Preventive War and the Book of Mormon

The doctrine of preventive war implies fighting your enemy on your terms, before they (may or may not) fight you on theirs. It is an extension of the idea that “the best defense is a good offense,” and requires a massive network of surveillance and spies to supply the necessary and credible intelligence upon which such operations can be successfully based. It is the pursuit of an alleged enemy to prevent a possible (though not imminent, as is the case with pre-emptive war) future attack.

This doctrine has, in recent decades, come to replace America’s adherence to its opposite, the Just War Theory. This theory of war holds that military action must meet certain moral criteria, such as being in true defense, being initiated by and waged under the proper authority, and being used as a true last resort after all diplomatic and other efforts have failed. The aggression of initiating an attack without meeting the aforementioned criteria is rejected, even when masked in the cloak of pseudo-defense.

 

There are plenty of statements from modern leaders rejecting preventive war. Two examples will suffice for illustration purposes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked that he “wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing,” also commenting that “there are all sorts of reasons, moral and political and everything else, against this theory, but it is so completely unthinkable in today’s conditions…” (source). Similarly, in a letter to the US Treasury in 1941, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrote that “…we do not believe that aggression should be carried on in the name and under the false cloak of defense. We therefore look with sorrowing eyes at the present use to which a great part of the funds being raised by taxes and by borrowing is being put… We believe that our real threat comes from within and not from without…” (via Quoty).

Recent opposition to this war theory aside, it is beneficial for truth-seekers to explore the Book of Mormon for examples and patterns that have modern-day application. After all, President Hinckley said of this book that “in its descriptions of the problems of today’s society, it is as current as the morning newspaper and much more definitive, inspired, and inspiring concerning the solutions of those problems” (source).

Before citing examples that have relevant application to this method of warfare, it must be noted that there are several instances of war in the book that do not have direct application to the usual circumstances of geopolitical strife and global warfare. The so-called “war chapters”, comprising the latter part of the book of Alma, are well known and document one battle after another. But as is explained in more detail here, every war it describes is one in which Nephite traitors have defected and instigated the hostilities. Far from being uninvited, these conflicts stem from division and sedition, thus creating a narrow distinction for applying such battles to modern day hostilities. We cannot so broadly use these wars to scrutinize our own unless circumstances come close to matching.

With that caveat, there are a couple notable examples in the Book of Mormon in which preventive war is discussed by itself, as a tool to vanquish the enemy to avoid the possibility of a future attack. The first such instance occurs about two decades after the Savior’s birth, when society has become infested to the foundation with Gadianton robbers. The leader of this thuggish group, Giddianhi, demands the complete surrender of the Nephite kingdom—the people, the lands, and their possessions all being offered up as recompense for their having allegedly usurped the rightful rule of the government.

The military leader of the Nephites, Gidgiddoni, was a “great prophet” who “had the spirit of revelation and also prophecy”. In light of this security threat (one might easily label the Gadiantons as “terrorists”), the people feared for their safety and begged for a preventive assault on the group:

Now the people said unto Gidgiddoni: Pray unto the Lord, and let us go up upon the mountains and into the wilderness, that we may fall upon the robbers and destroy them in their own lands. (3 Nephi 3:20)

What Norman Vincent Peale said of Americans might equally apply to these Nephites: “[they] used to roar like lions for liberty. Now [they] bleat like sheep for security.” Writing of the previous standard of Nephite warfare, A. Brent Merrill has written:

…it was imprudent for the Nephites to initiate hostilities and to rely much on offensive operations. Instead, the Nephites became more adept at using fortifications to achieve local economy of forces and maintained a grand strategy of protecting the land north (of the narrow neck of land). Fortifications, which needed relatively few men to man, became force “multipliers,” by means of which the Nephites could extend a combat front, and served as a base of maneuver for mobile field forces. This was an effective use of one principle of war, the economy of forces. Even in situations where the Nephites may have faced an enemy of more equal numbers, they were counseled not to strike first.

Essentially, Nephite warfare fell under the Just War Theory, and offensive/aggressive war was rejected repeatedly. The situation with Gidgiddoni was no different, though he had to remind everybody of their tradition and the Lord’s preference. Being a great prophet and knowing God’s will, this general counseled his people as follows:

But Gidgiddoni saith unto them: The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands. (3 Nephi 3:21)

Read carefully that verse, and you will see a complete rejection of preventive war by a man of God. Not only does he go so far as to say that they will not go on the offense, but he also mandates a policy of military non-interventionism (erroneously labeled isolationism all too often) by stating that their military might would be consolidated into one defensive force—not spreading them across various locations as spies, satellite operations, and clandestine subversives. Gidgiddoni’s policy is one of defense, not offense; peace, not faux prevention; and moral war, not the degenerated, aggressive type that through propaganda is passed off as being justified.

A second example comes from the namesake of the Book of Mormon, who was appointed as general of all the Nephite armies at the young age of fifteen, and who would later become a prophet. Mormon’s record documents an astounding 35 years of near-constant warfare—”one complete revolution”, as he calls it—before both sides signed a truce. Only a decade of relative peace passed before the Lamanites came down to battle again. The Nephites repelled the threat twice in legitimate defense, but after the second victory became vengeful and arrogant. They began to clamor for a complete extermination of the enemy:

And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land. (Mormon 3:10)

“Going up” specifies an offensive campaign in the enemy’s territory. This is clearly a demand for preventive war, as the action is being justified through terminating a future (and in this case likely) threat in order to prevent another assault. Mormon’s reaction? He cites their “wickedness and abomination” of which their demands were a part, and “did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people.” His refusal makes clear the depravity that is preventive war; a few verses later, the Lord confirms his reaction.

These examples make clear that ethics in war are not situational. As the Just War Theory asserts, there are certain moral underpinnings upon which the foundation of a war must be based if it is to be considered necessary and justified. The progress of time and technology do not and must not change these principles; short of an explicit commandment by God to the contrary (since it’s His law, He can change it), they remain effectual and applicable.

It is important to note that almost all Nephite battles took place within their own territory. Their military leaders were inspired men who sought the Lord’s guidance. They did not seek for power, and were quick to forgive their enemies and pursue peace. Diplomacy was always, always an option “on the table”. And the Nephites were continually reminded (when they were righteous) of the nobleness of their cause; their defensive struggles were in order to preserve their families and their entire society, both sanctioned and supported by God Himself.

The stories in these pages are included that we might learn from them. It seems, however, that we are repeating them and making them our own—consequences and all. Of this, Hugh Nibley comments:

Not many years ago all of this Book of Mormon extravaganza belonged even for Latter-day Saints to the world of pure fantasy, of things that could never happen in the modern civilized world—total extermination of a nation was utterly unthinkable in those days. But suddenly even within the past few years a very ancient order of things has emerged at the forefront of world affairs; who would have thought it—the Holy War! the ultimate showdown of the Good Guys with God on their side versus the Godless Enemy. It is the creed of the Ayatollah, the Jihad, Dar-al-Islam versus Dar-al-Harb, the Roman ager pacatus versus the ager hosticus. On the one side Deus vult, on the Bi’smi-llah; it is a replay of the twelfth century, the only way the “good people” can be free, that is, safe, is to exterminate the “bad people” or, as Mr. Lee counsels, to lock them up before they do any mischief—that alone will preserve the freedom of “us good people.” (Hugh Nibley, via Quoty)

Prior to this explanation, Nibley references the Jaredite case of Shiz and Coriantumr, “each obsessed with the necessity of ridding the world of his evil adversary.” Vengeful vanquish and preventive war alike have no place in the lives of those who have been commanded to renounce war and proclaim peace.

Contrary to some twisted interpretations, the Book of Mormon neither illustrates nor supports the position of preventive war. If we truly consider this book to be written for and applicable to our day, we would do well to heed its promptings—both personally and as a matter of foreign policy. Those who do not learn from the history of the Book of Mormon are condemned to repeat it.

About Connor Boyack

Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute in Utah. He is author of several books several books on the topic of liberty and his work has been publicly praised by Ron Paul, Judge Napolitano, Tom Woods, and other national figures.
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9 Responses to Preventive War and the Book of Mormon

  1. Jeremy says:

    Connor,

    Although I agree with your general sentiment and political stance, I have a couple of issues with the way you (and other very similar papers) have laid out your supporting arguments.

    1. As far as I know, the 1941 letter to the US Treasury is not verifiable. An inquiry to the LDS Library will return no results. I’m not saying the letter is false, just that I and many others have not been able to verify it’s authenticity (although contained in late Qof70 Anderson’s book).

    To complicate matters further, President Benson made the following statement that seems to directly contradict the 1941 letter’s call to stay out of WWII:

    “I was in Warsaw in June of 1946. I shared a room with seven other men in the Polonia Hotel, the only hotel even partially intact in the great city of Warsaw. Our ambassador, Bliss Lane, had his office in part of the building. He was so saddened that he resigned and wrote the book I Saw Poland Betrayed, which detailed the failure of the United States and England to keep their promise that the Poles would have a free election after the war.

    “I saw firsthand our great nation stand by at the time of the Hungarian revolution—when “freedom fighters” with bare hands and stones resisted bullets, tanks, and artillery. I confess I was ashamed at the response of my country—a nation which I believe the Lord intended to be an ensign of freedom to all others. Freedom did not die that day (23 October 1956) for Hungary alone. Hope died for many in other captive nations and has only recently been somewhat revived by courageous men willing to speak against oppression.” –A Witness and a Warning, November, 1979

    2. Prophets have supported the Monroe Doctrine (using force to keep communism out of the entire Western Hemisphere, not just outside the US borders).

    3. I once read Ezra Taft Benson say something to the effect of not allowing nuclear weapons to build up around us. I have not been able to find this quote again, so maybe I’m mistaken. However, it would be very interesting and add a lot of contradiction to the Just War Theory.

    Any thoughts?

    Jeremy Marsigli

    • Shawn Henry says:

      Jeremy,

      Here is a quote from Ezra Taft Benson for your consideration :

      “Noth­ing in the Con­sti­tu­tion nor in logic grants to the pres­i­dent of the United States or to Con­gress the power to influ­ence the polit­i­cal life of other coun­tries, to ‘uplift’ their cul­tures, to bol­ster their economies, to feed their peo­ple, or even to defend them against their ene­mies.” (The Teach­ings of Ezra Taft Ben­son, p. 614; see also pp. 682 & 704.)”

      And one from Spencer Kimball I find appropriate :

      “When I review the per­for­mance of this peo­ple… I am appalled and fright­ened … We are a war­like peo­ple, eas­ily dis­tracted from our assign­ment of prepar­ing for the com­ing of the Lord. When ene­mies rise up, we com­mit vast resources to the fab­ri­ca­tion of gods of stone and steel – ships, planes, mis­siles, for­ti­fi­ca­tions – and depend on them for pro­tec­tion and deliv­er­ance. When threat­ened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-Kingdom of God; we train man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the man­ner of Satan’s coun­ter­feit of true patri­o­tism, per­vert­ing the Savior’s teach­ing: ‘Love your ene­mies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despite­fully use you, and per­se­cute you; That ye may be the chil­dren of your Father which is in heaven’.” (Spencer W. Kim­ball, “The False Gods We Wor­ship,” Ensign, June 1976, 3)

      Food for thought.

  2. Ron Shirtz says:

    My apologies for a late response. I just came into this blog recently.

    First, I respect of President Benson’s teachings on the dangers of Communism. I hold strong feelings myself about the tragedy of Budapest. I understand Pres. Benson sorrow and indignation, but to be honest, I really think don’t think he was advocating going to war over it. One can argue that his lament about the US doing nothing, he meant concerning employing strong diplomatic and economic pressure on the USSR. I’m sure Pres. Benson was well aware of the danger of a nuclear war breaking out, resulting in a worldwide holoclaust, if we attempted to intervene military on Hungary’s behalf.

    In any case, besides the military logistics of putting together an offensive to liberate Hungary by conventional means, would have be difficult, if not outright impossible. The US was part of NATO, and would have to get the other participating countries to agree—a lengthy process at best that would be moot to the Hungarian freedom fighters. Freedom would come eventually, peaceably with the collapse of the Iron curtain.

    You chide the author for not having a verified reference to the Church letter to the US Treasury statement. Fair enough. But it works both ways in regards to your points on Pres. Benson comment on the presence of nearby nukes (Cuba, I assume?), as well as LDS Prophets supporting the Monroe Doctrine.

    I will give you a unreferenced one myself, which can be verified–I’m just to lazy to look it up, but my memory is sure on this one—-President Spencer Kimball’s official Church statement in protesting the building of the MX missile site to be built in Utah. That itself would be another curve ball on the issue of what measures to the Prophets endorse

  3. Jon says:

    Hi,

    I too was wondering were the link for these papers can be found. I just ran into reading about the Just War Theory. Someone posted them on another site. They talk about the papers and put them in HTML here:
    http://www.connorboyack.com/blog/a-letter-to-the-treasury-from-the-lds-first-presidency-in-1941
    The actual scanned papers that were found can be downloaded from here:
    http://www.connorboyack.com/blog/images/fp_1941.pdf

  4. Mario Thompson says:

    This is one of the best-written articles in favor of a true-Christian-Book-of-Mormon view of warfare that I have ever read. I know the principles of the Book of Mormon very well, as I have read it at least 100 times it seems. There is no justification of preventive warfare in the Book of Mormon. I suppose we, as members, in spite of our membership in the true Church, cherry-pick commandments too.

    A sizeable number of the Church do advocate the W. Bush-ian doctrine of preventive war. I suppose it’s because they cherry-pick gospel ideas they like, and choose not to study ones they don’t understand or ignore them.

  5. Bliss Tew says:

    The Monroe Doctrine covers our Western hemisphere close to our homeland rather than nations on the other side of the world because what happens close to home has a greater bearing upon our own nation’s security. Just as we shouldn’t have allowed Soviet Communism to get a foothold in Cuba just 90-miles off of our shore, America wouldn’t want to see other nations overthrown by foreign powers or a malignant global conspiracy for domination of earth (International Communism) because those nations then become launching pads for invasions or subversions upon American soil.

    Four years ago, I published an article about war here on LDS LIBERTY in an attempt to present some opinons about the just and legal reasons that America would go to war and opposing the initiation of war by America upon other countries that have not directly threatened the USA (i.e. Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, etc,) as UN or NATO interventions. Today we could add Libya to that list of countries attacked by US forces in a NATO war even through Libya had posed no threat to America. My article is found here: http://www.ldsliberty.org/war-in-iraq-war-in-somalia-in-bosnia-kosovo-war-war-war/

    Ron, I agree with your assessment of President Benson’s lamentations over Poland and Hungary. Personally I don’t believe that the late Ezra Taft Benson was implying that America needed to send American troops to Hungary, but rather that there were other options of support that could be exercised including sending Red Cross aid and ammunition to Hungarian freedom fighters resisting the Soviet tanks that occupied their land.

    Radio Free Europe had excited patriots in Hungary to revolt against the Soviet invaders by promising them aid from the USA, but they didn’t get that promised aid once they revolted. That lack of aid surely produced a feeling of shame in Ezra Taft Benson. Instead of promised arms and ammunition, I believe Eisenhower sent flour in some planes that landed in Hungary.

  6. Dolores Rosario says:

    I am admittedly a hawk, as opposed to a dove. I am an active LDS but my personal beliefs are: “Shoot first and ask questions later” and “Do unto others before they have a chance to do unto you!” I am not a war monger. War is horrible, but sometimes necessary. We have many instances of sedition today. You have only to follow the local news to hear stories of Americans going abroad to stir up our enemies against us. In my opinion, they are traitors, worthy of death. As for the Communist foothold in Cuba, it is here as well. And so is a strong, and growing stronger, Muslem foothold. And we stand idly by and let it grow under the guise of “Freedom For All” while they take over our country, our schools, our government. It is suicide.
    The Lord has never told us we should not do everything in our power to discover enemy plots against us or to defend ourselves against them, just that we must not be guilty of the first offense. He has even stated we should not be guilty of the second or third offense, but if they come against us a fourth time, we are justified in using all our force and resources against them. Well folks, there was WWI, WWII, and 911 to name just three. When do YOU think we should strengthen our military? Because when the enemy is at the gate, it is too late to prepare.
    As for the US not sending the promised aid to Poland or Hungary, it was shameful for the promise to be made and not kept. But just sending the Red Cross to hand out food and medical supplies etc. would not have been prudent. You see, any other country but the US considers any aid to the enemy an act of war and to send in aid without troops to defend them would have been sending them to their deaths.

  7. Jen says:

    I appreciate the former comments, and realize that this seems to be an older post, with suddenly new attention.

    While I see each side of each argument, I just wanted to throw a few questions out for thought. I LOVE the Book of Mormon and everything it teaches. It is a complicated, thorough book, and I am grateful for this insight into the war chapters.

    With this in mind, here are my additions to the convo.

    In the days of the Book of Mormon, the scope of the land was relatively smaller, as far as traveling is concerned. While there were intense threats, and the “Just War Theory” could be applied, what about if the Lamanites had the capability of nuclear bombs? To say, “Well, they stole our birthright to this land. Rather than take over their homes, their flocks, and make them our slaves, let’s just blow them all up, and THEN take their land? It’d be much faster, and we’d finally be free of these dang Nephites.” Even many Constitutionalists say we have (or had) no place in going into Iraq, and the inspired Founding Fathers would have never condoned such a thing. But seeing that the world has entirely shifted in ability to travel, what was once around the world is now our neighbor.

    I am not trying to instigate or antagonize anyone, and I see the author’s and commentor’s points thoroughly. I just always wonder, do we not have a responsibility to “love” our neighbor by assisting them from tyranny? It is not our place to force anyone, but when we have the capability to help, is there not more that can be done besides sending food, or politicians? If I heard my neighbor getting the crap beat out of her in the name of “religion”, would I not call someone to help? Even Ammon acted as an ambassador to help the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who were about to be annihilated by those who they previously lived among. And while Moroni, Teancum, Lehi, and Helaman awaited and used awesome, inspired strategy to protect their people, when given the chance, did not Teancum’s proactive measures drastically affect the course of the Lamanite aggression, indeed for many years while the Lamanites had to regroup?

    Just food for thought. Like was mentioned, the bottom line is that the people of this earth must turn for God, or we will eventually be destroyed. Hopefully we don’t just think that “all is well in Zion” and that it’s everyone else beyond members of the Church who need to repent.

  8. Russ says:

    I agree with much that has been said here. Often we are too “warlike” metaphorically in our personal lives and often literally as a nation. The comment, “The progress of time and technology do not and must not change these principles” is a shallow argument and childish to say the least as far as it describes war tactics. The Nephites were able to sit back in their fortifications because they knew their fortifications would provide them with the defense necessary. That posture was a war tactic not a blueprint for modern foreign policy in the form of some gospel principal. Yes, I concede it shows their reluctance to go to war for their time, but it should not be the model to which other nations should employ in fighting their wars. Reluctance to go to war might be shown in other ways than fortifying and waiting for the enemy to strike. Today, weapons are created where only one strike is needed to finish the job. There is a difference. God has given some nations the means to defend themselves as he did the Nephites, but the means by which the Lord provides these means my not be the same in every generation. It is not contrary to Book of Mormon teachings to say that preventing an enemy from obtaining the means to destroy their foe is unjustified and morally wrong.

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