were to describe a theory of righteous warfare on the basis of the Book of Mormon, what would it look like?
Some Book of Mormon texts describe the motives for which a righteous war must be fought. For example, the famous “title of liberty” account suggests that righteous wars must be fought for the goal of protecting our families and our freedom, and also that long-term victory and survival may depend on righteousness. Somewhat more explicitly, Alma 43: 47 announces an affirmative divine command:
Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed.
Hence, wars of self-defense or wars in defense of national freedom seem to have divine sanction. While these ideas are useful as a way of judging our personal motivations, they are perhaps not helpful as general policy; nearly any war can be framed as a way of defending home and freedom.
Other passages suggest that the motives of the enemy may help determine the righteousness of a given war. For example, in considering whether or not to use battlefield trickery, Moroni in Alma 43: 29-30 weighs the following factors:
And now, as Moroni knew the intention of the Lamanites, that it was their intention to destroy their brethren, or to subject them and bring them into bondage that they might establish a kingdom unto themselves over all the land; and he also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church, therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem; therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take.
Here, it is not important only that the Nephites have the righteous motives described above, but also that the Lamanites are driven by the goal of enslaving others. By implication, it would seem, righteous wars are indeed conflicts between good and evil. The more ambiguous sort of war, between sides that each have mixed motives, would seem to fall outside of this justifying theology altogether.
A third major stipulation regarding righteous war can be derived from the Book of Mormon accounts of warfare. Almost without exception, the divinely-favored Book of Mormon generals limit themselves to the goal of retaining the lands that the Nephites already possess and defending their current cities. Wars of aggression or intervention in Lamanite lands are generally eschewed. In fact, one important text makes this third Book of Mormon criterion for just war explicit. In Pahoran’s letter to Moroni (Alma 61: 10-11), we read:
And now, behold, we will resist wickedness even unto bloodshed. We would not shed the blood of the Lamanites if they would stay in their own land. We would not shed the blood of our brethren if they would not rise up in rebellion and take the sword against us.
Defensive wars against invaders are acceptable, as are retaliatory wars against internal schismatic groups. But, evidently, wars in which the opponent has not intervened in the national territory of the initiating party are not approved. Thus, a Book of Mormon just war would seem to entail three criteria:
- “Our” side must be motivated by defense of home, family, and national freedom.
- “Their” side must be motivated by wicked goals
- “Their” side must have attacked “our” national territory.
For the United States, this is a time, as the scriptures would have it, of “wars and rumors of wars.” We are currently fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are both very real wars, but for many of us they have the air of rumor. More than perhaps any other major war, there are a lot of Americans who don’t personally know anyone involved in the struggle. Yet a great many of our compatriots are putting themselves in harm’s way for us. To any member of the armed services who reads this, thank you for your service.
Our military doesn’t choose its own missions. We, the voters, do that. Through our elected representatives, we have selected the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do these wars that we, as a nation, have chosen meet the Book of Mormon criteria for righteous combat?
The Afghanistan war has a certain justification to it. As a response to the terrorist attacks of 2001, that war can be seen as involving our own self-defense against an enemy that has intervened on our territory. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to argue that the Taliban was a repressive, even enslaving, political movement. Therefore, to the extent that our motives in conducting the war were those of defense rather than retaliation, the struggle in Afghanistan may essentially meet the just war criteria derived from the Book of Mormon.
What about the war in Iraq?
In particular, let us consider the question of whether Iraqis had, as the Book of Mormon requires, left their own territory to attack us in our lands. This seems not to be the case. Certainly, in the early 1990s, Iraq invaded Kuwait. However, the resulting “Desert Storm” war drove the Iraqi military back within its national boundaries–satisfying Book of Mormon justice related to the invasion. But Iraq has conducted no notable foreign military adventures since that point.
For many Americans, especially in the run-up to the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, the justification for military action was that Saddam Hussein (the president of Iraq) was responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. At that point in time, a majority of Americans believed that Hussein was personally involved in those attacks. Yet, as has subsequently become clear, there was no real evidence of any direct or significant indirect participation by Hussein and Iraq in the attacks; they were funded from Al Qaeda sources, planned by Al Qaeda operatives, and carried out by Al Qaeda recruits. Does a false belief that a nation has attacked us on our soil meet the third Book of Mormon criterion for just war? I worry that it may not.
Parenthetically, it is worth noting that this false mass belief was not a product of direct lies by the George W. Bush administration. Although Bush and his advisors spoke in a way that reinforced perceptions of Hussein’s involvement, surveys suggest that Americans were ready to blame Hussein for the attacks essentially from the moment they occurred. For some reason, we simply believed that he was responsible, even when we knew nothing about the attacks or their authors.
Setting aside the justification for the initial attack on Iraq, there is a second question we must ask. Is our continued presense there justified in light of Book of Mormon just-war theology, when Hussein is no longer in command and now that we understand that he probably played no major role in the 2001 terrorist attacks? The Nephites, although almost constantly threatened by a hostile and unrelenting nation of Lamanites, felt that divine justice called them to stay within their own lands unless those lands were under attack. Do we feel entitled to throw off this scriptural pattern?