I was reading a post at Times and Seasons today and several people were commenting on how they believed that the war chapters were placed there for our own needs, specifically saying that they thought they would come in handy in the next few years. Apparently, these folks are reading the Book of Mormon for military tactics. This strikes me as a particularly bad way to read it.
Few characters are presented with as many contradictions as Captain Moroni, the great hero of the war chapters. While I accept Captain Moroni as a hero, I think Mormon (who admired him so much that he seemingly named a child after him) wants us to keep a clear-eyed view of the man. Captain Moroni did some bad things, many of which would be considered war crimes today (or, at least, wrong).
For example, Captain Moroni convinced the nation to give him the power to force people to go to wars. The alternatives were imprisonment and execution. While the USA has often imprisoned draft dodgers and conscientious objectors, I don’t believe we have ever reached the point of telling people to fight or die. Soviet Russia did that in World War II, as an example, and that helps explain the appalling loss of life the Russian Army suffered at the time.
Another example is Captain Moroni’s administering of possibly poisoned food and drink to his prisoners of war. While this may seem a type of poetic irony, it strikes me as a great abuse of prisoners, who are wholly dependent on their jailers for food. It also assumes that Amalickiah and Ammoron held their own troops in higher esteem than they actually did, so I am not sure it was all that bright anyway. While the closest prohibition regarding this I could find in the Geneva Conventions was an admonition to provide adequate amounts of safe food, I am relatively certain that this sort of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in a US Military Tribunal or in the Hague.
While not a war crime, Moroni’s tendency to insist on unconditional surrender and treaty acceptance seems to prolong the war. Much like Germany after World War I, the Lamanites, when they lose, must always accept complete defeat. The resentment, under these conditions, seems to build up quickly, resulting in more fighting to come. Oddly enough, when Moroni’s son, Moronihah loses half the kingdom to the Lamanites later, the Lamanites shortly give all their acquired territory back (after the religious intervention of Nephi and Lehi). Perhaps Zarahemnah and Ammoron would have responded better to Nephite peace overtures if Moroni hadn’t insisted on implying they were the children of hell.
Mormon, a participant in a scorched earth campaign, presents these details without comment. I believe this is, in part, due to his deep admiration for Moroni. Moroni was a man who did great things. At the same time, Mormon is a wonderfully subversive editor. Even if our all being like Moroni would shake the gates of hell, Moroni is presented with flaws intact and with subtle commentary. Why else the inclusion of Moroni’s threats of military coup when writing to the legally-elected, civil authorities of his country?
There is a field of ethical theory called just war theory that attempts to suss out when one nation may legitimately engage in military conflict with another. Generally, according to such theories, Moroni does great. He engages in warfare in self-defense, his response is appropriate, and he is never engaged in war for profit. However, his treatment of prisoners of war strikes me as unjust and his embrace of violence as a motivating tool makes him seem a bit of a bully. While Captain Moroni doesn’t bother me as much as some around here and while he strikes me, as he does Mormon, as someone to be admired, reading the Book of Mormon solely for tactical advice strikes me as a way to lose sight quickly of what is ethical in war.
Finally, has anyone else noticed that the Nephite generals almost always use the same basic strategy in combat? This indicates to me that the Lamanite military leadership must have been spectacularly stupid, which is probably not an assumption that is strategically helpful to make.